The standout event this week is, no, not the totally irrelevant and alien F1 con job but the announcement that Anwar Ibrahim will be contesting a Parliamentary by-election in Port Dickson, Negri Sembilan. It is a significant move because, if everything goes according to script, he will be the Malaysian leader that Singapore will have to deal with in the years ahead. He is unusual in many ways.
I was watching a Malaysian TV channel hosted by two young very articulate anchors. They spoke in Bahasa Melayu. One of them aptly described Anwar’s political journey as a series of Ps – Prison to Palace to Port Dickson to Parliament to Prime Minister. No one could put it better. But I would add another P – Permatang Pauh, Penang, the constituency that first elected him into the Dewan Rakyat and which was later held in turns by his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail (who is now the Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister and MP for Pandan) and his daughter, Nurul Izzah.
Anwar’s story is pretty well-known and I will not want to repeat it – his expulsion by his mentor Dr Mahathir Mohamad, his stints in jail on sodomy charges, years in the wilderness, short-lived return to politics as a reformasi figure and Bersih inspiration and the pardon that has now got him back on track to Putrajaya.
He is truly back. And yet, because he is Anwar, nothing seems to be straightforward. There has been talk about infighting in Parti Keadilian Rakyat, the party he founded. Is Mohamad Azmin Ali, PKR’s deputy president, harbouring his own ambitions? (just remember that Zaidi Hamidi, DPM in the Najib Razak government, was once a close ally of Anwar). And is the PKR split up into various camps as it holds its own internal elections? Not an unnatural occurrence, so long as “members were mature and committed to the cause and had the wisdom to choose the right leaders”, the words of Azmin Ali.
The greater likelihood is that, with Anwar back in the saddle, there will be a greater cause than personal ambitions.
Anwar’s time has come. And I don’t see how he can be denied his destiny. It would be a setback for Malaysia if, say, he is sidelined by PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad, for whatever reason. Practically everyone will lose, except perhaps the rejected Barisan Nasional. Dr Mahathir will lose his credibility and his legacy as a magnificent and heroic rectifier of his country’s deep-seated ills. And the national mood will quickly sour.
PM-in-waiting Anwar will carry on what Dr Mahathir has done in the two years both have agreed would be the general timeline. No one in the Pakatan Harapan Cabinet is keeping any secrets from anyone. Anwar’s wife is DPM, Azmin Ali is Minister for Economic Affairs and Lim Guan Eng, Finance Minister and his father Lim Kit Siang, the two DAP leaders, have kept their faith with Anwar all these years, despite their ill-at-ease compact with PAS when the Islamist party was a part of the Anwar-led Reformasi Opposition.
Malaysia’s next, charismatic, PM will be highly qualified, experienced and focused. His years out of power and in jail have obviously educated him on what unchecked power can do to politicians. It can corrupt them. He said so in so many interviews given to the international media. One which particularly impressed me was an interview he had with Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks.
Democracy, Anwar declared, meant “an independent judiciary, free media and an economic policy that can promote growth and the market economy”. One of the first things that he did, when the BN government was ousted in May, was to thank and single out Malaysiakini, the social media website, for its courage in reporting the truth even when the days seemed rather dark and unpromising for the democratic forces in the country.
Coincidentally, a Foreign Affairs cover story for July-August spoke about the resilience of liberalism and democracy: “It is not inevitable that history will end with the triumph of liberalism but it is inevitable that a decent world order will be liberal…
“Modern liberals embrace democratic governments, market-based economic systems and international institutions not out of idealism but because they believe these arrangements are better suited to realising human interests in the modern world than any alternatives.”
Anwar Ibrahim is poised to show the region what a truly modern charismatic leader can do for a country that may finally has its day in the sun. A politically pluralistic society generates far more dynamism than one stifled by a dominant and authoritarian government too scared to be exposed in public debates and of its own stagnant shadow.
Maybe the Singapore activists who sought an audience with Dr Mahathir has been seeing the wrong person.
Sense And Nonsense is a weekly series. Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.