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From prisoner to prime minister: The remarkable rise of Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim

<i>Mat Zain/NurPhoto/Getty Images</i><br/>Anwar Ibrahim delivers a speech during a campaign rally for Pakatan Harapan in Kuala Lumpur on November 17.
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Mat Zain/NurPhoto/Getty Images
Anwar Ibrahim delivers a speech during a campaign rally for Pakatan Harapan in Kuala Lumpur on November 17.

By Heather Chen, CNN

It’s a political journey decades in the making — the transformation of a young student firebrand into an icon of democracy and eventually the leader of his country, via two stints in jail.

Now age 75, Anwar Ibrahim has finally realized his dream by becoming the 10th prime minister of Malaysia.

And in his first words after being sworn in on Thursday, he made clear he intends not to dwell on the divisions of the past, but focus on the future with a cabinet that will include his former political foes.

“This is a national unity government and all are welcome on condition (they) accept the fundamental rules: good governance, no corruption and a Malaysia for all Malaysians,” Anwar said as he pledged to heal a racially divided nation, fight corruption and revive an economy still struggling to recover from the pandemic.

“No one should be marginalized under my administration,” he vowed.

Anwar’s appointment comes nearly a week after a tumultuous general election that resulted in the first hung parliament in Malaysian history.

His reformist and multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan coalition won the most seats in last week’s vote — 82 — but failed to reach a simple majority needed to form a government, meaning Anwar could only be appointed after the intervention of the Malaysian king.

Observers say he will have his work cut out if he is to bridge the divisions that have seen him named the fourth prime minister since 2018, when a landmark election dumped the Barisan Nasional coalition out of power for the first time since independence amid anger over a multibillion-dollar financial scandal at the state investment fund.

“This has been by far, the most fragmented, volatile and dangerous period ever in Malaysian politics,” said political commentator Ei Sun Oh. “While many applaud the appointment of a progressive and reformist candidate, it won’t be the end to problems.”

“Political wranglings and infighting will still continue and Anwar has the task of having to heal profound wounds and gaps between the progressives and conservatives,” he added.

Anwar’s rise

Born on August 10, 1947 on the island of Penang, Anwar began his political career as a student activist leading various Muslim youth groups in Kuala Lumpur. He was arrested at one point over his role in leading demonstrations against rural poverty and hunger.

Years later, he surprised many by making a foray into mainstream politics, joining the Malay nationalist party UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) led by then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad — a man who would become both Anwar’s mentor and nemesis.

Anwar’s rise within the party was rapid and he was soon elevated to various high-ranking ministerial positions, becoming deputy prime minister in 1993.

At this point, Anwar was widely expected to succeed Mahathir, but the two men began to clash over issues including corruption and the economy.

Tensions further strained as the 1997 Asian financial crisis battered the country and in 1998 Anwar was fired from Mahathir’s Cabinet and expelled from UMNO.

He then began leading public protests against Mahathir — a move that signaled the start of a new pro-democracy movement.

Fall from power and jail

That same year, Anwar was arrested and detained without trial, and was charged with corruption and sodomy. Even if consensual, sodomy is an offense punishable by up to 20 years in prison in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

He has always strongly denied the charges, claiming they were politically motivated, but that has not stopped them from plaguing his political career ever since.

His subsequent jailing sparked violent street protests, with supporters comparing his plight to that of Nelson Mandela.

That first conviction was overturned by a court in 2004, a year after two-time leader Mahathir left office for the first time, but it was not the last time Anwar would find himself behind bars.

After his return as an opposition figure, more allegations of sodomy were made against him and — following a protracted court battle that took place over a period of years — returned to jail in 2014.

What happened next is perhaps one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the country’s political history.

In a stunning twist — with Anwar still behind bars — he and Mahathir joined forces for the 2018 election in a bid to topple the government of Najib Razak, whose administration had become embroiled in a corruption scandal surrounding the state investment fund 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

As part of his campaign pledge, Mahathir vowed that should they succeed he would free Anwar and even step aside for him after a couple of years in power. Mahathir stuck to the first promise — a royal pardon freed Anwar soon after the election — but he backtracked on the second, a U-turn that split their supporters and fed the stalemate that has dogged all efforts to form a stable government since.

Challenges ahead

Among his first pledges as Malaysia’s new prime minister, Anwar said he “would not take” a salary as a show of solidarity with Malaysians struggling with the rising cost of living.

He also promised to help the country embrace multi-culturalism.

Malaysia has long adopted a policy of institutionalized affirmative action favoring the ethnic Malay majority over its sizable Chinese Malaysian and Indian Malaysian minorities.

And overcoming decades of polarization over race, religion and reform in the Muslim-majority nation will not come easy — not least because experts do not rule out attempts by rivals in his new government to topple his leadership.

While two-thirds of Anwar’s cabinet will be made up of members of his Pakatan Harapan reformist coalition, in a gesture of national unity he has agreed that the remaining posts will be given to members of the regional Gabungan Rakyat Sabah party and — perhaps more surprisingly — representatives of the Barisan Nasional coalition, which includes several UMNO politicians that he did so much to topple.

“He is entering a very uneasy political alliance in a fragmented landscape,” said Oh, the political commentator.

“The recent election results have only showed how divided the country is.

“He now has the difficult job of navigating and balancing the progressive sectors with the conservative religious forces.”

Internationally, rights groups have welcomed Anwar’s appointment and his pledge to prioritize human rights and democracy.

“This is a leader who has personally suffered massive politically motivated injustices,” said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch.

Robertson said the rights group hoped Anwar would “bring reforms to laws and regulations that have been used in the past to criminalize peaceful exercise of civil and political rights,” pointing to issues like discrimination against transgender and gay communities, the treatment of migrant workers and child marriage and refugee laws.

“One hopes that lessons have been learned from the previous Pakatan Harapan government, which faltered after two years in power,” Robertson said.

“We hope that Anwar will move forward with his vision, recognize that he was elected to act on his programs and policies, and implement his mandate.”

And domestically, at least for now, the celebratory mood continues amid optimism that years of political chaos and uncertainty may finally be in the past.

“Malaysians can be hopeful that the discord that risks spiraling out of control gets to lose some oxygen now — or at least it won’t be coming from hardline nationalists within UMNO for the time being,” said Malaysian journalist Amirul Ruslan, adding that “Unlike Mahathir, I can see (Anwar) transitioning policies away from being race-centric.”

Describing Anwar’s new government, comprising former enemies, as “unprecedented”, he added: “Anwar is the right man for our divided country.”

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