Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Anwar Ibrahim has been freed from prison after receiving a full pardon from the king, the latest twist in a political journey worthy of a Hollywood plot.
Perhaps a film documenting the rise and fall and rise again of Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister and leader of a movement calling for government reforms would begin in the late 1990s with him entering a courtroom with a black eye, beaten by a police chief.
The sight of a fallen politician against the backdrop of chants of his supporters shouting “reformasi” – reform in Bahasa – captivated an international audience.
The scene was a turning point for Malaysians, according to Bridget Welsh, an associate professor of political science at the John Cabot University.
“It was really a threshold Malaysia had never passed before – it created a lot of response in society,” said Welsh, a Malaysian politics expert.
“We also saw an expansion and broadening of civil society, and it’s grown since then. Because the legacy of the Reformasi movement in 1999 is that every single election in Malaysia since then has been about who has been portrayed as the reformer and who is going to bring about change.”
Fiercely ambitious politician
Anwar, a man described as a fiercely ambitious politician, had risen from being a student leader in the 1970s to becoming the protege and the right-hand man of Mahathir Mohamad, the then prime minister, in the 1990s.
But the partnership turned sour as the Malaysian economy felt the pressure of a growing Southeast Asian financial crisis in 1997. Differences grew, and Anwar’s calls for reform threatened the leadership.
“The financial crisis triggered an evaluation of the role of the elite and the banking and financial sector, and the role of corruption in the system,” said Welsh.
“Anwar basically challenged Mahathir to the leadership position within his party, as Mahathir had been in office since 1981.”
In September 1998, Anwar was sacked.
His dismissal spurred the Reformasi movement, a series of Anwar-led protests against the Mahathir government, in a country where dissent is suppressed.
He was eventually convicted of sodomy and corruption and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Anwar was released in 2004 when the sodomy charge was partially overturned. But this was just the beginning of a lengthy judicial process that would see him jailed again in 2015 – under the rule of Najib Razak – on sodomy charges, which he described as politically motivated.
But according to Lee Hwok Aun Um, from the Institute of South East Asian Studies, locking him away would far from dampen his political career.
“Anwar is a man of immense charisma, charm, ambition and tenacity. He is the finest orator of his generation, a great mobiliser. His jail time wins him sympathy and some gravitas for having been persecuted.”
In 2007, between his jail terms, Anwar started campaigning for Parti Keadilan Rakyat, a centrist opposition party formally headed by his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.
With its reformist stance, it attracted much public support against a government riddled with corruption and cronyism. It also became a key member of a four-party Pakatan Harapan opposition alliance pulled together by Mahathir.
It was instrumental in the challenge against the ruling party in this month’s elections.
On May 9, with a majority from Parti Keadilan, the coalition headed by Mahathir ended the 60-year rule of Najib’s Barisan Nasional.
For the first time, post-independence Malaysia had a new ruling party.
Analysts said this could not have been done without the Mahathir-Anwar combination, describing it as one of the great ironies of Malaysian history.
“There’s been 20 years of bad blood between the two of them,” said Terence Gomez, a professor of political economy at the University of Malaya.
“It will take time for them to heal the bad relationship they had but they have a common agenda – first was to remove Najib, and now to rebuild Malaysia. In that sense, while there will be problems in that relationship, there is a larger goal for both of them.”
Mahathir, 92, has pledged to stay in power only long enough to hand the government over to his former deputy.
Many are watching closely to see whether promises will be kept.
There is a sense of deja vu, as well as concerns that it was this partnership that had created the rigid, corrupt government that had prevailed until the recent elections.
But Gomez said Anwar is unlikely to perpetuate that legacy.
“There is an expectation of him to institute the reforms that he said he would bring about once he is in power. And now he is coming out of jail to be a government leader.
“That will be expected of him. He has been oppressed himself. He will know the urgent need to bring about these reforms so that there are checks and balances instituted in government too.”
Anwar’s return to the political forefront comes at a time when Malaysians are more informed than ever. Social media and a generation of courageous voters have opened up a discourse once aggressively hushed by the government.
“There are many different positions about Anwar – there are those who see him as a political animal; others see him as a reformer; others see him as an important bridge maker,” said Welsh, adding however that there was one aspect of Anwar most agreed on.
“He is a survivor,” notes Welsh.
“He’s been jailed, he’s been criticised, he’s been demonised, but he now has come back in part because of his innate ability – but also in part because of the agenda he represented which is the aspirations that many Malaysians see with Anwar Ibrahim.”
So after many gripping twists and turns, a victorious Anwar Ibrahim comes back to reclaim his spot in the Malaysian leadership, a dramatic 20-year journey to fulfil his self-professed destiny.