No Longer “Anwar, Who?”
M. Bakri Musa
[Reprinted from: www.malaysia-today.net, July 3, 2005]
Contrary to my assertion a few years ago that he would soon be “Anwar, who?” Anwar Ibrahim is again in the limelight following his release from prison. Far from being a forgotten figure (except to those whose only source of news is the Malaysian dailies), Anwar is being lauded at such lofty perches as Hopkins and Oxford.
God may just grant Anwar his wish, and then some. He may yet become a household name, but for all the wrong reasons. Anwar successfully scaled the political heights in his previous career, just missing the top slot. If he were to enter politics again, anything less than being prime minister would be a failure. That is a very high bar. Nor would his path be smooth; the grilling he received at his recent BBC interview is a good preview.
If Anwar were to channel his considerable leadership talent to other than politics, there would be no limit to the good he could bring to himself, Malaysia, Islam, and indeed the world. A leader actively courted by the Washington, DC, “neo-cons” as well as by fundamentalist PAS ulamas has much to contribute to bridging the deepening chasm between Islam and the West. A man who quotes Churchill and Confucius at will is uniquely positioned to bring better understanding between East and West.
If Anwar were to opt for politics, he would be just another politician. Malaysia – and the Malay community in particular – has a glut of those. If he fails to get the top job, his legacy will be that of a failed politician. That would be merely a personal disappointment for him; for Malaysia and Malays however, the consequences could be devastating.
His reentry into party politics would open old ugly sores that have just begun to heal. Malaysians, not just UMNO members, would have to take sides. The Bush doctrine of “You are with us or against us” would resurface locally with vengeance; Anwar will be very polarizing. He has become part of the problem, not part of the solution in Malaysian politics.
His supporters and assorted hangers-on at home will try to convince Anwar otherwise. He should not ignore them, but he should try to fathom their motivations. For some, it would be payback time; for others, a chance to recoup their considerable investments – material and emotional – in him. Those are not valid reasons.
Instead, Anwar should ponder what he wishes to accomplish, and then consider whether politics or some other arena is the best route. Saying that he wants to be prime minister to achieve his goals would be the wrong answer to the wrong question. The proper question should first be what he wants to accomplish, not what he wants to be.
Anwar should rightly be flattered that PAS had offered him to lead the opposition. Beware however, of those who flatter you. PAS may be trying to use Anwar, and he may be tempted to use PAS to further his political goals. Of course, Anwar may rationalize that he would merely be trying to drag PAS into the 21st century. After all when he joined UMNO in 1981, Anwar assured his Islamist friends that he was trying to make the party more Islamic! We easily forget the perennial excuse of opportunists everywhere, “I want to change the system from within!”
If anything, Anwar’s experience with UMNO should remind him that exploitative relationships, personal or political, rarely endure.
Anwar still has a large reservoir of goodwill among UMNO leaders and members. That would rapidly evaporate should he align himself with PAS. It would also mean the end of the party led by his wife. I see nothing positive with Anwar’s reentry into politics.
By staying out of electoral politics, the goodwill he commands in UMNO would only expand. Anwar could skillfully parlay that, and end up playing the role of kingmaker in UMNO and be able to influence that organization in ways and on a scale even its president would be unable to do.
If Anwar remains politically neutral, he may be the only person who could reverse the increasingly dangerous polarization of Malays. At the very least, he could damper the coarsening discourse of Malay politics. Anwar is one of the few Malays comfortable reciting tahlil at the local surau as he is at a Western cocktail party (sipping orange juice of course!). Meaning, he is at ease with the ulama as well as liberal Muslims.
Anwar is highly regarded in Bangkok and Manila. He should use his good office to help the two countries resolve their Muslim (essentially ethnic Malay) minority problems. He should convince those myopic governments that suppressions and military actions are not the solution, but economic development and better human rights practices are. He should in turn counsel those insurgents that accommodation, not rebellion, is more fruitful. Peace in Mindanao and Patani would be good for the folks there as well as for regional relationships.
Similarly, Anwar could leverage his excellent reputation in Jakarta to nudge that nation to pursue enlightened economic and social policies. He should also use his good influence on the Sultan of Brunei to prod that feudal state into the modern age. As Prime Minister of Malaysia, Anwar would be constrained from doing all of these. I am suggesting that Anwar’s sphere should extend beyond Malaysia.
When he was released from prison, the Saudi government had an executive jet available to whisk him to Germany for his medical treatment. That gesture was not an affront to the Malaysian government or to Dr. Mahathir, rather a reflection of Anwar’s standing in the Islamic world.
Among his early visitors in Germany were senior Bush administration figures. Anwar is one of the few Asian leaders who understand the nuances of Western, specifically American, leadership and democracy. At a time when the Bush administration could use some help in the Muslim world, there are very few capable volunteers. This is where Anwar’s talent could be of great use. It would be good for America, good for Islam, and most of all, splendid for Anwar.
Anwar’s supporters look askance at his close relationship with the “neo cons;” Anwar in turn is defensive about it. One should always welcome and continually nurture good relationships. Now that the top “neo-con” Paul Wolfowitz is at the World Bank, Anwar should use his experience as a former Finance Minister of a robust economy to steer the bank towards more enlightened lending practices and away from “mega” projects.
Before Anwar could aspire to soar to these stratospheric heights, he must free himself from the gravitational tugs of his supporters. They in turn should realize that they were right in believing in a great leader, but this greatness could never be realized if he permits himself to be tethered to confining emotional ties.
If Anwar could treat his adoring supporters not as anchors that would weigh him down rather as boosters that would propel him into his next trajectory as a leader, then Anwar is destined for greater heights.