Anwar Ibrahim once seemed a certainty to rule Malaysia. Then came his arrest and imprisonment. Now, with his party shaking up the establishment, is he set to finally fulfil his ambition? By Mark Baker.
Rabble rousing … Anwar Ibrahim on the hustings in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Austral Press
It's nearing midnight in Penang. In a park surrounded by decaying concrete apartment blocks, a swelling crowd waits patiently amid the sticky heat and pungent aromas of food stalls, traffic fumes and open drains. This is a poor Malay neighbourhood, but there are Chinese and Indians here, too, a representative cross-section of multiracial Malaysia.
Suddenly a slim figure in dark trousers and white shirt emerges from the darkness through a side gate and the crowd erupts in jubilation, clapping, cheering and sounding horns. A squad of armed security men guides him through the crush and up towards the fluorescent glare of a makeshift stage. "There have been attacks by provocateurs at other meetings. We have to be careful," says a senior aide.
Anwar Ibrahim sits down briefly on the rough grass among the sweating youths in the front rows. He then mounts the stage, takes a microphone and steps back down to stand facing the crowd. "I will stay down here. This is better," he says. The audience roars approval at the intimacy of his gesture. "The time has come for change," he declares. "We can create a new environment. We can change the political landscape of this country. We can end the corruption, the cronyism, the wasteful spending. Enough! Enough! Enough!"
Friends in high places … Anwar (at left) with his then mentor Mahathir Mohamad (at right) in 1997. Photo: AFP
The day after this, thousands of people bussed in from across peninsular Malaysia will assemble in a stadium in Kuala Lumpur to hear a formal speech by Prime Minister Najib Razak, head of the Barisan Nasional coalition government. They will all have party-issued gift bags and party-issued "We Love BN" banners, and they will all applaud on cue for national TV. But tonight Anwar Ibrahim, leader of Pakatan Rakyat, Malaysia's tri-party opposition alliance, is giving a one-man show and no one has been paid to come.
He has no prepared speech. He speaks with passion from a script lived hard over long years of imprisonment and political exile. But there is no bitterness to it. Anwar jokes and teases the crowd and they lap it up.
He quotes Lincoln on the impossibility of fooling all of the people all of the time. He sings unaccompanied a version of a popular Malay song about trees shaking in the wind. But this time it's Najib who is shaking - to winds of change being fanned by Anwar Ibrahim. The assembled crowd reverberates with laughter.
The journey to this moment began 15 years ago when Anwar, then Malaysia's deputy prime minister, anointed successor to Mahathir Mohamad, and one of the rising stars of Asian politics, was abruptly sacked by his mentor and accused of corruption and sex offences. Then came prison, two trials, a further ban from political office and unending vilification by former friends and colleagues. That journey will reach a conclusion on Sunday, May 5, when Malaysians vote in the most closely fought election since the country gained independence from Britain in 1957.
In January last year, Anwar returned to the austere chambers of Kuala Lumpur's High Court for the conclusion of his second trial on charges of sexual misconduct. He arrived to find the court registrar and her deputy in tears. "We will pray for you, sir," they whispered to him.
The women, like many of Anwar's supporters, were convinced the charges were politically motivated and that his conviction was inevitable. The accusation that Anwar had had sex with a former male aide was raised just months after the opposition scored big gains in the 2008 national elections and as Anwar prepared to return to parliament in a by-election.
But the verdict, after an exhausting two-year trial, was to shock everyone. Justice Mohamad Zabidin Mohd Diah stepped into the court and spoke for just 90 seconds. He declared DNA evidence submitted by the prosecution to be unreliable and acquitted Anwar. "Thank God it didn't succeed," says Anwar. "That would have been the finish for me. Everyone was convinced I would be convicted and I still don't know why I wasn't. Maybe it was the judge's conscience in the end."
There was no such judicial introspection a decade earlier, when Anwar was convicted and jailed on charges that he and his supporters insist were fabricated.
The relationship between Malaysia's longest-serving prime minister and his deputy fell apart in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. As finance minister, Anwar had committed to austerity measures suggested by the Inter-national Monetary Fund to rescue the battered Malaysian economy. But Mahathir claimed the cause of the problem was a conspiracy by global financiers and backed a slew of lavish bailouts for failing Malaysian corporations, including his son's shipping company. Anwar also upset Mahathir by moving to tackle widespread corruption in the government and embracing political and social reform, as many Malaysians cheered the unrest that brought down the Suharto regime in Indonesia in May 1998.
Pucker up … young boys kiss the hand of Anwar in his Penang electorate. Photo: Vincent Thian
Mahathir abruptly sacked Anwar that September. Three days later, police used tear gas and water cannon to break up the biggest protest rally in Malaysia's history as more than 50,000 people took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur in support of Anwar. Malaysia's reformasi movement was born.
That night, Anwar was arrested and detained. A week later he appeared in court with a black eye, the result of a beating in prison by police inspector general Rahim Noor (Rahim was later jailed for two months for the assault). He was eventually sentenced to six years' jail for abusing his ministerial position by directing police special branch officers to pressure witnesses to retract allegations that he'd had sex with his family's driver and an illicit affair with the wife of his private secretary (both homosexuality and adultery remain criminal offences in Malaysia). A subsequent trial saw him also convicted for the sexual offences themselves.