HONG KONGThe day Anwar Ibrahim was arrested in 1998, shortly after being dismissed as
Malaysia's deputy prime minister and finance minister, he became a symbol of
political oppression and executive abuse of the judiciary. His name became
synonymous with liberalism and reform, not just in Malaysia.
But now that Anwar has been released and
the sodomy conviction against him overturned, will he remain a hero to those who
believe in human rights, racial equality, freedom of speech and religion? Will
the man whose six-year incarceration became such a focus of civil society
campaigns fight for those same rights? Or, after a decent interval, will it be
business as usual for one of Malaysia's most outstanding, charismatic
politicians? Which will win out, Anwar's idealistic sentiments or his history of
Even in the euphoria after Anwar's
release, such questions must be asked, for Anwar has always been a man with more
than one face. Especially among minority communities, sympathy for his treatment
at the hands of Malaysia's former leader, Mahathir bin Mohamad, is widely tinged
with fears that his eloquence, erudition and liberal commitments - most evident
when speaking to foreign journalists - obscured a willingness to use religion
and a pious face more effectively than any Malay politician.
Anwar entered politics via Abim, a Muslim
youth movement that mixed religious conservatism with a moderately radical
social conscience. His youthful idealism was soon tempered by the demands of
succeeding in the roughhouse politics of the United Malays National
Organization, or UMNO, Malaysia's governing party, but Anwar's background in
Abim and his gentle manner served him well in cultivating a Malay constituency
that was ill at ease with the secular, aggressive Mahathir.
As finance minister, Anwar practiced the
politics of patronage almost as eagerly as his predecessors in this job,
creating new business groupings linked to his UMNO backers. His tenure was
competent but hardly smacked of reform. As deputy prime minister he faithfully
defended the use of detention without trial under the Internal Security Act. His
own arrest was the result of Mahathir's well-founded fears at the height of the
Asian economic crisis that Anwar's UMNO supporters were plotting a party coup
Six years have changed Malaysia, and
presumably have changed Anwar. But in which direction? His release is not just
the result of a change in attitude at the top. Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi,
is a more tolerant, less vindictive man than Mahathir. But the treatment of
Anwar and reaction against business cronyism have combined to create a new
climate of opinion in Malaysia that Abdullah, and the judges, have been wise to
note. The same sentiment brought Abdullah dramatic success in recent elections.
So Anwar has been a catalyst, but what
will he do with his new freedom, especially if his corruption conviction is
quashed and he can return to Parliament? Will be lead Keadilan, the multiracial
party formed after his arrest and nominally headed by his wife? If so, will he
dedicate it to a multiracial agenda that challenges a political culture based on
race and religion?
Or is Anwar destined to remain trapped in
the ghetto, returning to his first base, a populism based on an idealistic but
narrow Islam? The leadership of the fundamentalist Parti Islam could be his for
the taking. If so, the eventual result could be the further social polarization
Or will Anwar now proclaim a truly
liberal, inclusive version of Islam and of Malaysia? Will he fight for the
rights of Malays not to be Muslims? Will he commit to ending the race-based
patronage system that has enhanced Malay wealth but at the price of making the
community too dependent on affirmative action for its long-term good?
Or will Anwar eventually return to the
UMNO fold, the only sure path to ministerial rank? And if he does so, will he
remain committed to freeing state institutions such as the judiciary and state
enterprises from political interference and cronyism?
It is unlikely that Anwar will, at least
in the near future, become the political player that he was. UMNO has moved on,
and some of the mud thrown in the past decade - not just since 1998 - has stuck.
But with his intelligence, eloquence and
charm, Anwar has the capacity to influence the nature and content of Malaysian
politics. Malaysia waits to learn how imprisonment, and the public and foreign
response to his treatment, have reformed his own thinking.