Anwar Ibrahim: A Much-needed Breath of Fresh Air

By Islamic Horizons Staff

March/April 2023
Anwar Ibrahim signs documents after taking the oath during the swearing-in ceremony held at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur (Courtesy of Government of Malaysia, Information Department)

Anwar Ibrahim, 75, was formally sworn in as Malaysia’s 10th prime minister on Nov. 24, 2022, by King Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah. And thus ended his over two-decade wait to be appointed to his country’s top post.

The closest Anwar had ever come to holding this post was acting prime minister for two months in 1997. At that time, he was deputy prime minister, a post to which he was appointed in 1993. In 1998, he was expelled from United Malays National Organization (UMNO), stripped of his posts, arrested and imprisoned under the now defunct Internal Security Act. 

That same year, he initiated the Reformasi Movement out of which came the Parti Keadilan Rakyat, which joined the Democratic Action Party in 2014 to form Pakatan Rakyat. It was later rebranded Pakatan Harapan.

In the 15th general election, Pakatan Harapan won 83 seats — 112 seats are required to form a  government. The results for the other parties were as follows: the National Alliance (73), the National Front (30), Gabungan Parti Sarawak (23), Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (6), Parti Warisan Sabah (3), Parti Bangsa Malaysia (1), Parti Kesejahteraan Demokratik Masyarakat (1) and two independents.

The Council of Rulers met and eventually decided to appoint Anwar prime minister.

Last year Anwar published book, “Script: For a Better Malaysia – An Empowering Vision and Policy Framework for Action” (Institut Darul Ehsan, 2022): “SCRIPT stands for Sustainability, Care & Compassion, Respect, Innovation, Prosperity, and Trust – six Malaysian values at the core of this living document which both lays out Anwar’s vision for a stronger, better Malaysia and provides a method of developing policies fit to the contemporary and increasingly complex world we live in.

“This book builds on his more than four decades of experience in public service heading key ministries in the Malaysian government, leading various international development and peace organizations, and his time educating at leading universities around the world. Anwar has taken this experience and synthesized it with the thoughts of some of the greatest minds from around the world, and the input of the people of Malaysia he has listened to and learned from throughout his career.”

The world will watch how he executes this program, especially when his Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) has 82 parliamentary seats, 30 short of the 112 needed for a majority. His coalition is supported by Barisan Nasional (BN; 30 seats), Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) and Gabungan Rakyat Sarawak (23 seats), a coalition from the eastern Malaysian state of Sarawak. Anwar, who has pledged to form a leaner cabinet, is sure to face challenges when it comes to balancing the distribution of power among his allies in order to ensure his government’s stability. BN, which ruled the country for 61 years, was defeated by the previous PH coalition in 2018.

A Dedication to the Homeland

Throughout his many tribulations, Anwar has remained a true bumiputra (son of the soil). Reportedly former President George W. Bush had indicated that the U.S. would support his nomination for UN secretary general, Anwar turned it down, saying that his place is in Malaysia.

When he was in Riyadh during the late 70’s, he was advised not to go home because then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad would imprison him. He responded that it’s better to be in prison in your own country than a fugitive. And again, he went back.

While visiting the U.S., he got a call that he would be jailed again. He was concerned, but again he went back. 

The New York Times, May 15, 2002, noted that Anwar has many friends in Washington. Bush, with Mahathir sitting next to him in Oval Office, reiterated that the U.S. policy toward Anwar had not changed and that he was jailed primarily for his political opposition to the prime minister.

Anwar told NPR’s Steve Inskeep, “… I should say from the days of President Clinton, Bush, Obama and less so under Trump, my issue was always raised at different levels” (Feb. 26, 2019).

One Couldn’t Ask for a Better Wife

In this moment of euphoria, no one should overlook Dr. Wan Azizah binti Wan Ismail’s contribution. A practicing ophthalmologist, Anwar’s smiling, supportive wife was often seen at his side.

In support of her political prisoner husband, she addressed cheering crowds, held packed press conferences and rallied support. She also served as Malaysia’s 12th deputy prime minister — the first woman to do so — and minister of women, family and community development in the Pakatan Harapan administration under Mahathir (2018-20).

In addition to being the opposition’s first female leader and the county’s highest-ever female political officeholder, she has served as the MP for Pandan (since May 2018) and Permatang Pauh (November 1999 to March 2008; May 2015 to May 2018), as well as the first president of the People’s Justice Party, a component party of the Pakatan Harapan opposition, because her husband, the party’s de facto leader, was prevented from doing so due to his trials and prison sentences. She held that position from the party’s formation in April 1999 until she officially handed it over to her husband upon his release during November 2018. 

As all of this were not enough, she served as the opposition’s 11th and 13th leader (March 2008 to August 2008; May 2015 until Pakatan Harapan’s victory in the May 2018 general elections) and as a member of the Selangor State Legislative Assembly for Kajang (April 2014 to May 2018).

Anwar’s Involvement with Muslim Youth

In Malaysia, the student organization ABIM (Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia) was thriving under Anwar Ibrahim’s leadership. In North America, the leaders of the MSA of the United States and Canada (MSA) — which later graduated to the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) — helped create the International Islamic Federation of Students Organization (IIFSO), a student initiative initiated in 1966 at Nigeria’s Ibadan University. Formally established in Aachen, Germany, in 1969, IISFO had about 100 student and youth organizations in 60+ countries. Anwar was its regional representative for East Asia. 

Responding to the huge number of Gulf and Malaysian students who began studying in the U.S. during the 70s, MSA helped create the Muslim Arab Youth Association (MAYA) and the Malaysian Islamic Study Group (MISG; 1976). In 1976, MSA sponsored the first MISG camp in Peoria, Ill., to which Anwar was invited so he could connect with the attendees. During this period, he was also appointed regional representative of the Riyadh-based World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY). 

Recognizing Anwar’s evolving leadership potential, former prime minister Mahathir appointed him minister of youth, sports, and culture (1983), agriculture (1984), education (1986-91), finance (1991-98) and deputy prime minister (1993-98). 

In his capacity as education minister, Anwar was keen to play a role in the Islamic Renaissance, as he called it, and make the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) a true Islamic educational institution that could promote this vision. He invited Dr. AbdulHamid AbuSualyman (d.2021), at that time president of the U.S.-based International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), to become its rector and provided him with the support he would need.

Dr. Sayyid Muhammad Syeed, a former ISNA president, who wast also secretary-general of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (now the North American Association of Islamic and Muslim Studies) and editor-in-chief of the American Journal Islamic Social Sciences, recalls that these organizations helped identify scholars all over the world who had the qualifications and recognition in their fields. This helped IIUM recruit these social scientists and create a prestigious academic institution with Anwar’s support.

This shared dream among Anwar, ISNA and IIIT sought to transform our intellectual world with resolve.

A Bright Light in a Dark Political Atmosphere

Anwar has been called a Renaissance Man, and North America’s Muslim organizations have always celebrated him as such. Armed with a global view inspired by Islam, he represents a hope for Malaysia, the Muslim world and humanity at large, regardless of ethnic, religious and other biases.

The non-political part of his resume reads like  a dream, but it’s all true. In addition to the posts mentioned above, Anwar has been president of UNESCO, chairman of the World Bank and the IMF’s development committee, honorary president of AccountAbility and advisory board member of the International Crisis Group; distinguished visiting professor and Malaysia Chair at Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding; and a lecturer on issues of governance, democracy and contemporary Southeast Asian politics at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the University of Oxford’s St. Antony’s College.

One can only hope that the Muslim world’s leaders will study and actually learn from his words and actions, as well as his understanding of Islam’s role in the modern world.

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