It’s a decades-long political journey – the transformation of a young student firecracker into an icon of democracy and eventually his country’s leader, via two stints in prison.
Now 75, Anwar Ibrahim has finally achieved his dream of becoming the 10th Prime Minister of Malaysia.
And in his first words after being sworn in on Thursday, he made it clear that he intends not to dwell on the divisions of the past, but to focus on the future with a cabinet that will include his former political enemies.
“This is a government of national unity and all are welcome on condition that they accept the basic rules: good governance, no corruption and a Malaysia for all Malaysians,” Anwar said as he vowed to heal a racially divided nation to fight corruption and revitalize an economy still struggling to recover from the pandemic.
“No one should be marginalized under my government,” he vowed.
Anwar’s appointment comes almost a week after a tumultuous general election that resulted in the first parliament in Malaysia’s history.
His reformist and multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan coalition won the most seats – 82 – in last week’s vote but failed to achieve the simple majority needed to form a government, meaning Anwar could only be appointed after the intervention of the Malaysian king .
Observers say he will run out of work if he is to bridge the divisions that have made him the fourth prime minister since 2018, when a landmark election ousted the Barisan Nasional coalition for the first time since independence amid anger over a multi-billion dollar financial scandal at the state investment fund.
“This has been by far the most fragmented, volatile and dangerous period in Malaysian politics,” said political commentator Ei Sun Oh. “While many welcome the appointment of a progressive and reformist candidate, this will not be the end of the troubles.”
“Political squabbles and power struggles will continue and Anwar is tasked with healing deep wounds and rifts between progressives and conservatives,” he added.
Born on August 10, 1947 on the island of Penang, Anwar began his political career as a student activist leading various Muslim youth groups in Kuala Lumpur. He was once arrested for his role in leading demonstrations against rural poverty and hunger.
Years later, he surprised many by making a foray into mainstream politics, joining the Malaysian nationalist party UMNO (United Malays National Organization), led by then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – a man who would become both Anwar’s mentor and nemesis should.
Anwar’s rise within the party was rapid and he was soon promoted to various senior ministerial posts, becoming Deputy Prime Minister in 1993.
At this point it was widely expected that Anwar would succeed Mahathir, but the two men began to quarrel over issues such as corruption and the economy.
Tensions increased further when the Asian financial crisis hit the country in 1997 and Anwar was fired from Mahathir’s cabinet and expelled from UMNO in 1998.
He then began leading public protests against Mahathir – a move that signaled the beginning of a new pro-democracy movement.
In the same year, Anwar was arrested and imprisoned without trial and charged with corruption and sodomy. Even when committed consensually, sodomy is a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison in majority-Muslim Malaysia.
He has always firmly denied the allegations, claiming they were politically motivated, but that hasn’t stopped them from plaguing his political career ever since.
His subsequent imprisonment sparked violent street protests, with supporters comparing his plight to that of Nelson Mandela.
That first conviction was overturned by a court in 2004, a year after two-time leader Mahathir first left office, but it would not be the last time Anwar was behind bars.
After his return to opposition, more sodomy allegations were leveled against him and – after a lengthy trial spanning a period of years – he returned to prison in 2014.
What happened next is perhaps one of the most remarkable turning points in the country’s political history.
In a stunning twist – with Anwar still behind bars – he and Mahathir joined forces for the 2018 elections to overthrow the government of Najib Razak, whose government was embroiled in a corruption scandal surrounding state-owned investment fund 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) .
As part of his campaign pledge, Mahathir vowed that if they were successful, he would free Anwar and even step down for him after a few years in power. Mahathir stuck to the first promise – a royal pardon freed Anwar shortly after the election – but backed down on the second, a reversal that divided her supporters and fueled the stalemate that has haunted all efforts to form a stable government ever since .
Among his first pledges as Malaysia’s new prime minister, Anwar said he would not accept a salary to show his solidarity with Malaysians struggling with the rising cost of living.
He also pledged to help the country embrace multiculturalism.
Malaysia has long had a policy of institutionalized affirmative action that favors the ethnic Malay majority over its sizeable Sino-Malaysian and Indo-Malaysian minorities.
And overcoming decades of racial, religious and reform polarization in the Muslim-majority nation will not be easy – not least because pundits do not rule out attempts by rivals in his new government to overthrow his leadership.
While two-thirds of Anwar’s cabinet will be made up of members of his reformist Pakatan Harapan coalition, in a gesture of national unity he has agreed that the remaining posts will go to members of the regional Gabungan Rakyat Sabah party and – perhaps more surprisingly – coalition officials Barisan Nasional, who includes several UMNO politicians whom he did so much to overthrow.
“He’s entering into a very uneasy political alliance in a fragmented landscape,” said Oh, the political commentator.
“The recent election results have only shown how divided the country is.
“He now has the difficult task of navigating and balancing the progressive sectors with the conservative religious forces.”
Internationally, human rights groups have welcomed Anwar’s appointment and his pledge to prioritize human rights and democracy.
“This is a leader who has personally suffered massive, politically motivated injustices,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Robertson said the rights group hoped Anwar would bring “reforms to the laws and regulations historically used to criminalize the peaceful exercise of civil and political rights,” citing issues such as discrimination against transgender and gay communities, the treatment of migrant workers and child marriage and refugee law.
“One hopes that lessons have been learned from the previous Pakatan-Harapan government, which faltered after two years in power,” Robertson said.
“We hope that Anwar will move forward with his vision, recognize that he was elected to implement its programs and policies, and carry out his mandate.”
And domestically, the celebratory mood is holding on, at least for now, amid optimism that years of political chaos and uncertainty may finally be a thing of the past.
“Malaysians can hope that the discord, which is in danger of spiraling out of control, will now lose some air – or at least not for the time being from the hard-line nationalists within the UMNO,” said Malaysian journalist Amirul Ruslan, adding: “In the Unlike Mahathir, I can see (Anwar) moving politics away from racialism.”
He described Anwar’s new government of former enemies as “unprecedented”, adding: “Anwar is the right man for our divided country.”