It’s a political journey decades in the making–a young troubled student turned icon of democracy and eventually leader of his country, through two prison terms.
Now, at the age of 75, Anwar Ibrahim has finally fulfilled his dream of becoming the 10th Prime Minister of Malaysia.
And in his first words after being sworn in on Thursday, he made clear he did not intend to delve into the divisions of the past, but to focus on the future with a government that includes his former political opponents.
“This is a government of national unity and all are welcome provided they accept the basic rules: good governance, no corruption and Malaysia for all Malaysians,” Anwar said, as he vowed to tackle a nation divided by ethnicity, fight corruption and revive life. The economy is still struggling to recover from the pandemic.
He vowed that “no one should be marginalized under my administration.”
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 and multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan coalition won the most seats in last week’s vote – 82 – but failed to reach the simple majority needed to form a government, meaning Anwar can only be appointed after Malaysia’s king intervenes.
Observers say he will quit his job if he wants to bridge the divisions that have seen him appoint the fourth prime minister since 2018, when a historic election ousted the Barisan National Coalition from power for the first time since independence amid fury over a multibillion-dollar financial scandal at the state investment fund.
“This has been by far the most fragmented, volatile and dangerous period in Malaysian politics,” said political commentator Lee Soon Oh. “While many applaud the appointment of a progressive and reformist candidate, that will not be the end of the problems.”
“Political differences and infighting will continue, and Anwar has the task of healing the deep wounds and gaps between the progressives and the conservatives,” he added.
Born on August 10, 1947 in Penang Island, Anwar began his political career as a student activist leading various Muslim youth groups in Kuala Lumpur. He was arrested at one point due to his role in leading demonstrations against poverty and hunger in the countryside.
Years later, he surprised many by foraying into mainstream politics, joining the UMNO (United Malays National Organization) party led by then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – the man who would become Anwar’s mentor and foe.
Anwar’s rise within the party was rapid and he was soon promoted to various high-ranking ministerial posts, becoming Deputy Prime Minister in 1993.
At this point, he was widely expected to succeed Anwar Mahathir, but the two men began to fall out over issues including corruption and the economy.
Tensions boiled over with the 1997 Asian financial crisis hitting the country and in 1998 Anwar was ousted from Mahathir’s government and expelled from UMNO.
He then began leading public protests against Mahathir – a move that signaled the start of a new pro-democracy movement.
In the same year, Anwar was arrested and detained without trial, and charged with corruption and sodomy. Even if consensual, sodomy is a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
He has always vehemently denied the accusations, claiming they are politically motivated, but that hasn’t stopped them from hurting his political career ever since.
His subsequent imprisonment sparked violent street protests, with supporters comparing his ordeal to that of Nelson Mandela.
This first conviction was overturned by a court in 2004, a year after Mahathir left office for the first time, but it was not the last time Anwar found himself behind bars.
After his return as an opposition figure, more allegations of sodomy were leveled against him and – after a protracted court battle that took place over the years – he was returned to prison in 2014.
What happened next is perhaps one of the most remarkable shifts in the country’s political history.
In a stunning turn – with Anwar still behind bars – he and Mahathir joined the 2018 elections to try to topple the government of Najib Razak, whose administration has been embroiled in a corruption scandal surrounding state investment fund 1 Malaysia Development Berhad. 1MDB).
As part of his pledge in his election campaign, Mahathir pledged that if they succeeded, he would release Anwar and even step down from him after two years in power. Mahathir stuck to his first promise — a royal pardon released Anwar shortly after the election — but reneged on his second, a shift that divided their supporters and fueled a stalemate that has impeded all efforts to form a stable government ever since.
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 multiculturalism.
Malaysia has long adopted a policy of institutional affirmative action in favor of the ethnic Malay majority over its Malay Chinese and Malay Indo minorities.
And overcoming decades of polarization over race, religion and reform in the Muslim-majority country will not be easy – not least because experts do not rule out attempts by rivals in his new government to topple his leadership.
While two-thirds of the members of Anwar’s government will be made up of members of his reformist Pakatan Harapan coalition, he agreed in a gesture of national unity that the remaining posts will be given to members of the regional Gabungan Rakyat Sabah party and – perhaps most surprisingly – representatives of the Barisan National Alliance, which includes many of the organization’s politicians. UMN so much that he did much to overthrow him.
“He’s entering into a very unstable political alliance in a fragmented landscape,” said Oh, the political commentator.
The recent election results showed just how divided the country is.
“He now has the difficult task of navigating and balancing progressive sectors with conservative religious forces.”
Internationally, rights groups welcomed Anwar’s appointment and his pledge to prioritize human rights and democracy.
“This is a leader who has personally suffered grave politically motivated grievances,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
The rights group hoped Anwar would “introduce reforms to laws and regulations that have been used in the past to criminalize the peaceful exercise of civil and political rights,” Robertson said, citing issues such as discrimination against transgender and LGBTQ communities, treatment of migrant workers, child marriage, and refugee laws.
“One would hope that lessons were learned from the previous Pakatan Harapan government, which faltered after two years in power,” said Robertson.
“We hope that Anwar will move forward with his vision, and realize that he has been elected to work on his programs and policies, and carry out his mandate.”
Domestically, at least for the time being, the celebratory mood continues amid optimism that years of political chaos and uncertainty may finally be in the past.
“Malaysians can hope that a feud that risks spiraling out of control loses some oxygen now — or at least it won’t come from hard-line nationalists within the organization at the moment,” said Malaysian journalist Amirul Raslan, adding that “unlike Mahathir, I can see (Anwar) moves politics away from focusing on race.”
He called Anwar’s new government, which includes former enemies, “unprecedented,” and added, “Anwar is the right man for our divided country.”