What will it take to make Anwar Ibrahim Malaysia’s prime minister? It’s a question that has been vexing the veteran politician and his supporters for more than two decades. Azeem Ibrahim specially for the Foreign Policy.
From his rise as a reform-minded finance minister and deputy prime minister in the 1990s, through his multiple imprisonments and unlikely role in toppling the long-standing ruling party in 2018, Anwar has kept one eye firmly on the prize. And it’s always been just out of reach.
“If you’re serious against crime, you’re serious against corruption, you’re serious against abuse of power, and the few cliques and cronies and family members amassing wealth, you’re not going to be very popular among the ruling clique. I am fully aware of it,” Anwar told me this November, pausing to consider his words.
“Even in these present days, I am aware of the top billionaires and the political elite [saying]: At all costs, anybody else but Anwar. Why? Am I racist or a religious bigot or corrupt? No. But because they think I’m too dangerous because I will have to use every power in my authority to stop the excesses.”
I was speaking to Anwar by video from his home office on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. In the previous weeks, the premiership had slipped back into Anwar’s reach and he was in a buoyant mood. The opposition leader had recently had an audience with the king and appeared to have the support of more than half of Malaysia’s lawmakers.
“You see, either I’m naive and unrealistic or not pragmatic as a political leader,” Anwar said with a laugh. “But I appreciate the fact that as far back as 2013, with all the forces, the judiciary, the media, the police against us, we won nearly 52 percent of the popular vote. That is what gives me the confidence. We cannot underestimate the wisdom of the masses.”
Four months later, the premiership hasn’t materialized—but it’s still a possibility, as it has been for years for Malaysia’s most perpetually frustrated politician. At 73, he’d be an old man by the standards of most governments. But in Malaysia there’s only one old man in politics, the 95-year-old Mahathir Mohammed, whose fate has been intertwined with Anwar’s, as a patron, persecutor, friend, and foe, for decades.
Born to a prosperous Penang family 10 years to the month before Malaysia gained independence from the British, Anwar grew up surrounded by the politics of the new Malaysia. His father was an MP, and his mother a grassroots party member —both of them deeply engaged in the rising United Malays National Organisation.
As a young man, Anwar carved his own way through the political landscape of a young country, emerging as a fiery student leader in the 1970s as a co-founder of Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM), or the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia. The students took on the cause of struggling farmers, tens of thousands of whom had begun protesting runaway inflation in southeastern Malaysia. Anwar and other students and professors joined in solidarity in 1974, calling for an end to corruption in the government of then Prime Minister Abdul Razak. The demonstrations were met with tear gas and violence, and more than 1000 students and lecturers were arrested —among them Anwar, who served nearly two years in prison.
Upon release, Anwar continued to lead ABIM—which sat at the helm of the Islamic revival movement in Malaysia. The organization married a concern for social issues and a vision of multi-ethnic global Islam, with Islam and so-called Malayness being the central organizing tenets of the movement.
The organization, like other Islamic oriented organizations and political parties, began rising just as the UMNO-led government rolled out its Second Malaysia Plan, with a large-scale affirmative action drive on behalf of the majority Malay population.
The Bumiputera (primarily Malay Muslims, and the tiny percentage of indigenous peoples) had been systematically disadvantaged by the British colonial administration, which imported substantial numbers of indentured laborers from other parts of the Empire. Chinese and Indians were imported to toil in the tin mines and rubber plantations, while Malays were kept on their small farms. And while Indians and Chinese studied in English-language schools, Malay mostly learnt only their own language. Over time, that made the Indians and the Chinese better educated and richer, producing an ongoing tension with the Malay. The Second Malaysia Plan sought to redress these power imbalances, for example by setting ethnic quotas on many aspects of public life, such as university admissions and public-sector jobs, weighted in favour of the Bumiputera, and a host of other similar policies.
This move toward a stronger Malay identity was evident when Anwar was recruited from ABIM in 1982 to join UMNO, a pillar of the governing Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition. While the BN’s origins are ostensibly multiethnic, its place as the forever government between independence and 2018 was sustained by the slew of Bumiputera polices favoring Malays.
Anwar rose quickly through the ranks of the BN coalition, becoming minister of youth and sports in 1983. He then came to the attention of Mahathir, then prime minister, and also a member of UMNO, who took him under his wing. As a protege of Mahathir, Anwar rose quickly through the ranks of the government, elevated first to education minister in 1986, then to minister of finance in 1991, and finally deputy prime minister in 1993—always elevating the profile of his Muslim-centered politics along the way.
