LAST week, this space was devoted to an attempt to understand the political persona of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. This time the focus is on Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, presently serving a jail sentence for sodomy.
The late Barry Wain, the New Zealand journalist who covered Southeast Asia for the Asian Wall Street Journal and Far Eastern Economic Review, was right about his discernment in the early 1980s on meeting up with Mahathir and Anwar.
He said the two were the best Malaysian politicians he had encountered and at the time he first took their measure, he foresaw that they would have the biggest impact on their country’s destiny.
Wain turned out to be prescient.
The dynamics of their separate-yet-intertwined careers and their 16-year collaboration (1982-1998) while Mahathir was prime minister have composed the warp and woof of Malaysian political history since the seminal May 13, 1969 riots.
Wain caused a stir in 2009 with the publication of his book, Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times, in which he alleged that RM100 billion was lost during Dr Mahathir’s 22 years (1981-2003) reign as prime minister through direct financial losses in hubristic ventures — cornering the international tin market and central bank speculation in currency markets — and through write-offs on grandiose projects.
Anwar would never have countenanced such ventures. But for at least 12 of Dr Mahathir’s 22 years in power, he was a mute accessory — either as a full member of Dr Mahathir’s Cabinet or as deputy prime minister — to the decisions that resulted in the alleged losses.
When Anwar began in 1995 to demure in Cabinet over executive actions and policy stances of his boss, his doubts were brushed aside by Dr Mahathir, then at the top of his imperial form.
That an attempt to describe Anwar’s political persona would inevitably involve a discussion of Dr Mahathir’s career is because of the former’s enlistment in the latter’s government, an entanglement — that ought to be the more accurate term for it — whose opportunity cost was high to Anwar and the Malaysian opposition.
Anwar Ibrahim, president of the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement (Abim) three years after its founding in 1971, was in 1982 headed for the presidency of Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).
Incumbent president Datuk Mohd Asri Muda, a nationalist more than an Islamist, was in trouble with the clerics in PAS who were growing more assertive, buoyed by the example of the Iranian regime where mullahs held sway.
However, in April 1982, Dr Mahathir deflected Anwar from PAS by persuading him to join Umno and be a candidate in the general election that month.
Getting Anwar to join was a coup by Dr Mahathir who aimed to outflank the worldwide rise in Islamic consciousness triggered by the 1979 Khomeinist revolution in Iran by co-opting into government the leading young Islamist leader in Malaysia.
By early 1982, Anwar, though not a party member, was not only prime candidate to supplant Asri as PAS president, he was also de facto leader of the opposition by dint of his leadership of non-governmental organisations and opposition parties that had come together in March 1981 to fight amendments to the Societies Act, widely regarded as repressive towards civil society.
That impressive spell thrust Anwar into the front rank of opposition leaders. It came when his stewardship of Abim had already gained Anwar international stature as an Islamist figure of modernist leanings.
His steering of the groups ranged against the Societies Act amendments catapulted him to de facto leadership of the opposition, though Lim Kit Siang was its putative head owing to the latter’s position as parliamentary opposition leader.
Thus, it was a huge jolt when Anwar joined Umno in April 1982.
Mohamed Sabu, now president of Amanah, and an exco member of Abim in 1982, would later reveal that Anwar had — in an attempt at placation of a shocked and dismayed Abim council — informed doubters that by joining Umno he would become prime minister in 11 years.
Of renowned French leader Charles de Gaulle, it was said he was not good at seeing what was across the room from him but was acute at telling what’s coming round the street corner.
The same could be said about Anwar’s bifocal vision: He was uncanny about what’s coming up over the horizon but blase about what’s in the same room with him.
A kindred weakness besets his attitude to individuals purporting to be allies and collaborators: He is unable to see each as anything other than facilitator or impediment to his ambition to be prime minister. This makes for poor judgment of character.
True, a charismatic leader has to draw support from the broad spectrum of political society, and enlist in his cause the allegiance of sundry underlings.
But a binary evaluation of all comers as either facilitators or impediments runs the risk of sudden and inexplicable disruptions to friendships and ties, a frequent feature of Anwar’s career.
Singular among prominent politicians, Anwar is unable to retain the loyalty of allies, longstanding and newfound ones.
Today, Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Azmin Ali, who has been an avowed loyalist since his recruitment as political aide to Anwar in 1984 on Dr Mahathir’s recommendation, is closer to Dr Mahathir than to Anwar.
This inability to plumb the depths of allies and collaborators mirrors his long journey in Islamist politics.
Anwar used this powerful vehicle to rise to prominence in Malaysia and in the Islamic world. But Islamist politics is a banana peel. It’s bound to trip up politicians of Anwar’s significantly democratic inclinations.
Last month, in an article in the British newspaper Guardian, Anwar quoted approvingly the pronouncement of Rached Ghannouchi, widely regarded as one of the world’s leading Islamic thinkers: “We are leaving political Islam … We are Muslim democrats.”
Ghannuochi espoused this formulation at his Ennahda party conference in May last year.
This may be timely for Tunisia, the place where the Arab Spring began in January 2011, at this point of the country’s evolution as a Muslim polity.
But it’s much too late to beguile the movement for the Islamisation of politics and administration in Malaysia that Anwar seeded from the early 1970s, and had helped embed in government when he was part of it for 16 years.
That movement would arrive at an apotheosis of sorts if the Umno-led government takes over the tabling, as it intends to at the next parliamentary session in March, the motion to further empower Shariah courts that had originated with PAS.
This motion, its non-Muslim and Muslim opponents credibly contend, is the penultimate step in the conversion of Malaysia to an Islamic state. The next step is the application of Shariah on all citizens, non-Muslims included, which the government has assured will not happen.
The man who should have been PAS president, which presumably he would have liberalised and joined Umno instead which he proceeded to Islamise, now thinks it is better to be a Muslim democrat rather than an out-and-out Islamist.
The lights and shadows, not least the speculation about his sexual orientation, have clung to Anwar in a way that has made it fiendishly difficult to sort out the man.