The rise again of Malaysian reformer Anwar

Anwar Ibrahim was once one of Asia’s fastest-rising political stars, a popular Malaysian reformer whose image fronted Time magazine in 1997 as “The Future of Asia” – a status knocked down a year later when he was charged with corruption and sodomy.



On Monday, a court acquitted him of second set of sodomy charges in a decision that will continue the remarkable comeback of the charismatic 64-year-old father of six, who first rose to prominence in the 1970s as a student radical.

Anwar had once been tipped to take over from then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad . But in 1998, in the wake of a campaign in Malaysia to root out corruption following the Asian financial crisis, his mentor sacked him as deputy prime minister and finance minister and leveled the first set of charges that would derail his ascent.

Images at the time of the goateed, bespectacled Anwar appearing in court with a black eye and bruises sparked international outrage. Human rights groups condemned his six-years behind bars.

But a court overturned those charges in 2004, freeing him to resume a political comeback.

He again squared off against Malaysia’s judicial system on Monday, facing new charges of sodomy. Anwar called the charges by a former aide a “vile and despicable attempt at character assassination” aimed at stifling the opposition.

Many observers expected he would again be found guilty.

But Judge Mohamad Zabidin Diah ruled in his favor in a trial that captivated the Muslim-majority, multi-racial nation of 28 million people where sodomy is illegal even among consenting adults, and punishable by 20 years in jail.

Thousands of Anwar’s supporters celebrated outside the court after threatening mass protests, a sharp change from the late 1990s when his downfall provoked protests and fanned discontent in the long-dominant United Malays National Organization, now led by Prime Minister Najib Razak.


Anwar has promoted a rival vision for Malaysia that would abolish or scale back its most authoritarian laws and scrap a system of ethnic preferences for majority Malays that ethnic-Chinese and ethnic-Indian Malaysians say is unfair.

Anwar has said his party could be strengthened if the court had ruled against him with an economic showdown already threatening to damage the ruling coalition in elections expected this year.

“Society will say: ‘Okay, you may disagree with Anwar but you don’t need to beat him up or continue to put him in prison.’ This is my third, fourth time, they know it’s political,” Anwar said of the electorate in a recent interview with Reuters.

A large majority of Malaysians surveyed in opinion polls believe the charges against are politically motivated.


In 1998, Anwar took up a campaign against the corruption, collusion and nepotism he said characterized Malaysia’s business and political nexus.

Mahathir immediately sacked him from his posts, and charges of sodomy and corruption soon followed — allegations Anwar insists were concocted to thwart his “reformasi” (reform) campaign.

After his previous sodomy conviction was overturned in 2004, he quickly returned to politics as the head of a revitalized, multi-ethnic opposition centered around Islamists and secular social reformers whose strong showing in 2008’s elections deprived the ruling National Front of its traditional two-thirds majority in parliament.

That put Anwar’s three-party coalition tantalizingly close to a parliamentary majority, challenging the government now led by Najib whose coalition has controlled Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957.

Shortly after that election result, former aide Saiful Bukhari Azlan filed a criminal complaint accusing Anwar of sodomizing him.

Anwar was born on August 10, 1947, in northern Penang island, the son of a hospital porter who later became a member of parliament. He attended one of Malaysia’s top schools, and made his name as a firebrand Islamic youth leader.

He was jailed for 20 months from 1974 under Malaysia’s sweeping Internal Security Act for leading anti-government demonstrations against impoverished conditions in the north.

Mahathir invited him to join the United Malays National Organization, the main government party, in 1982 to bridge the gap between the party’s Malay nationalist image and its rising Islamic aspirations.

Under Mahathir’s charge, Anwar’s rise was meteoric. He held a string of senior cabinet posts, including the ministries of agriculture and education, and had been finance minister since 1991 before being sacked.