A Letter to Anwar Ibrahim

I’ve refrained from writing about Malaysian politics for almost 18 months now but the events in Perak demand comment even though it be from afar.

Supporters of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat alliance will be incensed by the manner in which the Barisan Nasional coalition has apparently retaken the state; allegedly through bribery and corruption.

Well I would say this to Malaysia’s opposition politicians; Tell me something I don’t know.

The BN is in one respect what would be called ‘a pragmatic ‘party’ of government.’ There is no ideology. It exists to retain power. Frankly much of the time it doesn’t really know what to do with power but knows full well that should control slip from its hands its members would not only have their rice bowls smashed but that they would likely also face retribution, legal and otherwise, for decades of brutality and graft.

There is almost nothing left that the BN can do that will lower the rakyat’s opinion of it. Over the years it has interned opponents, presided over extra judicial killings, siphoned off obscene amounts of money (though to be fair never on the scale that the likes of Suharto, Marcos or any number of African despots have) and degraded every institution of democracy and good governance in Malaysia.

BN can bribe state representatives and no one will think worse of it than they do already. People don’t vote for the BN because they believe in a Malaysian utopia, they vote because they value continuity, a workable bargain between the country’s ethnic groups, a largely laissez faire attitude towards business (though the backers of the proposed new low cost airport and any other businessperson who has crossed a vested interest might fairly disagree) and because they get contracts from political contacts.

As the MCA’s Chua Soi Lek rightly points out in his blog, BN has retained power for as long as it has because it has more or less mastered the art of bringing the country’s races together even though it often be for reasons of self interest.  It may not be pretty but many imagine it to be less ugly than the alternatives.

The Barisan hardly needs be angelic to shore up its political base. The opposition however does.

By bringing to opposition politics the methods of his old UMNO days Anwar Ibrahim risks fatally damaging the Pakatan Rakyat brand. People don’t vote for the opposition because they want more of the same with a different face on it, they vote PR because they want cleaner government and because they want an end to discrimination not just against non Malays but against the vast majority of all races by the rich, multiracial elite that has run Malaysia for 50 years. In short they want a better future for their children and their children’s children.

Anwar tried to play the defections gambit last year and failed not just to bring down the government but also to set the moral tone that many PR supporters wanted. You can’t negotiate with ne’re do wells in smoke filled rooms to bring down the government by defection and then cry foul when the same trick is played back on you. And the government knows only too well that Anwar has more to lose by indulging in this sort of politics than they do.

So I would say this to Anwar and I hope someone has the balls to tell the man to his face;

If you want to be Prime Minister of Malaysia you have to be that man who deserves to be Prime Minister. You must be a statesman, not a politician. You must think of your country and not yourself. You need see the office of Prime Minister not as the end but the means to a greater end. A man who craves power for its own sake is not fit to wield it.

Anwar, you and I spoke many times. You are the most intriguing politician in Malaysia, arguably the most intelligent, charismatic and talented of his generation. You have it within yourself to be a transformative figure not just for Malaysia but for the entire region.

I spent more than five years reporting on Malaysia. However often I was discouraged by the dishonesty and prejudice that I saw around me there was always someone to remind me of the almost limitless potential Malaysia has. Regular Malaysians, some powerful, some barely noticed, some pro government others pro opposition, people of every race and creed reminded me daily that the prize that Malaysia seeks to grasp is one that has the power to inspire the entire world. They did this through small acts of selflessness and kindness and by, without show, offering to others their apparently boundless humanity.

When Barack Obama took the oath of office and became America’s 44th president he held out the hope that one day we will give not a moment’s thought to a man’s race only to his character and disposition. It seemed to signal a new age. Malaysia has its own part to play in helping make this dream a reality not just in the United States but the world over.

Anwar you are an ambitious man. Your ambition may be the making of you or it may be the undoing of you.

In the moments when I struggled to find kind words to broadcast about Mahathir Mohamad I would always remind myself of this thought; for all his faults I believe Mahathir’s supreme ambition was not for himself but for his country. Yes he liked power and he disliked those who got in his way – but he plainly thrilled more to see his country grow and prosper than he did at the thought of amassing great wealth for himself.

If you, Anwar, can put aside personal ambition and ego and devote yourself to the wellbeing not just of your immediate circle or party supporters, not just to one faction or one race, if you can put aside thoughts of revenge upon those who wronged you, if you can turn your desire for justice away from yourself and towards all who call Malaysia home, if you can strive for others who have not your intellect or way with words and if you can transform your mighty ambition into mighty ambition for your country…

…if you can do all those things Anwar then I will not just be proud to have known you but proud that my son is a Malaysian.

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3 Responses to “A Letter to Anwar Ibrahim”

  1. I completely agree. While i’m not a fan of BN, I hesitate to vote for the opposition. Why? Two reasons: PAS and Anwar. As you rightly pointed out, Anwar is too dangerously ambitious for his own good. He doesn’t really have an idealogy. He just says whatever he thinks will get him the most votes. At least Mahathir stuck to his principles and wasnt afraid to be controversial when expressing some of his less popular views. How can a man like Anwar be PM? I don’t trust him.

    • headstrongclub Says:

      I think you may have slightly misinterpreted my point. I see in Anwar a potentially great politician, indeed a man who could be considered a statesman. However Anwar is a human being with the shortcomings and fallabilities that all of us have to confront in ourselves. If he can overcome those then he could be an extraordinary champion for his country. If he gives into them then he will just be another Malaysian could-have-been. I understand that many people don’t trust him and the challenge for Anwar must be to confound those critics. That will require actions not words. They will judge him by what he does, not what he says. As for Mahathir; a man of principle? Surely not. He was a man who would readily resort to whatever method was expedient. He did some grotesquely unprincipled things – not least in his apparent handling of the UMNO battle with Musa and Ku Li and later with Anwar. But, as I said, I do believe that somewhere in that bloody minded head of his he wanted to see his country and its people prosper.

  2. Point taken, but then again, virtually anyone can be great if we can overcome our shortcomings. In Anwar’s case, he has some very serious character flaws to overcome. The only thing good about Anwar is that he is charismatic and is quite good at rallying people. He may be somewhat smart, though I believe not as smart as Mahathir was. He is also politically shrewd and cunning. But can these attributes alone make him a good PM? A good leader needs to have sound judgment, and I haven’t really seen much of this from him, not even when he was DPM before his incarceration. In fact, I still remember the Asian financial crisis a decade ago, when he disagreed with Mahathir regarding IMF intervention. I shudder to think what state Malaysia would be in now if Anwar had been PM at that time.

    Regarding Mahathir, the word “principles” may have been a poor choice on my part. What I meant was he had his views and opinions and he stuck to them regardless of whether they were popular or not. I may not have agreed with some of them, but at least he stood up for what he believed was right, whether he had support or not. Can’t say the same for Anwar. He has claimed to be a liberal, but at the same time supports fundamentalist policies of PAS.

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