It is Friday afternoon and a man in a white linen shirt, returning from prayers at the mosque, enters the third-floor office of the Pakatan Harapan, his hands clasped near his chest as he whispers, “Sorry, sorry, I have to change from my slippers first.” Everyone glances at his feet as he glides softly past to a side room to put on his office shoes. Those feet have walked the corridors of power as well as the confines of a tiny prison cell and may well now lead Malaysia on a path of freedom. Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister who spent cumulatively more than a decade in jail, is the de facto leader of the new ruling coalition of Malaysia.

According to a power-sharing arrangement made before the Pakatan Harapan coalition pulled off its stunning victory in the May 9 elections when it ousted the ruling Umno party that had been in power for more than six decades, Anwar will take over from Mahathir Mohamad in two years.

In the interlude, he will spend time with family and go on the lecture circuit. Next week, he will travel to London and then Turkey to give lectures and a visit to Stanford University in the fall is on the cards.

Anwar was a firebrand student leader who led attacks against Umno in his youth but later joined the Malay-based party and rose quickly to become a top leader. He was the deputy prime minister to Mahathir when he was summarily sacked at the height of the Asian financial crisis in 1998. He went on to launch a Reformasi movement for change, fighting against Mahathir.

Fast forward to the recent election and it was an alliance between Mahathir and Anwar that formed the centrepiece of the opposition coalition. It is a partnership people are still trying to grasp the significance of, not least, Anwar himself. He says, “Until now, I’m thinking it, are you sure I did it?”

In his younger days, his fiery oratory could mesmerise thousands. Anwar at 70 is gentle, exuding effortless charm. The force of his conviction remains unmistakable and it is understandable why, even when he was in prison and absent from the political stage, he remained the opposition’s talisman.

In this interview with Zuraidah Ibrahim and Bhavan Jaipragas , he talks about foreign policy, the hours spent in prison, the need to accommodate dissenting voices in the coalition for the sake of unity, and why moving with caution on dismantling race-based policies is the wiser option. An edited transcript:

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Q: What does freedom feel like?

A: Freedom can only be fully appreciated when you compare the years of incarceration and freedom. When you experience it, then you understand the value of freedom and what it means to the ordinary people. So I was ecstatic, I’m enjoying it. It’s good in a sense that I come out and I say to Tun Mahathir: you carry on, I want to move about as a free man, with the people, have programmes with the people, do what I want, say what I want without any inhibitions.

Q: What is the most pressing issue internationally?

A: I am privileged because the last week or so, many foreign friends and governments have been in touch. So naturally, you have to follow through, look at the notes, initial reports. I spent a day in Jakarta, meeting leaders and friends. I met Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and yesterday Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India. And of course at times, I accompanied the deputy PM, [Wan Azizah Wan Ismail].

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In government, they are working on some of the old projects, like in the case of Singapore and even China, which means they are back in the forefront. They need to forge better communications and relations with these countries, in the interest of cross-border investments and development programmes that would hopefully trickle down and assist people, particularly the poor and the marginalised. Another pressing issue, of course, if you look at my position, [is whether I can] help in containing extremism and terrorism. So I say I am not an expert in this field. But I believe that any religious understanding should not be used as a pretext or weapon to embark on aggressive, fanatical viewpoints. So I think they want me to play a small role in this part, in articulating issues, particularly how Islam can be practised in a moderate manner, in a democratic environment and not to condone any form of oppression or to condone extremism either as purveyors or perpetrators of terrorism.

Q: You are going on the lecture circuit. Will this topic be high on your agenda?

A: Yes and no. Because I don’t want to preclude discussions on other issues like on governance and accountability and the issue of East-West relations. Malaysia, after all, is a multi-religious country. Of course, I can articulate the issues on Islam … I can play a small role here but I want to extend beyond the confines of Islamic discourse.

Essentially, whatever politics or geopolitics, the issue is the welfare of the common people. Contending ideological forces often times ignore the plight of the majority. Poverty remains a problem although not as pressing as a decade before. Inequality is now becoming a major plight; health issues, transmigration, environment … so I see the pressing issue as one of security, a lot of concerns about terrorism, about backtracking on the move towards democracy, particularly in the Muslim world. So I believe the Malaysian experiment should be appealing to those Muslim masses and countries that would like to experience a democratic experiment.

