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Commentary: Always almost there - will Anwar Ibrahim ever become Prime Minister of Malaysia?

Anwar Ibrahim’s political career has been filled with many challenges for the top job. He will have to demonstrate he can be a prime minister for all if he wants to assume the role, says Oh Ei Sun.

Commentary: Always almost there - will Anwar Ibrahim ever become Prime Minister of Malaysia?

FILE PHOTO: Malaysia opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim attends a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia October 13, 2020. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng

SINGAPORE: I have seen it before.

On Sep 16, 2008, an upbeat Anwar Ibrahim announced he had commanded the support of the majority of Malaysian Members of Parliament (MPs), six months after he led the opposition to historically smash the two-thirds parliamentary supermajority of the then ruling Barisan Nasional (BN). 

It was Malaysia Day. Anwar appeared to be ready to take over the Malaysian government. 

That afternoon, I was moderating a political forum in Kota Kinabalu, attended by a few major opposition politicians. I also witnessed a BN component party in action at the seminar, boldly withdrawing from the ruling coalition in support of Anwar’s move. 

The atmosphere was extremely charged, with boisterous exhortations aplenty for a new dawn in Malaysian politics. 

By nightfall, however, it became obvious this supposed switch of allegiance by many BN MPs did not materialise. A somber mood descended upon the gradually less crowded event.

Malaysians would have to make do with more of the same political setup - with a longstanding, though bruised, government sitting across an enlarged but frustrated opposition.

READ: Commentary: Why Anwar Ibrahim’s longheld dream of becoming Malaysia PM keeps getting thwarted


Alas, this and many other similarly somewhat elusive and quixotic quests of “almost, but not quite there” have dotted Anwar’s long political career. 

Anwar had been Mahathir Mohamad’s protégé during the latter’s first term as Malaysia’s Prime Minister. Anwar was even promoted to be Deputy Prime Minister in an accelerated trajectory to take over the premiership. 

But that did not happen, as the relationship between the two soured with Mahathir increasingly alarmed by Anwar’s brimming ambition.

The stormy relationship the two men dates back to the 1990s when Mahathir Mohamad (right) sacked Anwar Ibrahim as his deputy, and he was jailed on sodomy charges. (Photo:AFP/Mohd Rasfan)

As allegations of improprieties surfaced against Anwar in September 1998, he was unceremoniously fired from the Cabinet and expelled from the party. He was subsequently jailed for charges of corruption and sodomy. 

After the verdict was overturned in 2004 and Anwar was released before the end of his nine-year sentence, he went on to propel the opposition coalition to consecutively deny BN the much vaunted two-thirds parliamentary majority in the 2008 and 2013 general elections, but still fell short of clinching the majority to become Prime Minister. 

As he was jailed again in 2015 on another charge of sodomy, he could not lead the opposition in the 2018 general election. 

He made up for his absence by reconciling with his erstwhile political rival Mahathir, who by then had also fallen out with BN and helmed the recomposed Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition coalition.

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After PH surprisingly defeated BN in the 2018 elections and formed the government, Anwar was pardoned. He quickly won himself a parliamentary seat in a by-election, putting himself in good stead once again be a successor to Mahathir, by then Malaysian Prime Minister for a second time. 

At least that was Anwar’s understanding, citing a pre-election agreement among the PH parties to that effect. 


In hindsight, Mahathir did not intend to pass the baton of premiership to Anwar.  He often avoided the topic when asked in public or offered delayed timelines.

When Mahathir’s hand was forced in late February, both saw their political fortunes overturned in a matter of days.

A series of moves by Azmin Ali and Muhyiddin Yassin, respectively Anwar’s and Mahathir’s party deputies, effected the change of political allegiance of a number of PH MPs.

Malaysia's Minister of International Trade and Industry Azmin Ali reacts during a news conference in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Mar 11, 2020. (File photo: REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng)

After a tense week of brewing suspicions, Muhyiddin was sworn in as Prime Minister. 

After being relegated to the opposition again, Mahathir did not let up on his dislike of Anwar.  He initially criticised Anwar more vehemently than he did Muhyiddin, whom he felt had betrayed him. 

Even as Mahathir tried to no avail to bring parliamentary motions of no confidence against Muhyiddin, Mahathir did not seem keen for Muhyiddin to be replaced by Anwar. 

