The rise of Anwar


Anwar the 'Crown Prince'


Rising conflict


The fall of Anwar

The 'Crown Prince'

The rise of Anwar
“It appeared to be a perfect union, before the explosive rupture and extraordinary events that put one of the partners behind bars. The nation’s leader, a pragmatic and respected visionary, had taken under his wing a charismatic younger man with an outstanding intellect and new-generating approach which, it was believed, would enable him to meet the challenges of the future while building on the gains of the past, when the time came for him to succeed his mentor. Throughout Asian and the world, the partnership of the Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and the Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, was acclaimed as an example for less well led countries in the region. It marked Malaysia as a politically stable nation with a settled line of succession. Then, suddenly, in the middle of 1998, the situation changed dramatically.” [Stewart 11]

Anwar the ‘Crown Prince’
As Stewart describes, Anwar was an impatient leader-in-waiting, a scheming prince who coveted the crown of the ruler while constantly proclaiming his loyalty [Stewart 12]. Even though there was a growing evidence in 1995 that Anwar was attempting to build more support to topple Mahathir as Prime Minister, he consistently voiced that he had no problems “with the man who nominated him as the next head of government” [Stewart 12]. Anwar continued to say that Mahathir was his ‘leader and father’ in his political struggle [Stewart 12]. Anwar’s behavior could be more aptly described in a Malay phrase – bermuka dua which literally means two-faced.

Anwar, was not a kampung (village) boy. He was born in Penang, and attended the prestigious and elite Malay College Kuala Kangsar.  He graduated from the University of Malaya with a bachelor in Malay studies. Since his university days, Anwar was famous as a student activist who frequently spoke about social, economic and political issues. He had his own group of followers and was known by his supporters as Pak Sheikh and founded the Islamic Youth Movement of Malaysia (Abim) in 1972. Due to his anti-government demonstrations for poor farmers, Anwar was detained under the Internal Security Act in 1974 before being released in 1976 and assumed his post as head of Abim.

But in 1982, he made a shocking decision of accepting Mahathir’s invitation to join the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Anwar’s defection was particularly

was particularly puzzling as Mahathir was the Minister of Education during the peak of the ‘campus revolution’ in 1974 [Stewart 14]. It is said that Mahathir saw the potential of Anwar as a future political leader and persuaded him to join UMNO.

Within years of joining UMNO, Anwar underwent a huge transformation from an anti-government terror to a well-attired political figure with a powerful support [Stewart 14]. And in 1982, he was elected president of UMNO party’s youth wing. He was also elected as a representative of Parliament within the same year. He soon became the Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport in 1983, Minister of Agriculture in 1984, and Education Minister in 1986. By 1991, he was Finance Minister and in 1993, became the deputy president of UMNO.

In actual fact, Mahathir made it clear that he wanted Tun Ghafar Baba to continue his Deputy Prime Minister post and UMNO deputy president.  On the outside, Anwar seemed to support Mahathir’s view but in reality, he and his supporters spend vast amounts of money and worked hard to produce a huge support for his candidacy as deputy president of UMNO [Stewart 14-15]. And despite Mahathir’s disapproval of forming teams of factions within the party, Anwar continued to form the ‘Vision Team’ as an extra boost to his candidacy.

[Lat, Berita Publishing Sdn. Bhd.]

With the outcome of the party election with Anwar as the winner, Mahathir appointed him Deputy Prime Minister as according to party tradition. In the early years as Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar was suspiciously viewed by the community of other races as a Malay Muslim radicalism who had close ties with leaders of the world’s most conservative Islamic countries and was perceived as a threat to racial harmony [Stewart 15]. Realizing this, Anwar strived to counter the doubts held by inserting quotations from Confucius, Indian scholars and even Jose Rizal, a revolutionary hero of Philippines.

Furthermore, Anwar also managed to gain control over two newspapers

and a television station through loyalists in editorial and management positions [Stewart 15]. One columnist noted Anwar’s change in attitude and commented that Anwar who originally joined UMNO to change the system within had in fact been changed by the system itself.

Soon enough, there were increasing numbers of Anwar supporters who were rooting for him to become the next Prime Minister and UMNO president. As Stewart wrote, “A team skilled in Western-style public relations techniques set about making him an internationally known and admired figure, projecting through their contacts with foreign correspondents and editors, the image of a progressive, globally concerned intellectual, who was a moderate Muslim with liberal views about the media, free speech and democracy.” [Stewart 15-16] This resulted in Anwar being revered as an Asian Renaissance Man.

Rising conflict
When the Asian financial crisis took hold of Southeast Asia, the different policies of Anwar and Mahathir intensified, particularly in terms of handling the worsening Asian financial crisis. As Mahathir disagreed with the policies recommended by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the general perception of the market, the international media discredited Mahathir and instead implied their preference for Anwar.

