Thursday, 10 July 2008

Anwar Ibrahim: Messiah or Betrayer?

Three days ago, Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar denied ever calling Anwar Ibrahim an American spy. It’s good that he has clarified on that but he is still on record to have used the term "tukang lapor to America" (a US 'snitch') to describe Anwar during a press conference last week. Thus, I still believe that the Minister, as well as many other UMNO members, subconsciously at least are still convinced that Anwar Ibrahim is indeed a spy.

Personally, I find that very odd because Anwar’s relationship with people in Washington DC has never been a secret. His friendship with Paul Wolfowitz, Colin Powell, Al Gore, William Cohen and many others are so well known, and this has never been denied neither by Anwar nor by any of these American political figures. Would a spy want to be seen in public to be close to officials from the country he is working with? If Anwar really is a US spy, then he must be one of the worse ever. Yes, I am aware that he was given a 21-gun salute when he visited Pentagon in 1998, he warmly embraced Michel Camdessus (former chief of the International Monetary Fund) when the latter visited Malaysia (also) in 1998, and he was (until recently) Chairman of the Foundation of the Future (an organization funded the US State Department). All these are true but are they evidenced enough that Anwar is a spy?

Of more relevance is to make sense of Anwar’s political standing. Anwar Ibrahim is indeed a complex character. His opponents often describe him as a political chameleon while his supporters would revere him as an international statesman. Whichever, the fact is, Anwar Ibrahim is a person who seems to be friends with everybody – Democrats, Republicans and Neo-Cons in America, Liberals and Conservatives in Britain and Australia, Sunni and Shi’ah Muslims, Indians and Pakistanis, secular Muslims and Muslim fundamentalists, Buddhists and Communists, Protestants and Catholics, Hindus and Muslims in India, and the Jews (as claimed by Tun Dr. Mahathir). Sanusi Junid once told a group of IIUM students that even the Prophet SAW was not able to make friends with everyone. Thus, according to him Malaysians and Muslims all over the world should always be suspicious of Anwar.

To be able to make friends with anyone regardless of their religious and political beliefs: is it a strength or a weakness?

As I wrote in my earlier posting, I was not a fan of Anwar. But the events of 1998 intrigued me to know more about him. I read his Asian Renaissance and the various letters and articles he wrote from prison. I read too many different materials (positive and negative) about him written by others. In the end, the impression I got was Anwar Ibrahim (as his trusted aid Khalid Jaafar has described) is not only a political figure, but a one-man political institution. He is a unique Muslim leader who embraces the virtues of traditional Islam while appreciating the views of the purist, an idealistic Muslim intellectual who upholds the principles of human rights and global ethic while remaining rooted to his Malay-Muslim cultural traditions, and a diplomatic figure who is willing and able to engage with anyone on any topic and yet equally able to state his disagreement while remaining in friendly terms with those he disagrees with. Anwar Ibrahim therefore is an amalgamation of different and (at times) opposing political beliefs and ideologies. Strange indeed, but true.

That he is a remarkable and brilliant politician is of no doubt even to his most severe critics. Current Foreign Minister Rais Yatim, in his pictorial book Faces in the Corridors of Power published in 1987, described Anwar Ibrahim at the time as Malaysia’s most promising politician. He even said “in a decade, if not earlier, Anwar should expect to be at the top.” When he was incarcerated in 1998, the respectable Aliran Monthly magazine in its editorial in October 1998 wrote that Malaysians will now see the real Anwar Ibrahim. The article further stated that when he was the Deputy Prime Minister, he was assisted by a group of experts and advisors as well as the support of government machinery. Now that he is on his own, Malaysians will be able to see Anwar’s true capabilities (I’m sorry that I’m unable to quote in verbatim as I have lost my copy of the magazine but I’m quite certain this was written in the magazine’s October 1998 edition).

If 1998 and the following six years was some kind of an examination, Anwar surely had passed the test with flying colours. Anyone who saw or read the way he answered questions in court when he skillfully took on both Gani Patail and Mohtar Abdullah, would definitely agree with me. In addition, we also have the numerous letters and articles that he wrote (obviously by himself) from his prison cell, which have now become classical documents renowned for its sharp arguments and lucid presentation.

Anwar Ibrahim may not have been a brilliant student (many of his former classmates at University Malaya would be more than happy to tell you that), but he is indeed an outstanding leader whose ability to inspire and mobilize others is equal to none. Can anyone think of anyone else but Anwar who is able to attract tens and thousands of Malaysians from all racial groups to hear him speak even when they have to sit on a muddy field under the rain? What I saw in Batu, Kuala Lumpur on 6 March 2008 was just astounding (no need to bring in Siti Nurhaliza, Mawi and big buffets).