It seemed Anwar would ride that same political wave all the way to the top job of prime minister, until the Asian financial crisis in 1997. Then, the man who appeared to most as the model party apparatchik, did something unexpected: instead of rallying behind the party position of trying to lay the entire responsibility for the crisis on international financial markets, and, in the ugly words of Mahathir, “the Jews”, Anwar instead chose to shine the spotlight on the mismanagement, nepotism, cronyism, incompetence, and corruption plaguing his own party and his own government, and the ways in which those played into the hardships endured by ordinary Malaysians in the midst of the financial crisis.
Anwar was swiftly sacked from the government for what was perceived as a betrayal. He took with him, however, a sizeable block of Muslim Malays who became a protest movement organizing around the rallying cry of Reformasi, reform. The man who helped introduce Muslim political ascendency in Malaysia, was now at the forefront of a movement calling for a new, equitable order, and governance based on competence and probity—including a fairer settlement for minorities.
The following months of political tussle and widespread protests led to the “old order” reasserting itself vigorously. In 1998, Anwar was arrested by Mahathir’s government and imprisoned on corruption and sodomy charges—a charge specifically designed to delegitimize him in the eyes of a still largely homophobic Malaysian public. Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience. Despite large-scale street protests and international outcry, Anwar spent six years in prison, a grueling experience that entailed solitary confinement and assault by a police chief that left Anwar bloodied, bruised, and with chronic back injuries.
By removing their leader, the BN government managed to put a lid on the Reformasi movement—for a time. But the movement and its goals would survive, and become entrenched as a permanent feature of Malaysian politics.
“Why do I pursue this agenda? Because I am obsessed with the idea that Malaysia has this enormous potential—we have lost it due to bad governance,” said Anwar. “You know, this is a unique country: Muslim majority, multiracial, multireligious. At least we claim to have some semblance of democracy—very fragile. We have not been successful in the past to mature as a vibrant working democracy. But we have the capacity to do that.”
“I think he is very committed to [multi-racialism] in the country, because he believes that the country cannot progress and survive without interracial understanding and cooperation, and I think he will stick to that,” said Syed Husin Ali, one of the founding fathers of the leftwing People’s Party of Malaysia and a professor of Anwar’s when he was a sociology student at the University of Malaya in the 1960s. “He will not forego this just because he wants Malay support.”
When Mahathir finally stepped down in 2003, a new dawn once again seemed possible in Malaysia. Surely, this was a time for a political reconfiguration, and surely Anwar would be at the heart of it this time. The courts partially overturned his convictions in 2004.
But Anwar would have to wait, unable, for legal reasons, to return to parliament until 2008. When he finally did, he became leader of the opposition, sitting on about a third of the vote, but staring down the behemoth of an increasingly corrupt BN. Under Najib Razak, prime minister since 2009, billions were lost on mismanagement and other corrupt dealings. The enormity of the corruption spoke to the sky-high gap between Malaysia’s political elite and its struggling citizens—but the chance for power was still years away.
Campaigning on a platform of Reformasi, Anwar’s multiracial, anti-corruption opposition coalition won the popular vote in 2013, but the leaders of the BN termed it a “stolen” election amid allegations of electoral irregularities in local electoral districts. And despite making the poorest showing in its history, the BN managed to retain sufficient seats in parliament to form a government. Two years later, Anwar was back in prison after the government appealed his 2010 acquittal on a sodomy conviction widely viewed, like the first, as politically motivated.
Five years after that fraught election, Anwar and Mahathir Mohammad found themselves in an unlikely alliance in opposition to incumbent Najib, resulted in a shock result: the unseating of UMNO, the ruling party since 1955. Mahathir, the ex-leader of UMNO and then already 90 years old, emerged from retirement to found a new Malay-based political party to challenge what he claimed as massive corruption taking place and condoned by the UMNO leadership, most notably in the form of the 1MDB scandal.
That Anwar was willing to work with the man who had orchestrated his political and personal downfall spoke to the urgency of the moment. “Frankly, it was a very, very tough decision; difficult for me and for my family… who found it difficult to understand: Why do you need to work with this man?” said Anwar. Yet the country was reeling from the 1MDB scandal, in which Najib and his family had defrauded the national sovereign fund of over $1 billion dollars according to prosecutors in the United States Department of Justice.
As Amrita Malhi, a Malaysian politics expert and visiting fellow at the Australian National University, put it, voters’ desire to rid the country of Najib trumped all considerations—even bringing Reformasi and conservatives like Mahathir together under the banner of Pakatan Harapan (PH), or Alliance of Hope.
“1MDB changed the calculus and Pakatan Harapan, was voted in, although for some voters this was only so Najib could be removed, and they never really wanted the rest of the reform package.”
