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Anwar Ibrahim: the remarkable rise of the prisoner Malaysian Prime Minister to the head of the judiciary


It’s a political journey that’s been decades in the making – the transformation from an incendiary young student to an icon of democracy and ultimately leader of his country, via two stints in prison.

Now 75, Anwar Ibrahim has finally achieved his dream of becoming Malaysia’s 10th Prime Minister.

And in his first words after being sworn in on Thursday, he made it clear he intended not to dwell on the divisions of the past, but to focus on the future with a cabinet that will understand his former enemies. policies.

“This is a government of national unity and all are welcome provided (they) accept the basic rules: good governance, no corruption and a Malaysia for all Malaysians,” Anwar said in a statement. ‘committing to healing a racially divided nation, fighting corruption and reviving 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 Malaysia’s history.

His reformist, multi-ethnic coalition Pakatan Harapan won the most seats in last week’s vote – 82 – but failed to achieve the simple majority needed to form a government, meaning Anwar was unable to be appointed only after the intervention of the King of Malaysia.

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

“This has been by far the most fragmented, volatile and dangerous period ever seen in Malaysian politics,” said political commentator Ei Sun Oh. “While many applaud the nomination of a progressive and reformist candidate, this will not be the end of the problems.”

“Political infighting and infighting will continue and Anwar is tasked with healing the deep wounds and gaps between progressives and conservatives,” he added.

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 for his role in leading protests against rural poverty and hunger.

Years later, he surprised many by foraying into mainstream politics, joining the Malaysian nationalist UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) party led by then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – a man who would become both Anwar’s mentor and nemesis.

Anwar’s rise in the party was swift and he was soon elevated to various senior cabinet posts, becoming Deputy Prime Minister in 1993.

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

Tensions were further strained when the 1997 Asian financial crisis hit 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 marked the start of a new pro-democracy movement.

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

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

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

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

After his return as an opposition figure, further sodomy allegations were brought against him and – following a lengthy court battle spanning several years – he returned to prison in 2014 .

What happened next is perhaps one of the most remarkable reversals 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 overthrow the government of Najib Razak, whose administration had become embroiled in a corruption scandal surrounding the public investment fund 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

As part of his campaign promise, Mahathir vowed that if they were successful he would release Anwar and even stand down for him after a few years in power. Mahathir kept the first promise – a royal pardon freed Anwar soon after the election – but backtracked on the second, a reversal that divided their supporters and fueled the stalemate that has plagued all efforts to form a government stable since.

Among his first promises 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 multiculturalism.

Malaysia has long had an institutionalized affirmative action policy favoring the ethnic Malay majority over its sizeable Malaysian Chinese and Malaysian Indian minorities.

And overcoming decades of polarization over race, religion and reform in the Muslim-majority nation won’t be easy – not least because experts aren’t ruling out attempts by his new government’s rivals to overthrow his leadership.

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

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

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

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

Anwar's swearing-in ceremony takes place at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur on November 24, 2022.

Internationally, rights groups hailed Anwar’s appointment and his commitment to prioritizing human rights and democracy.

“He is a leader who has personally suffered tremendous politically motivated injustice,” said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director.

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

“It is hoped 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 festive mood continues amid optimism that years of political chaos and uncertainty may finally be a thing of the past.

“Malaysians can hope that the discord that is in danger of spiraling out of control will lose some oxygen now – or at least it won’t come from the hard-line nationalists within UMNO just yet,” said Malaysian journalist Amirul Ruslan, adding that “Unlike Mahathir, I can see (Anwar) transitional policies far from race-centric.

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

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