More importantly, I believe Anwar Ibrahim is a genuinely intelligent man, whose grasp on various issues (economics, philosophy, literature and religion) is very impressive. One would realize this simply by observing how he articulates his ideas in his speeches (which he mostly writes himself) and his sharp responses to questions during interviews and press conferences. He was not a straight ‘A’ student, but he is known to have sought personal guidance and tuition from scholars and experts from various fields. That I believe is worth much more than just getting an ‘A’ from a class, or having a fancy degree from Oxford University for that matter. He is therefore to me, genuine, not artificial (as Khairy Jamaluddin once alleged).

Hence, if friends and students were to ask me who I would like to see as the next Prime Minister of Malaysia, my answer is Anwar Ibrahim. I understand the views of Malay nationalists who feel that Anwar is now a liberal Malay Muslim whose critical views against the New Economic Policy (NEP) are too revolutionary. When a group of people has lived for so long in their own cocoon of comfort, any thought of changes to the status quo is just terrifying. I am a Malay, and yes I did benefit from the NEP and yes, I too have some concern about what my children have to face if the country adopts a system entirely based on meritocracy. Having said that, I accept wholeheartedly the wisdom of Anwar Ibrahim’s economic agenda particularly his emphasis on social justice for all Malaysians regardless of race and creed. As Anwar stressed in one of his speeches delivered while campaigning for the last general election: “Melayu mana yang nak bangkang kalau kita tolong orang-orang Cina dan India yang miskin?!” (Would any Malay protest if we assist the poor amongst the Chinese and Indians?!)

Islam is a religion that promotes universal justice, not special privileges for a selected few, and certainly not special privileges based on ethnicity or some mythical claim of 'prince-hood of the soil' (bumi-putera). For Anwar Ibrahim to promote a system based on meritocracy hence opposing the NEP that benefits the Malays exclusively, is indeed brave but is in fact the very minimum one should expect from a Muslim leader who acts firmly in accordance with the principles of Islam.

Having written all the above, some readers may well perceive that I am an Anwar-fanatic. I am very certain that I am not. I do think that the guy is great but I don’t necessarily like everything about him. I didn’t like it for example, when he kept on boasting about his academic tours around the world. I certainly thought he wasn’t making much sense with his grandiose promises of free education and many other unrealistic welfare policies. And I am strongly against his plan of taking over the federal government with the assistance of a bunch of party-hoppers (although I am persuaded to agree with Haris Ibrahim’s revised methodology). But I can tolerate all this. After all, Anwar Ibrahim is a human being and all human beings have weaknesses. And just because I support him does not mean that I have to agree with everything he does and says.

All-in-all, for what it’s worth, my humble opinion is Anwar Ibrahim is neither the messiah who will save Malaysia that some of his ardent fans think he is, nor is he the pengkhianat bangsa (betrayer of the Malay race) who will destroy the Malays as what some of his political enemies have portrayed him to be. He is, in my view a human being endowed by God with outstanding leadership qualities, who sincerely believes he can lead this country to achieve greater success and prosperity. Considering his colourful life experience, having gone through the journey from the corridors of power to the solitude of incarceration, and now free and back on the verge of greatness, I am curious to see what he can do. It would not be the end of the world if Anwar Ibrahim never becomes the country’s premier, but he will surely then forever remembered as the best Prime Minister that we never had.


Pewaris Reformasi said...


I like your piece of writing. DS Anwar, once claimed by Prof. Dr. Taha Jabir 'Ulwani is the new hope for Islam.

Somehow, he has to deal with the Malaysian's psyche..and he dares the challenge.

Bala Pillai said...

Anwar would one of the few in Malaysia who would be able to give a truthful unsuicidal answer to:-

Why has the Malay archipelago not produced a single quantum invention in over 500 years when before that it together with India & China was responsible for nearly all of them?

The rest are sleeping when it comes to the issues that matter most.

See 2005 speech at Malaysian Parliament at

Scroll to the bottom third of the page.

Zaki Samsudin said...

Mr. Pillai,

Thank you for the link.

Well, to be fair I think the assumption you inserted in your question: "before that it together with India & China was responsible for nearly all of them?", that's quite an exaggeration. Would love to know about that though if you have any interesting readings on it.

The people now are not 'sleeping' because of fatigue but because of collective and trans-generational sense of complacency, especially the Malays. I'll try to explore this hypothesis further in a future posting.

Thank you for dropping by.