Anwar Ibrahim, probably Malaysia’s greatest comeback kid

By Leslie Lau
Consultant Editor

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 31 — On a hot night in March, at the height of the general election campaign, about two hundred people stood on the lane outside a block of flats in Section 17 in Petaling Jaya near here, and waited patiently for the arrival of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

The crowd, though small, was enthusiastic when Anwar arrived and immediately addressed them with the kind of energy and polish which makes him probably one of the most talented and gifted politician this country has seen.

Still, it was hard to imagine then how he would once again in his career make the kind of comeback that would galvanise the disparate opposition and put the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) on the back foot for much of the year.

No, Anwar was not the single biggest factor which caused BN to lose their traditional two-thirds majority in Parliament and also cede control of five states to the combined opposition of PKR, DAP and Pas.

Credit, or blame, if you will, probably goes to high oil prices, simmering racial tensions, and the weak leadership of Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi as well as one of the worst campaigns in the history of BN.

But it was Anwar who seized the opportunity to unite the opposition after the election results, and created this new animal in Malaysian politics known as a two-party system, through the formation of the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance.

By the time he addressed a public rally soon after the election in Kampung Baru here, thousands had turned up to hear him speak. The public could smell a winner and were gravitating to the aura of near invincibility he had created.

So confident was he that he launched an attack against Umno’s Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Supremacy) philosophy, in a neighbourhood which has become the symbol of Malay nationalism in the country.

He said then that his fledgling PR coalition would offer Malaysians the philosophy of Ketuanan Rakyat, and the mainly Malay crowd cheered him on.

Anwar had clearly captured the imagination of the public.

Soon after that, Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister announced to the world that the PR coalition would take power by Sept 16 by engineering a series of mass defections from BN.

In every corner of the country, the public, supporters and detractors alike, were clearly captivated by Anwar.

In July, the drama that has become Anwar’s life reached new heights when news broke of a new sodomy allegation against him.

This time, an aide claimed he had been sodomised by Anwar.

Alleging a consipiracy, Anwar responded by seeking temporary refuge at the Turkish embassy here. He turned up in public eventually and was formally charged in court for sodomy.

But the sodomy allegations did not stop him from winning by a landslide his old constituency of Permatang Pauh in a by-election.

Against all odds, Anwar returned to Parliament, and stepped up his rhetoric that the PR alliance would take power by Sept 16.

He caused such unprecedented panic among BN leaders that the backbenchers group organised a “tour” of Taiwan in September to prevent their lawmakers from defecting. But Sept 16 came and went without incident. There were no defections and BN remained in power.

He stopped talking about taking over the government.

Aside from the occasional press statement and his appearances in Parliament, Anwar appears now to have lost his hold on the public’s imagination.

The public’s attention has also shifted to that of the economy. Few have any appetite left for politics as they prepare to face the economic uncertainties ahead.

Without the spell of Anwar, the PR alliance are also beginning to openly squabble over the kind of fundamental differences which were on the back burner just months earlier.

His supporters say Anwar is regrouping and planning new strategies to take on BN. His detractors are once again writing him off.

Still, as Malaysia’s year of change draws to a close, it is probably wise to say anything can happen.

A man who can become the leader of the strongest Federal Opposition this country has seen in 51 years just four years after being released from jail cannot be written off.

The comeback kid of 2008 could well make another comeback.