Anwar Ibrahim: From Political Prisoner to Malaysian Prime Minister

Anwar Ibrahim finally realized his more than two-decade dream of becoming Malaysia’s prime minister on Thursday after a tortuous detour into the political wilderness that included prison terms for sodomy and corruption in what he claimed were politically motivated charges aimed at ending his career.

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A day after Malaysia’s 2022 general election, the country’s long-serving — and long-suffering — opposition leader used the first person to teach journalists a lesson in resilience and political longevity. “You have to learn this from Anwar Ibrahim – patience, wait a long time, patience,” the 75-year-old politician told reporters outside his home in Kuala Lumpur.

In his decades-long quest for the top job, Ibrahim has tasted political triumph and defeat, leading street protests for democratic reforms and assembling a multi-ethnic opposition coalition behind bars. His bumpy road to the pinnacle of power ended on Thursday when he was sworn in as prime minister after days of political stalemate following an inconclusive election.

Anwar was born into a family steeped in politics in August 1947. His father, Ibrahim Abdul Rahman, was a former Member of Parliament and his mother, Che Yan Hussein, was a political organizer in the northern state of Penang, in what was then part of the British Empire. An ardent youth activist during his student days, he has spoken of his admiration for Philippine revolutionary hero Jose Rizal, describing him as “a true Asian renaissance man”.

Friends turn to enemies

In 1982, Anwar was recruited into the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the party then in the midst of its 60-year dominance of Malay politics. His star rose, and the suave young politician became finance minister and then deputy prime minister in the early 1990s under then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, providing a youthful counterpoint to the shrewd political veteran.

Mahathir and Anwar were considered one of the most dynamic duos in Southeast Asian politics, but their relationship soured over how to deal with the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. Some observers say Anwar had been too impatient to become prime minister and despised his patron.

Then Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, left, stands next to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in Kuala Lumpur in June 1998. © Vincent Thian, AP

Mahathir fired Anwar, who was also expelled from UMNO and accused of corruption and sodomy. He was sentenced to six years in prison for corruption in 1999, with nine years in prison for the sodomy charge the following year, with the two sentences to run consecutively.

When Anwar claimed political persecution, street protests erupted and coalesced into a multi-ethnic opposition movement demanding democratic reforms. Photos of Anwar with a black eye, inflicted in prison by Malaysia’s then police chief, were published in newspapers around the world, making him a symbol of a struggle that adopted the rallying cry of “Reformasi!”, or reforms.

An anxious comeback

Malaysia’s Supreme Court overturned Anwar’s 2004 sodomy conviction and ordered him released. He took a short break from politics to enter academia, but returned to lead an opposition coalition in the 2013 general election. His alliance received 50.87 percent of the popular vote but failed to secure a parliamentary majority.

Controversy continued to haunt the married father of six. He was again imprisoned for sodomy in 2015, this time for five years. Anwar maintained his innocence and was granted a full pardon by the Malaysian king three years after his sentence. He returned to parliament months later in a by-election.

The 2018 election led to a new alliance with his former rival Mahathir, the pair made an unlikely reunion to face his former party UMNO, led by Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was then embroiled in the billion-dollar 1MDB financial scandal. They scored a historic victory against UMNO and Najib, who is now serving 12 years in prison for corruption.

Mahathir became prime minister for the second time, with an agreement to hand over the premiership to Anwar later. He never fulfilled that pact, and their alliance collapsed after 22 months.

“I feel the people’s strong desire for change and to see Malaysia progress in a new direction,” Anwar said ahead of last week’s polls. After the longest wait, he will finally get to set that direction.

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