In June 2018, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim sat down with Rubin Khoo, just a few weeks after being released from prison. As the nation now grapples with issues of leadership, we revisit our interview from two years ago published in the Prestige Malaysia July 2018 issue.
Considering that he had been up till 3am the night before, it was a very jovial Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim who walked into our interview. Dressed in a checked shirt, the former deputy prime minister appeared very relaxed, quite a contrast from the Anwar Ibrahim of 20 years ago, then the anointed one who was poised to assume the leadership of Malaysia.
As we sit down to our interview, one that at time veers off to talk about the value of Zara and Uniqlo, interspersed with quotes from cultural influences as diverse as Adele and Shakespeare, Anwar, now often dubbed, as the Prime Minister in waiting, appears to be unperturbed by the rumblings on social media that there is a slow but eventual return to 1998, speculating at a growing tension between himself and Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad.
“That was a long time ago with a much younger Mahathir and a much younger Anwar,” he says, speaking of that fateful year. “To quote Frank Sinatra, I have taken the blows.”
Our interview takes place in the middle of June, a day after the impasse over the appointment of Attorney General Tommy Thomas had been resolved. Twitter-ville appeared to be rife with suggestions that the advisor to Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) had overstepped when he sought an audience with the Yang Dipertuan Agong in an attempt to end the deadlock.
“Because I am just out (of prison), the royalty would expect me to seek an audience. I was, of course, very pleased because I was given the opportunity to assure the royalty that all the parties are committed to defend the constitutional monarchy and ensure the position of Islam. I explained that there is no compromise on that,” he explains. “I took the opportunity to explain that the thinking is now more inclusive, taking into the consideration the plight of the poor non-Malays and so on,” explains Anwar.
For that, he bore the brunt from netizens who claimed impropriety, stating that he has no formal position in government.
“People questioned in what capacity,” he says. “Simply as Anwar Ibrahim, citizen of Malaysia. You mean I can’t speak to the King? Of course I can. Was it useful? Of course. Was the matter resolved amicably? It was. Was it my personal role? No, people have worked on it and the discussions have taken place. But if you can articulate these issues politely and if they (the rulers) are agreeable, then it is a deal.”
It was also approximately a month since the Opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan’s historic rise to power. The transition, describes Anwar, was “unique and remarkable,”given that there was no civil unrest. But perhaps it is because of this that Malaysians now expect change to be implemented quickly and easily.
“But that is certainly not the case,” the (then) de-facto leader of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) says. In the case of the AGs appointment, Anwar felt that the rulers needed some reassurance given the fact that there is now a new government in place.
Situations like these, he adds, are what will make the period of Tun Mahathir’s premiership “very critical, tough and rough.” As PH represents the reform agenda, Malaysians now have high expectations, wanting swift changes. But being at the helm, he says, is challenging.
“The fact that Tun Mahathir is able to navigate through this. He is doing remarkably well.”
Of imminent concern are investigations into former premier Dato’ Sri Najib Razak which have since begun. Anwar describes this as a “formidable,” task given the fact that the former Prime Minister has “lots of resources at his disposal.”
With these high on the agenda, Anwar jokes that it is “quite a relief,” that he is not at the helm right now, saying that he is quite content to focus on the lecture circuit while working on his books. His programme has been laid out and he emphasises that it doesn’t include a move for leadership anytime soon.
“I honestly believe that PM Mahathir should be given a free hand and latitude to manoeuvre,” he reaffirms. There have been hitches, he admits, but “it is a total unequivocal support for the leadership of the PM.”
He has been getting advice, suggestions and even some cynicism about transition of leadership. “I can’t help that,” he states. But it is not fair to speak of transitions, he stresses, particularly since the Prime Minister has only recently taken office.
Nonetheless support doesn’t necessarily mean not questioning decisions made by the Prime Minister. Hence, the reason he supported PKR vice president Rafizi Ramli’s raising concerns over the Cabinet appointments.
“Of course, he has to listen and he has to negotiate,” he explains. “That’s why I defended the position taken by Rafizi, although some are appalled that a criticism was made.”
But does he have the “itch”, we ask. “I have had it for 20 years,” he replies in jest. “Why do I need to do it so aggressively?
For now, the next step would be to contest in a by-election and if successful then he would become a Member of Parliament, a backbencher which is something that he says he has no experience in, having been a Minister or Opposition Leader all his political life. It is something he assures us that he is quite comfortable with, refuting rumours that he is already impatient for the transition to take place.
“Frankly, I don’t know,” he replies when asked why the Anwar name continues to shrouded with tales of conspiracy. “From what I gather from others, it is because I am a true reformer and the corrupt has no place. Either they change or they cannot be accommodated. There is no question about it.”
