Anwar Ibrahim, the pro-democracy icon who unleashed Malaysia’s reformist movement now in power, has vowed to make dissent a welcome part of the new ruling coalition in a distinct break from its predecessor.
In a wide-ranging interview with This Week in Asia, Anwar said there was little hierarchy in the top echelons of the Pakatan Harapan alliance and among its four constituent parties – making it vastly different from the Barisan Nasional alliance that had governed the country for 61 years until the May 9 general election.
Barisan Nasional was dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), and some critics have suggested former prime minister Najib Razak’s stifling of criticism within the linchpin party and the broader alliance was a main reason for his defeat.
“The cultural and political environment in Pakatan Harapan is completely different from Umno and Barisan Nasional,” Anwar said during the 45-minute interview in the headquarters of his Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party) near Kuala Lumpur.
“Umno used to dictate policies and the others are more submissive and timid,” Anwar said, referring to smaller Barisan Nasional component parties. “In Pakatan, we are there as equals,” said the veteran politician, who holds the title of “de facto leader” of Pakatan Harapan.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who ruled Malaysia with an iron fist as Barisan Nasional leader during his first stint in power from 1981 to 2003, “has accepted that the political culture and landscape has changed,” Anwar said.
The current ruling coalition has its roots in the Reformasi movement Anwar spearheaded in the late 1990s when he was acrimoniously sacked as deputy prime minister by Mahathir and later jailed for corruption and sodomy – convictions he says were set up to keep him and his reform agenda out of Malaysian politics.
On May 16 he was freed after another stint in prison that began in 2015, after the new government obtained a royal pardon for him.
Anwar was again jailed for sodomy – and as with the previous instance he says the conviction was concocted to put him in cold storage.
Now, similar internal dissenters will not be shafted out but “will be given space and latitude to articulate their views”.
“Particularly when you deal with the young, you must give them the space and latitude. Often times I disagree, it’s not easy to agree all the time, for even Nurul Izzah [Anwar’s daughter] to agree with me.”
Nurul Izzah is a third-term MP now holding the seat of Permatang Pauh, Anwar’s former stronghold in Penang before he was thrown in prison.
“But it’s a different generation … if you want them to succeed you must give them space,” Anwar said.
However, there is one area where he is unlikely tolerate dissent, his decision against setting a deadline for when he is expected to take the reins from Mahathir, who turns 93 on July 10.
Pakatan Harapan had pledged in its manifesto that Anwar would succeed Mahathir within two years.
In interviews since his release from prison, however, Anwar has refused to offer detailed plans on the power transition.
“Why don’t I entertain a time frame? The moment you mention that there is an agreement of one year, or two years, then the six months before that that prime minister will become a lame duck.”
He said however that it was “set clearly” that he would be a candidate in the next general election as prime minister.
“By the time there is next elections I am supposed to lead, God willing I am in good health, and I am supposed to be in charge.”
On the country’s entrenched racial politics – Barisan Nasional’s main parties were communal-based – Anwar said he was optimistic given the “multiracial wave” that had supported his alliance in the 2013 elections as well as the recent poll.
“It would take time, of course. The sensitivities are still there.”
He added: “What we need to also emphasise is that the race card is used by authoritarian regimes when they tend to become more irrelevant or corrupt.”
Asked if the Reformasi movement’s success could be emulated by pro-democracy outfits in other Southeast Asian countries with long-ruling, less democratic governments, Anwar said “a particular model or experience in a particular political environment cannot just be applied at random”.
“The sustaining power, the courage of conviction, the tenacity to move on – these things people can emulate, not me necessarily, but throughout the centuries great statesmen, leaders and philosophers who promoted these views or teachings had to endure particular hardships.”