Praba Ganesan : Looking for Anwar

Praba Ganesan is a Hulu Langat boy with a penchant for durians and debate. He is part of balairakyat, an NGO promoting ideas exchange. More of him at prabaganesan.

MARCH 25 — You have to understand, for a long time I loathed Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. And today I stand by him and for the politics he envisions for the country. So I have a bit of explaining to do.

It was the late Sixties — the summers of perpetual love in tropical Malaysia — and this kid from an Umno family, who went to a very Umno school in Perak, was unsurprisingly accepted to the only university in the country to study the only language he was willing to champion — the Malay language.

The Abdul Rahman administration — haunted by right-wingers — ended soon after and Tun Abdul Razak was prime minister by the time Anwar was an established activist and student leader.

Razak had already replanted all the ultras like Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed and Tun Musa Hitam in the leadership conveyor belt to sustain a long period of Malay rule, national prosperity — in that order.

Anwar was in a group keen on pushing the Malay/Muslim agenda further and ended up opposed to Razak.

Within Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (Abim), Anwar and other young renegades appeared to want to push on the revolution agenda similar to developments in the rest of the Middle-East.

In 1981 you had the Islamic Republic of Iran and Mujahideens in the Afghan mountains, and all roads were leading to an Anwar joining PAS to lead a more Muslim face to the ideologically fluid working class party.

The same year, Mahathir unexpectedly became prime minister, and the next year Anwar became an Umno member.

It is often asked if Anwar would have made that decision if Tun Hussein Onn had stayed on. Others ask, what did Mahathir offer Anwar which was so tantalising, so amazing that he went back to this father’s party?

1982. Italy wins the World Cup in Spain beating the West Germans 3-1. The same year, Anwar joins the party, secures a parliamentary seat and grabs the Umno Youth chief position from its incumbent — and was made deputy minister.

In 11 years, he just kept rising meteorically — VP by ‘87, education minister, finance minister — to win the deputy presidency by trouncing the incumbent at the nomination stage.

Through that spell I had to live through the free-wheeling Islamisation of government — the schooling system. The guy with the Malay BA kept tinkering with the school system to prioritise Malay, actually the “baku” variant. Anwar and Islamisation were synonymous, and Dr M loved not being behind PAS in theocratic fervour. And let me not get into how the majority Kadazan-Dusun community lost Sabah to Umno through the dubious and now-common method of defections in 1994.

The holier than thou “spirit” Anwar engendered in a pretentious government nauseated me.

Which is why I was always sceptical of his wooing of the business class — the Chinese in focus, the self-rebranding as a modern democrat with fiscal sense rather than a firebrand to foreign governments and leaders and spouting the renaissance in the region.

To me Anwar was having his cake and eating it too. To be the “Malay nationalism” poster boy and at the same time the face of a changing and reforming Asia of egalitarian rigour.

I was convinced that the new-age look was just about getting on with the Western media. Number two in the country, and a popularity outstripping the PM’s, plus an economy bursting with activity, the world was just waiting for PM Anwar to emerge.

But spectacularly the Dr M – Anwar partnership fell apart, as an exasperated prime minister sacked his own successor from government. Some accusations, several trials later, Anwar was sent to prison.

This set the stage for the third reincarnation of Senor Anwar.

The series of happenings in the last 12 years — half of them behind bars, are well-documented.

I don’t buy the simplistic line that Anwar is in politics for power. I mean it is literally true, but everyone is in politics for power. Politics is power.

If Anwar was bent on power irrespective of principles sacrificed, he’d still be an Umno man. Umno has always received back its worst rebels as long as they were no longer a threat — expediency is Umno’s patron saint.

The speed in which Anwar rose in Umno initially, and the following he still has in the party, indicates Anwar has the better chance to Putrajaya by returning to Umno.

These whys are academic and open to permanent debate.

To me, Anwar’s evolution from a domestic nationalist to an internationalist upholding natural law may even dumbfound Anwar. Like an accidental Eliza Doolittle.

He is larger than life, and only competes with Tunku Abdul Rahman and Mahathir for space in the private thoughts of Malaysians.

He is Mandela-like. Now I am not arguing his attributes match the father of modern South Africa’s. I am talking about symbols. Some with unique life-paths become symbols irrespective of the actual value of their lives and the mistakes they make.

Mandela executed economic sabotage of the Apartheid government in the 1960s which involved bombs. Anwar was a primary character in anti-secularisation and anti-democratisation in many instances.

But in the present, he has done three things. One, committed to the downfall of a dictatorial Barisan Nasional government; second, the setting-up of a more egalitarian nation for all Malaysians; and third, facilitating the longest and closest partnership of all the opposition parties.

He wins the moral authority argument because he has spent more years in prison for his beliefs than the whole present Cabinet in total.

Tolstoy postulates that events are always greater than the individuals, and that events are not shaped by any particular individual but by historical inevitability. Probably, but when you want to galvanise people to a cause, to a desired outcome, you’ll need a flag.

The flag for change in Malaysia is Anwar Ibrahim, for now. That’s why they want to lock him up again real soon.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.

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