Anwar: The man who would be king

Dennis Ignatius, FMT

There is, of course, no love lost between Mahathir and Anwar. All Mahathir’s suspicions and doubts about Anwar appear to be fully reciprocated. Anwar insists that people are deliberately playing up differences between him and Mahathir as part of a ploy to divide them but he shouldn’t blame anyone for simply reading the writings on the wall.

After all, though he keeps insisting that he has an excellent relationship with Mahathir, Mahathir himself has said little. It must also have come as quite a shock to Anwar that Mahathir was so dismissive (on the BBC Hard Talk show recently) of Anwar’s carefully crafted narrative of reconciliation between the two. When asked about it, Mahathir said simply, “That was his [Anwar’s] opinion.” It certainly looks like a case of unrequited love.

Despite all his talk of forgiveness and having excellent relations with his former mentor, his discomfort is quite obvious when he talks about Mahathir. He must surely find it galling, to say the least, that the very man who humiliated and jailed him is now back in office, and being hailed as a saviour to boot, while he is still expected to prove himself worthy of the premiership despite all he has had to endure.

‘Reformasi’ was, after all, born out of his struggle against Mahathir; it cannot be easy, therefore, for him to watch Mahathir reap the rewards of his struggle while he is still blowing in the wind.

He admitted as much recently when he said he thought he, instead of Mahathir, should have been sworn in on May 10th. He later said it was just a joke but many think it was simply a Freudian slip.

Getting back into the fray

According to his own announcements, Anwar’s plan was to initially take the high road – give lectures, reconnect with world leaders, act as the voice of ‘reformasi’ while waiting his turn at the top job.

However, he realised soon enough that unless he quickly re-joins the fray, he could be sidelined yet again by his old nemesis. Besides, it would be just too messy for him to claim the throne from outside parliament should, God forbid, anything happen to Mahathir. Hence the rush to get back to parliament via the “move to PD.”

The most logical way to ensure that he succeeds Mahathir is, of course, to park himself in the DPM’s seat as quickly as possible. After all, he is now president of Pakatan’s largest party. However, he apparently has no desire to play second fiddle to Mahathir or be constrained by serving in Mahathir’s cabinet. Besides, as we all know, under Mahathir, the DPM’s post can quickly turn into a political burial ground.

Time not on his side

In view of this, Anwar appears to have settled on a rather puzzling solution: Mahathir to conduct “the affairs of state” while he “ensure[s] parliamentary reform is effective.” What that means in practice is, of course, unclear but it allows him the illusion of being active while waiting his turn. Interestingly, Mahathir himself has said little about this division of responsibilities.

In the meantime, Anwar needs someone he can trust in the DPM’s seat if only to block other contenders from climbing the ladder; hence his refusal to allow his spouse to vacate her parliamentary seat for him. Only time will tell whether this strategy will work but time is clearly not on his side. The longer he waits, the less his chances of becoming PM are.

The move to PD

His move to PD is also not without risk. If there’s a low voter turnout (something that is quite normal in by-elections) or if he wins with a less than impressive margin, his detractors will claim that voters are not too enthusiastic about his candidature. In this sense, PD will be his first big test and he will certainly pull out all the stops to win, and win big.

In the meantime, the stop-Anwar campaign is already well underway. In recent weeks, there has been an upsurge in social media attacks against him, another scurrilous “50 reasons why” tome and a “Siapa Anwar” video regurgitating all the old accusations of sexual misconduct. As well, fake reports of unexplained wealth and multiple bank accounts across the world are suddenly in circulation again.

The entry of disgraced former Menteri Besar Isa Samad and the odious Saiful Bukhari in the PD by-election is also not happening by coincidence. They are both there to cause Anwar maximum embarrassment and possibly reduce his margin of victory. That even an obnoxious character with zero credibility like Saiful Bukhari would be thrown in against Anwar is an indication of the forces that are arrayed against him.

Anwar’s dilemma

In many ways, Anwar is in a no-win situation. If he keeps quiet and out of the fray, he might well be sidelined. If he keeps reminding the country of his status as heir-apparent, he is seen as impatient. The more he professes support for Mahathir, the more people question his support. He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

It’s a delicate road to walk admittedly and he appears to be having trouble getting the balance right. His comments about what he intends to do when he takes over, for example, – legislative amendments, countries he plans to visit, reshuffling the cabinet, etc. – do not seem to have gone down well with the public. They see it as further signs of his impatience, even an attempt to undermine Mahathir.

He is also not helping himself by talking about amending anti-sodomy laws, for example. Of course, the anti-sodomy laws have been abused and are outdated but he ought to know better than to champion its repeal, especially given that his political foes are still using the old sodomy allegations to discredit him.

On the outside looking in

As incumbent, Mahathir has the upper hand and the power of patronage. As well, by pushing ahead with institutional reform and making inspired appointments, Mahathir continues to enjoy widespread popular approval and, to all intents and purposes, remains unassailable. In fact, the longer he stays in office, the stronger he becomes.

Anwar, as the man on the outside trying to come in, has a much harder task. He has to navigate the minefield of Malay politics, keep from antagonising the non-Malays and all while going head to head with the most adroit Malaysian politician of all time.

His greatest challenge, however, is overcoming the negative perception that many still have of him, particularly that he is “a man for all audiences” as one commentator derisively put it. And it’s not just the “super liberals” (the new catch-all term for anyone who opposes him) that he has to worry about.

The fact is the nation remains deeply divided over his quest for the top job. Despite the great injustice that was visited upon him, Malaysians appear to have, at best, mixed feelings about him – they are absolutely delighted he is out of prison; they are not so sure they want him as prime minister.

It is also no small irony that Malaysians have been willing to forgive Mahathir despite their view that he bears much responsibility for the mess we are in but seem unwilling to wholeheartedly embrace the reformist who set in motion the events that led to the new Malaysia.

Fate, as they say, can be a cruel mistress.

Dennis Ignatius is a former ambassador.