Mahathir had put forth Shafie Apdal, the former Sabah chief minister, as the opposition’s potential prime ministerial candidate in an attempt to sideline Anwar.

READ: Commentary: Sabah’s surprise results – and how Warisan lost big in state elections

READ: Commentary: Sabah state election ignites fresh Game of Thrones jostling in Malaysian politics


Late last month, Anwar dropped yet another political bombshell mere days before the Sabah state elections which saw his PKR party teaming up with Shafie, by again announcing his supposed support by more MPs and command of the parliamentary majority.

By now, the popular expectation of Anwar realising his “takeover” claim has largely dissipated.  But that did not dissuade Anwar, as he pressed on with his majority bid, banking to a large extent on the mounting discord between Muhyiddin’s Bersatu party and UMNO - the largest component party in the ruling coalition. 

Yet, even at this juncture, where the political aspirations of both Anwar and Mahathir to bring down the Muhyiddin government found common ground, Mahathir still refused to support Anwar.

Instead, he appeared to have endorsed  Tengku Razaleigh, an UMNO veteran and an even earlier rival, to assume the Prime Minister position.

Malaysian politician Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah speaks to media members after a meeting at United Malays National Organization (UMNO) headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia October 26, 2020. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng


Anwar has amply demonstrated his political tenacity throughout the years, moving on from one failure, albeit almost an earshot away from ultimate success, to another with renewed vitality. 

He also exhibited other leadership traits, which should be viewed positively in a modern, healthy democracy. 

For one, Anwar practises inclusive politics. His PH coalition, for example, consists of his own Malay-based but multiracial PKR, the Chinese-based but equally multiracial DAP, and also the moderately religious Amanah party, which splintered from the avowedly Islamist PAS party.

READ: Commentary: The great pity that was Malaysia’s short-lived Pakatan Harapan coalition

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Even PAS, during its previously more moderate phase, was a component party of PH’s predecessor coalition. 

Anwar recognises the primacy of Malays in Malaysian politics, but is open to working toward a more needs-based social economic distribution model that would usher in greater communal harmony.

Anwar has also espoused a progressive streak over his long years in politics. For example, the background of his momentous clash with Mahathir was the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis, which saw the Malaysian economy go into a tailspin. 

Anwar, who then chaired the development committee of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), was leaning toward accepting the IMF loan package, which would have called for drastic structural reforms with deep budget cuts and strict measures against corruption and cronyism, all in an effort to make the Malaysian economy more market-friendly.

Malaysia's politician Anwar Ibrahim arrives for a meeting in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, February 29, 2020. (File photo: REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng)

Mahathir thought otherwise, rejecting the IMF package but prioritising corporate bailouts and currency controls. 


If Anwar is to ever assume the leadership role, he cannot bank on his opposition credentials but must show himself to be someone who can represent all voters.

This will not come easy. These are not ordinary times in Malaysia. The country is sharply divided between a conservative, racially and religiously centric majority on the one hand, and a more liberal, progressive minority on the other. 

The conservatives, amply represented in the present ruling coalition, see Anwar’s inclusiveness and progressive streak as affronts to their monolithic political outlook for the country, and are reluctant to support him. 

The liberals, who vouch for a more open and tolerant society, shudder at Anwar’s staunchly religious past. So their support for him, though sizable, is reluctant and even contingent upon their inability to find an equally charismatic leader for their progressive cause. 

Both conservatives and liberals worry he might embrace their respective side for short-term political expediency, only to boot them out when the dust has settled.

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Anwar can win both camps over. He is a charismatic, national icon.  I attended his talk in February just a few days before the Sheraton move, which catapulted Muhyiddin into power. 

As with the numerous previous occasions where I got to listen to him in person, Anwar is indeed a persuasive, even mesmerising speaker, able to articulate his progressive ideas and quote abundantly from important  liberal thinkers of our time. 

I could not help but remark to my friend next to me that with such progressive ideals, Anwar would make a fine prime minister. 

My friend retorted: 

This is a liberal audience. Of course he would say such liberal things.  Have you heard him speak to a conservative audience?

Indeed, Anwar would have to perform an intricate balancing act as he again treads the fine line toward a much coveted premiership.

Oh Ei Sun is a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Source: CNA/sl


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