Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister and now leader of the main opposition party, is about to arrive on stage but on the wall is a poster for an entirely unrelated event: “Mandela’s Way – Lessons on Life.” It seems a little uncanny: Anwar is no Mandela but life has certainly taught him many of the same lessons.
To the Malaysians gathered to hear him speak at the LSE, Anwar is a provocative figure: inspirational to many, but to others dangerous and divisive. All seem to agree, however, that he has had a rough ride. Anwar spent six years in jail from 1998 to 2004 on corruption and sodomy charges which nobody has ever really taken seriously, his real crime having been to disagree publicly with the country’s authoritarian ex-prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad.
In fact, the most common expression here is one of surprise that Anwar has even been able to show up in London. Despite Mahathir’s retirement, Malaysia’s rulers still despise Anwar, whom they see as the main challenge to their authority. Thus new sodomy charges were filed against him not long after his return to politics in 2009 following a five-year ban, while attempts are also afoot to have him booted out of parliament.
It is hard to imagine the story of Anwar reaching the same redemptive end as Mandela’s, with the victim inheriting his oppressors’ power: the Anwar bandwagon may simply lack the momentum to remove a government that has ruled Malaysia without interruption since 1957. Yet, listening to Anwar speak, it becomes easy to understand why Mahathir wanted to lock him up – and why his return to politics provoked such a violent reaction from the current leadership. For Anwar is an electrifying performer. Jail has not wrung the humour out of him, and he is very sharp, leavening references to philosophy and the Quran with some pretty good gags (“I might have back ache,” he told the judges at his 1998 trial, “but at least I have a back bone!”).
Someone in the audience asks Anwar how he can possibly hope to dislodge such an all-powerful government machine. “Be more positive, la!” he jokes, glossing over the reality that his comeback trail is more likely to lead back to prison than to the prime minister’s chair. Another asks whether Malaysia’s biased judiciary can ever be curbed. “Of course,” he declares. “When Pakatan [Anwar's party] takes over!”
Anwar is no Aung San Suu Kyi either; but when he is asked about South-east Asian governments’ less-than-robust attempts to secure the Burmese opposition leader’s release, it seems almost as though he is recalling, with no little bitterness, his own predicament. “Why don’t we take a stand?” he implores. “Why are we silent against these atrocities?”Phrases such as “freedom of expression” and “human dignity” have become almost hackneyed in the lefty corridors of London’s universities, but coming from Anwar – who clearly knows what freedom’s worth – they acquire a new freshness. Even so, not all the Malaysians here are bowled over by his charismatic defence of liberty, pointing out that for 15 years he was a minister in the very government he is now so quick to criticise. “He’s just another politician,” one young man says confidingly. “He wants power, like the others.” Another observer is more neutral, fearing only that Anwar’s resurgence could threaten Malaysia’s stability.
Anwar admits that, as an insider for so long, he must accept a degree of complicity in the way Malaysia was run. “But I did not condone the excesses, and my wife and I never took a penny,” he insists.
Not all the Malaysians here think Anwar is the man to change their country, though many clearly do; and with another trial looming, he may not even be at liberty to take part in the country’s next election, due by 2013. What Anwar does do, however, is hold up a mirror to Malaysia’s leaders – and reflected back are some quite paranoid people who would sooner fight the opposition in court than through the political process. In that respect, he’s like Mandela after all.