When the PH coalition won, an atmosphere of revival pervaded the country. The coalition brought together a broad alliance of parties and backgrounds promising a “New Malaysia”. Mahathir would be prime minister and Anwar was billed as the Prime Minister-in-waiting.
“The interests of the nation must take precedence over your personal calamities and problems,” Anwar said. “But what is being ignored by many people is that that understanding was based on clear policies. A democratic rule of law. Good governance. Ridding the country of corruption. And, of course, a smooth transition from Mahathir to Anwar. But then we have gone through that, the fact that he reneged, I want to just move on.”
In February 2020, Mahathir unexpectedly stepped down as prime minister when members of his own party pulled out of the PH coalition to try and form a new government. This had the effect of nullifying the transition agreement between Mahathir and Anwar and in the ensuing political crisis the entire PH government collapsed. Bersatu, the Malay nationalist party Mahathir had founded, seized power after its president, Muhyiddin Yassin, forged a new Malay alliance with UMNO and the Islamist party PAS.
The new government’s majority in parliament has been questioned. In several votes since March, the government has mustered at most 113 votes. To form a simple majority, 112 is necessary. With a razor-thin majority, Muhyiddin’s position is far from secure, and so Anwar has been chipping at it, petitioning lawmakers and building up his own new alliances. As in 2018, this has resulted in strange bedfellows.
In November, at the time of our interview, Najib appeared to be backing Anwar. Despite his corruption, Najib still carries influence in parliament. Anwar insisted this much-needed support wouldn’t affect either his anti-corruption policies, or the ongoing cases against Najib—who in July was sentenced by a Malaysian court to 12 years in prison for his involvement in 1MDB related crimes, though he remains free on a $235,300 bail while his appeal is pending.
“Now, the understanding is that Najib has to deal with his cases. Of course, we acknowledge he wields an influence, a vast influence within the party. But I discussed with him and his team the policies and the parameters: judicial independence; free media; equitable economic policy; to reduce abuse and corruption. This, I said, could not be compromised. And to be fair to them—notwithstanding what happened in the past—they agreed.”
Najib is facing at least two other cases related to 1MDB matters that are pending in Malaysian courts.
For some who are close to Anwar, such dealmaking comes as no surprise. Syed Husin Ali, one of the founding fathers of the left-wing People’s Party of Malaysia and a fellow leading light of the Reformasi movement, says Anwar has always had leadership on his mind.
“I think there is a strong personality in him that he always wanted to be a leader, because he said that to be leader is the best way to make changes that he wanted. So, it is not just for personal reason, it’s quite different from some others who accumulate wealth and position, power, after becoming premier or things like that,” said Syed.
Does Anwar still have a shot? The answer to that question seems to change almost daily. In the weeks after our interview, the position appeared to be slipping away once again, as fractures appeared to be emerging within Anwar’s parliamentary coalition.
But Malaysian politics is a fickle beast. On Dec. 4, the chief minister of Malaysia’s third most vibrant state economies, the northern state of Perak, lost a motion of confidence in the State Assembly by a margin of 46-10. The chief minister, Ahmad Faizal bin Azumu is a Bersatu deputy president. Notable is that his erstwhile colleagues in UMNO voted against him to oust him as chief minister. UMNO leadership has been openly talking about a new political alignment in Perak, ditching its Bersatu ally and teaming up with Anwar’s PH coalition. If it were to happen, it would very much mirror the type of realignment Anwar has proposed at the federal level which would bring him into power.
“The important thing to remember is that the game is not over,” said Malhi. “Nobody is out, and that includes Anwar. Every party or grouping in parliament, including his, is talking to every other. They are all running the numbers daily and horse-trading at every opportunity. Because of this fluidity, nobody appears willing to close off any options by participating in a parliamentary vote, which would force MPs to declare their positions and bring the numbers out in the open. Opting to accept this fluidity keeps the path open for Anwar just as much as it does for his competitors. Or that’s what they all seem to be counting on, anyway.”
Should Anwar finally cross the post and fulfil even half of his lofty ambitions once in power, Malaysia is likely to be the better for it. If nothing else, his mere arrival at that point will have changed Malaysia in fundamental ways. As Awang Azman bin Awang Pawi, a professor at the University of Malaya puts it: “It would make him the first PM from a multiracial, multireligious party—a first in Malaysia’s history.”
And if this particular chance at the position falls through, as it has so many times before, there’s no reason to count Anwar out for good, said Syed.
“He said that his mother and her sisters and all that lived beyond 100, so there is no reason why he can’t stay on beyond 100. Well, whatever it is, as I said just now, I am quite confident that Anwar will get the premiership sooner or later.”
Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Center for Global Policy in Washington.