Q: Is Malaysia nearing a post-ethnic or post-racial era?

A: It has been there. If you look at the election result of 2013, you can see the multiracial wave on the west coast. Ethnic or racist connotations to issues have always been a weapon of the ruling party, Umno. This is something we need to realise. So naturally, among the opposition, regardless of whether it is Keadilan (the People’s Justice Party) or DAP (the Democratic Action Party) or the others, you can always count on urban support. You can use any banner. But of course this time we used only one banner because the government refused to allow all the others. We landed with one banner and that helped us enormously, precisely because people would not get too confused with the existence of too many banners in one coalition.

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Q: Are the days of race-based politics numbered?

A: It will take time, of course. The sensitivities are still there. Now, with the more liberal outlook and a media that is free, there is also a growing Malay concern: is this a Chinese dominated government? Are we going to do away with all the privileges that Malays have? So that’s why I thought we need to be cautious. I was asked by the local TV stations whether I agreed that the UiTMs (public universities reserved for Malays) should be opened up to the non-Malays, my retort to that is: No 1, we need to have a stable government, No 2, we need to have input which can help build up this nation. So I think that is (being) multiracial itself. We need to emphasise that the racecard tends to be used by authoritarian regimes when they become more irrelevant or corrupt.

Q: Wouldn’t you agree PAS wields considerable power in the north and they have a base they can rely upon?

A: But they have lost their prestige as a national party. Beyond their core centres, they had very few areas that they were able to penetrate.

Q: After the excitement of Pakatan’s victory, what do you think is the biggest challenge now for the coalition?

A: It is to actualise and implement the promises, including the main pillar, the rule of law. There is a consensus on that. They need to do it. But there is also criticism that no money is being pumped to allow them to facilitate this progress.

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Q: Tell us more about being a free man now

A: One can understand and appreciate the meaning of freedom when one compares the experience of incarceration or un-freedom. In my case, I value it certainly much more than ordinary Malaysians and I am passionate about it. I don’t believe that any authority, government or political authority should rob any man or woman of his or her freedom. Freedom entails you having to decide for yourself what to do, what to eat, where to walk, what book to read. In prison, all those have been denied to you because there are rules, very rigid rules that will not enable you to do what you like, to say what you want, to express what you feel and that is so dehumanising. Freedom is part of the human endeavour. It must be part of our way of life.

Q: What was your most profound experience in prison?

A: Profound? I wouldn’t say profound. You feel you have lost everything. As I said, not only dehumanising but also degrading. And you really sense what is important to you – your wife, your kids and your grandkids, in my case, are not there. They are all absent. Of course, I also understand that this is part of the design and conspiracy of those … in power because this sort of political assassination and incarceration would embolden them, strengthen them because they would then cut off one of the pillars of the opposition coalition. But having said all this, it is not all that gloomy because what you decide to do … I made the decision I was going to use these years in prison, fully utilise the time, have a very rigid regime of meditation, reading and writing because, if not, what do you do the whole day? Checking eyes, and nose and teeth and whatever, every single problem, you start complaining, so a doctor would have to look at you. You won’t have time to do that outside and you’d have to pay for it. So I read. I was so fortunate because friends from all over the world, America, UK, Middle East, Hong Kong, they kept on sending me books. So the moment I received these books, I considered it part of my homework. ‘Oh my God’, 10 books not read, I started reading five and then five would arrive, so you read. The advantage is you read everything. My interest is of course, history, philosophy – Islamic, Chinese, Indian, novels – I go back to the classics. Indeed, I even re-read books like Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms and so on and try to see the funny bits that I can fit with the jokers who are orchestrating the scene. Like, what King Lear said to Cordelia towards the end of the play to try to philosophise: what is the game in town, what with all the political players. Or Macbeth. I’d try to see, is there any Lady Macbeth around that can fit in that story.

Q: So, was there a Lady Macbeth?

A: I think in any system, there may be. It depends on the extent of their influence.

Q: Who? Would you care to share?

