International Herald Tribune, September 4, 2004
By Philip Bowring
HONG KONG The 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 opportunism?
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 against him.
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 of Malaysia.
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.