Has Anwar Ibrahim changed in six years behind bars?

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One feature of Malaysia is its ability to make everything a make-believe. Its racially-divided society is seemingly in harmony, its economy is seemingly in the hands of the majority Malay Muslims, its rich-poor gap is seemingly small, and its judiciary is seemingly fair. The last best describes the court’s release of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim after he had spent six years behind bars in the wake of Malaysia’s most bizarre political drama. The end of his ridiculous court trials was also fitting: a ludicrous judgement that acquits him of the vile charge of sodomy while maintaining that he was “guilty” of it, despite ruling that there was no evidence!

That did not prevent Anwar’s sympathisers, both in the circle of government and ordinary people, from rejoicing. Even the mainstream media, which played a significant part in his downfall, welcome this outcome as an “end to a dark chapter”. The same sentiments were expressed when Anwar was first convicted in 1999. Recent events have shown, however, that it may not be the case, at least for now. Whether or not his release, six years after being thrown into a political wilderness behind bars, will change the political landscape, is best suggested by the fact that his ghostly prime ministerial presence had not been exorcised at the recently concluded annual congress of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

What Anwar’s next move will be, now that he is a free man, is the question on the lips of Malaysia’s ruling party leaders since his release on September 2: six years to the day after he was dismissed by Mahathir Mohamad, his mentor-turned-adversary. The curiosity is accompanied by a sense of fear that he might rejoin UMNO, which he once led and through which he, like all other past party strongmen, found his way to the helm of power. Being the “political animal” he is, nobody is predicting his permanent absence from politics, or at least not yet.

A more important question many fail to ask is whether Anwar is the old Anwar or a new one, rehabilitated after what would be a trying ordeal in anybody’s life. If his interviews and statements since being released are anything to go by, the former is true. Still possessing all his “Islamist” flair while maintaining his “darling” status with his western friends, he still has his media habit of quoting Shakespeare to his western audience and Ibn Khaldun to his admirers in Islamic circles.

The truth is that the question of Anwar’s next plan has been answered during the last six years. The confusion arises because the Malaysian media have largely ignored him, because of the government’s instruction to impose a news blackout on him, his statements, his trials and appeals, which have been going on since 1998. This has led many, including government ministers and political leaders, to believe the impression created by their own media’s negligence: that Anwar has been keeping a low profile. Many political analysts have also taken this imposed silence to mean that Anwar is politically dead, and that his years in prison have relegated him to the position of other former leaders who fell out with Mahathir.

Much as the ruling party would like to believe this, however, it is not the case, at least not completely. This is shown by the panicky press statements by would-be UMNO leaders urging prime minister Abdullah Badawi, who was appointed UMNO president in its annual meeting on September 23, to close the door on Anwar. Several ministers, who sided unabashedly with Mahathir during the vilification of their former deputy prime minister, have also called for UMNO to shun Anwar. But many are careful not to go too far, for fear of becoming unpopular with the public. All this seems comical, as Anwar, who joined UMNO in 1981 despite opposition from his “Islamist” counterparts, has not indicated in any way that he will be trying to return to UMNO’s fold.

Their fear is otherwise well-founded, however. Anwar’s proven ability to mobilise crowds, and his connections with both the “fundamentalist” leadership of the Islamic Party and secular NGOs and western leaders, will be an asset to the Malaysian opposition, who are always trying to woo Malaysia’s complex multi-religious political tastes. At the moment the opposition parties are finding themselves with a leadership vacuum. Since the death of Fadzil Noor, factions have divided PAS, which is split between those who want the traditional PAS-ulama leadership (who are perceived to be in a “time-capsule”), and those who are impatient to assimilate its Islamic ideology into mainstream election politics in order to garner more votes. Oddly enough, the disappearance of Mahathir from the political scene has also deprived many of a favourite enemy to criticise; the result of this is many poor performances in the general elections last March, for which the unfair election rules cannot be wholly blamed.

Anwar’s silence about his future plans has led to many speculations within the ruling party that there was a deal made with Abdullah to secure his release. However, the poisonous judgement was clearly intended to leave an indelible taint of doubt and suspicion to curb any repetition of his previous rise to power, so a deal does not seem likely. After years of struggling against a corrupt judiciary that was hand-in-glove with the police and government to vilify him, it is highly unlikely he can have accepted a judgement that does not clear his name. If there is any silver lining to a tainted and non-credible judiciary, it is that no number of poisonous judgements could smear Anwar’s image now.

On September 4 more than 10,000 people thronged the airport to bid him farewell as he left for treatment for his back-injury in Germany. Many expect that an even larger crowd will greet him when he returns later this month. While enjoying this new-found freedom and his celebrity status, Anwar’s main task will be to identify his place in post-Mahathir Malaysia. Critics argue that his most difficult task will be to dissociate himself from UMNO. While many, including his friends within and outside PAS, might have forgiven him because of his personal ordeal, the question remains of who Anwar’s friends will be from now on. Because of his ties to western leaders who contacted him upon his release, such as Paul Wolfowitz and Al Gore, many Malaysians are waiting to see whether his close rapport with these people will influence whom he chooses to associate with in future. It also remains to be seen whether Anwar, being the “charismatic” politician that Malaysia lacks, will be able to divert the traditional prime ministerial route through UMNO. For the time being, however, Anwar will probably be content to be a make-believe might-have-been prime minister; after that only time will tell.

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