A: No, I am quite civil in these things. Of course, there is a quotation about how you re-read Shakespeare, empathise with his literary genius, understanding it from the prism of the prison walls. It is of course different. Because, you are focused, there is no interruption, except for the guards coming back and forth, and then they ignored me or there’s a lunch break, small but you call it lunch anyway. This of course brought a great benefit. Questions like how you view life, how you rationalise your presence. You want to fight a system, you want to dismantle a corrupt order. It is not an easy feat, of course. You have to pay the price. Unfortunately it’s back to Anwar Ibrahim having to pay the price, for far too long. So it’s a total of 10 and a half years in prison. It’s not short.

Q: Who’s been the biggest inspiration to forge ahead?

A: To me, faith is important. I am a Muslim. I try to aspire to become a better practising one and of course I am a student of history, to see the tribulations and sufferings from the past to the present. Reading on Mandela, all these things helped. All these things helped to give you the strength and the motivation. And finally, these things helped me to realise that after all however big the tribulations or sufferings we have to endure, these are small, compared to others’. Look at Syria. They are just dead, they just disappeared. In my case, I disappeared physically but I am still relevant outside. As Mandela used to say, although they abuse you, or they lock you out from television or the world, you’ve got to realise it’s always better for them to remember you rather than to be completely forgotten. As a political leader, even if they abuse you, you are still present. If they completely ignore you, then you have a problem.

Q: Your daughter Nurul Izzah once told us you’re an irrepressible optimist

A: Yes, irrepressible, I would say, incorrigible. Because look at what happened. Nobody anticipated this, no studies, no analysts. Generally, people thought even if we win, maybe it’s by a small margin. I was optimistic. I thought we could win. Why? A simple calculation. In 2013, we garnered 52 per cent of the popular vote. But you better know, there’s a bigger scandal coming, massive corruption, huge taxation, then we have Mahathir suddenly. This Mahathir, teaming up with Anwar … until now, I am thinking, are you sure I did it? (Laughs) But we did it, I tell you. Was it easy? No. It was a very painful experience. But then what is it for? For the country. Of course, it was painful and difficult. One is trying to make amends. To try to work together, why not. And we did.

Q: Today was the first time you attended Pakatan Harapan’s Presidential Council meeting. What’s the decision-making process like in Pakatan Harapan given that you are the de facto leader of the coalition? Are you above the Prime Minister?

A: We see ourselves more as a team and we are not too particular about hierarchy. Mahathir as chairman chairs the meeting. I am there, and on his right is the president [Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail]. When he entered I joked: ‘It’s my first meeting with you in twenty years’. We laughed. It’s deja vu again. But the cultural and political environment in Pakatan Harapan is completely different from Umno and Barisan Nasional. Umno used to dictate policies and the others are more submissive and timid. In Pakatan, we are there as equals. We respect Mahathir for his experience, age and leadership. Mahathir has accepted that the political culture and landscape has changed. If you want the young to be able to be effective, they must be allowed and given the space and latitude to articulate their views. I even have to remind some of my friends who were so-called progressive or left of centre … but the moment you come into government you [say] everybody has to follow a certain discipline. Then you are back to Umno 2.0. But particularly when you deal with the young, you must give them the space and latitude.

Q: You have refused to be drawn into a timeline by which you will take over from Mahathir. Given the history between the two of you, some have questioned whether the transition will be smooth.

A: Yes, but that’s history. And I think to Mahathir’s credit, he has given repeated assurances … that he will give up power. He’s going to be 93. I don’t imagine he’s going to serve up to 100. 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 the prime minister will become a lame duck.

Q: Will you fight the next general election as PM?

A: I think that has been set clearly by Mahathir … By the time of the next elections I am supposed to lead, God willing I am in good health, and I am supposed to be in charge. People do keep asking why I don’t accept a time frame. I have said it’s not wise. You want a leader, now Prime Minister Mahathir, to be effective. He’s dismantling some of the remnants of the old regime. When in everything and at every move he has to consult Anwar, then he will not be not only well regarded but he also will not be effective.

Q: Can the Reformasi movement be emulated elsewhere?

A: I have always held the view that a particular model or experience in a particular political environment cannot just be applied at random. There are elements that you can study. I studied Eastern Europe, and all the reform measures from Gandhi, to Mandela and Sun Yat Sen. We studied, and had an understanding and applied it to the new dictates – social media for example, which was completely absent in those days. And therefore you need to refer to the young for their expertise. Of course the ideals, you have to have 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.