For instance, Anthony Spaeth of Time magazine wrote, “Anwar assured the world that no matter what Mahathir declared, his deputy would be making rational decisions behind the scenes. But that hasn’t always been the case, and a Jekyll-Hyde leadership has developed” [Khoo 74].
Barry Wain of The Asian Wall Street Journal also wrote, “Why doesn’t Mahathir bow out?” [Khoo 76].

In domestic political arena, UMNO’s infighting mainly took place in the form of surat layang (‘flying’ or poison-pen letter) whereby corruption and sexual misconduct of politicians were distributed by certain politicians who were keen on bringing down their rivals. As Khoo noted, not all contents of a surat layang were false and it was also not an effective political ‘weapon’ but was capable of causing negative effect if the misconduct exposed in the letter were widely known or too serious to be disregarded [Khoo 77].  

And in August 1997, about seven to eight letters were sent to the Prime Minister - Mahathir, accusing Anwar of immoral behavior of his alleged homosexual and heterosexual escapades.  The surfacing of these letters implied that Anwar had determined opponents within UMNO.

Mahathir openly denounced the truth of these letters, dismissing them as ‘the usual fitnah (sabotage or accusations)’, but it was no doubt obvious that the underlying political motives were to prevent Anwar from succeeding Mahathir. Interestingly, two of the letter writers were Ummi Hafilda, the sister of Anwar’s private secretary and Azizan Abu Bakar who was his former driver.

There were even anti-Anwar books like “Requiem for Anwar Ibrahim” and “50 Reasons Why Anwar Cannot be PM”. According to ex-deputy Prime Minister, Musa Hitam, it was clear that there was a conspiracy aimed at toppling Anwar.

With these events, Anwar’s position was further weakened. Despite being praised for his ‘virtues’ in the international media, the anti-Anwar letters and books exposed his alleged ‘moral misconduct’. Thus, as long as someone in power decided to find fault in him, Anwar was doomed. This was what happened by June 1998’s UMNO General Assembly.

The reasons leading to Anwar’s downfall may be a result of the practice of realpolitik to maintain one’s power. Mahathir was not one who appreciated his deputies ‘plotting’ for his downfall. Moreover, Mahathir was uneasy about Anwar’s economic approach to combat the financial crisis and his relations with the western world. And after reaching the peak of his career, matters concerning his successor and retirement date were extremely sensitive topics. As Khoo wrote, Mahathir wanted to protect interests important to him and also having made considerable effort of sustaining economic growth, a new vision and UMNO hegemony, Mahathir was not ready to see his hard work ‘sacrificed’[Khoo 79].

Datuk Ahmad Zahid Hamidi

The defining moment took place during the UMNO Youth assembly in June 1998, which was held a day before the main UMNO General Assembly. Even though Mahathir warned UMNO members not to heed the attacks on Asian ‘cronyism and nepotism’, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi who was the head of UMNO Youth, condemned the ‘cronyism and nepotism’ in the country’s economic management during the Youth assembly. The escalating financial crisis were worrying everyone in the country, and it has been reported that senior politicians also called for Anwar to ‘stop the old man’ [Khoo 81]. Zahid’s speech was found to be too similar to Indonesia’s recent Reformasi (reformation) movement which toppled the Suharto government.

The fall of Anwar
On September 2, 1998, Anwar’s dismissal as the Deputy Prime Minister and UMNO deputy president was announced to the people without reasons given. He lost his UMNO membership the following day and the local media reported that Anwar had been “battling allegations of sexual improprieties” for a year and at a press conference, it was announced by Mahathir that the reason for Anwar’s dismissal was that he was unfit for the post [Somun 220].

Anwar being escorted by the police.

Following that, Anwar said in a press conference that Mahathir gave him an ultimatum to either resign or be sacked. He also said that his loyalty to Mahathir no longer holds true. Then on September 8, Mahathir stated Anwar was dismissed because of ‘moral misconduct’ upon enquiries made into the alleged allegations made to him about Anwar, which were found to be true.

On December 20, thousands of people were gathered at the National Mosque to listen to Anwar’s speech. In his speech, Anwar further rejected all allegations made against him and even joked about Mahathir. At the speech, people were wearing badges with the word Reformasi and they chanted “Long live Anwar” and “Mahathir resign” [Somun 221].

After finishing his speech, the people marched to Dataran Merdeka (Freedom Square), where his wife announced a declaration of 24 points, including the demand for reforms and Mahathir’s resignation as Prime Minister. They were eventually dispersed by the police with tear gas and water cannons.

Anwar was eventually convicted of corruption and sodomy. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison but has been released since the withdrawal of his second conviction of sodomy.
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Last Updated Wednesday, April 13, 2009   Contact me at teh20y@mtholyoke.edu
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