It is this stand that perhaps makes certain quarters nervous as they fear not being able to secure their positions and exert their influence in government.
“But so long as I have a very good rapport with PM Mahathir, this is not problem,” he asserts, before adding somewhat mischievously, “but then, that’s what I said in 1998.”
He, nonetheless, continues to reassure us that his relationship with the Prime Minister is “very good.”
Overcoming past struggles was initially hard for Anwar who spent more than a decade in jail, enduring even a brutal assault that resulted in the infamous black-eye that was splashed on the front page of virtually every newspaper across the globe.
“It definitely wasn’t easy for me and the family because we suffered a great deal,” he admits. “You can imagine that it was very difficult because we were together, working as a team. But then when he came with the support for our reform agenda, I thought why should I harbor any suspicion because the country is at stake and we need to do it now. If we had failed, the nation would truly fall into despair.”
There were vested interests for him too. A Pakatan win would ensure survival for Anwar. Also, with both individuals now spurned by the establishment, they were now able to connect on a different level.
“Given the situation he (Mahathir) was in, maligned and marginalised by the media, he became more open to understanding the workings of the opposition,” Anwar opines. “At first I had to endure the dreadful experience and later Mahathir had to endure those insults. We have come together now and it has shown some results. I think for him it was important to protect his legacy and for me, after a long time, to try and implement reforms I believe in. I think it will work.”
Now that Pakatan has assumed its place in government, the onus is on the coalition to “deliver and to honour” their promises. It is for this reason that Anwar has released several statements to remind party stalwarts that UMNO 2.0 should not be allowed to surface.
“I said that 20 years ago that if we are ever able to make change, that the change must be systemic and that it would be a challenge for the leadership.”
He points to the French Revolution and the experiences of Jawarhalal Nehru and Nelson Mandela, who were unable to contain endemic corruption.
“That is a lesson to us,” he asserts. “How does it creep in? First through the remnants of the old regime. The system of patronage, squandering wealth, ability to influence the old guys. It is my duty to remind against that.”
It was exactly two decades ago that the former Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister emerged as the voice for reform in Malaysia. On Sept 1, he was sacked from office over allegations of sexual misconduct. The move was seen to be a political one, designed to humiliate him amidst wide speculation of a growing tension between the then number one and two.
The sacking resulted in massive protests nationwide as Malaysians took to the streets for the first time joining him in his calls for Reformasi. After leading a massive protest through the streets of Kuala Lumpur, he was arrested on Sept 20 and sentenced to jail a year later. Anwar was released in 2004 under the leadership of former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi but in 2014, he was once again sentenced to jail, this time during Najib’s tenure as Prime Minister.
“They were 10 and a half rotten years,” he says, matter of factly. “ Of course it is tough, not a bed of roses. It is meant to denigrate man. It is a place to condemn man.”
The prison staff, however, were “extremely kind,” and his days were usually spent reading. “Anything I could find,” he says. “Islamic philosophy, Chinese philosophy, Indian philosophy, biographies of political leaders.”
And various editions of Shakespeare, whose works he frequently refers to for the life lessons they provide. He makes many observations, like how Julius Ceasar, allowed his ego to cause his downfall; that King Lear, someone so philosophical in life could be so cruel a King.
Free from the confines of prison, Anwar now faces a generation who are not familiar with his struggle. To the idealistic lot who want change, he jokingly quotes Adele, saying “All I ask is that they study the facts and historical dissidents and persevere their efforts.”
When he was sacked in 1998, it was rumoured that Anwar and his family were at a loss, unsure of his next move. But as news of his dismissal started to spread, huge crowds turned up at his house to commiserate. It is believed that it was from there that the Reformasi movement was born.
“I just believed,” he says with conviction. “I said no, why should we surrender to these semi-literate people. Perhaps, a little arrogance was at play. None of them were prepared to have a debate, none of them were prepared to speak to the urban crowd. They were playing to the gallery and exploiting the poor. We believed in the cause. We could articulate it better and we had the tenacity and the conviction.”
On Sept 20 of that year, when the Federal Reserve Unit (FRU) burst into his home, clad in black balaclavas, and dragged the former deputy premier into Black Marias, the nation’s conscience was awakened.
“I didn’t expect that it would go to that length,” he says, still with a tinge of disbelief. “I didn’t expect to be assaulted in that manner. I didn’t expect that I would be jailed for soooo long….”
Perhaps the many hours of reading different philosophies has given Anwar a different perspective of all that he has endured. He admits that if he had indeed become Prime Minister in 1999, things might have been different.
‘I don’t think I would have thought to implement reforms that I am thinking of now,” he says. “Of course, the political climate was different. Who would have been the Deputy Prime Minister, the Finance Minister then?”