Anwar Ibrahim: from protest leader and prisoner to Malaysia’s PM

It has been a bumpy road to the pinnacle of power for Anwar Ibrahim, once jailed for almost 10 years on trumped-up charges but on Thursday finally achieving his dream of the Malaysian premiership.

In his decades-long quest for the top job, the 75-year-old has tasted political triumph and defeat, led street protests for democratic reforms and strung together a multi-ethnic opposition coalition while behind bars.

He was named as prime minister by Malaysia’s king after days of political deadlock resulting from an inconclusive election.

Anwar was born into a political family in August 1947. His father, Ibrahim Abdul Rahman, was a former member of parliament and his mother, Che Yan Hussein, was a political organiser in the northern state of Penang, in what was then part of the British empire.

A firebrand youth activist during his student days, Anwar has spoken of his admiration for the Philippine revolutionary hero José Rizal, describing him as “a true Asian renaissance man”.

Anwar’s political career began with Malaysia’s Islamic youth movement, Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM). In 1982, he was recruited into the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the party then in the middle of its 60-year domination of Malaysian politics.

His star rose, and the suave young politician became finance minister and then deputy prime minister in the early 1990s under the then premier, Mahathir Mohamad, bringing a youthful counterbalance to the wily political veteran.

During Mahathir’s tenure, Anwar was instrumental in Malaysia’s response to the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Their protege-mentor relationship broke down over the economy and Mahathir removed him from his position as deputy prime minister in 1998. Some observers say Anwar had been too impatient to become prime minister, slighting his patron.

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Anwar then led public protests against the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition through his movement for change, for which he coined the name Reformasi.

In 1999 Anwar faced charges of sodomy and corruption, which he has always denied. He was sentenced to six years in jail for corruption, with a nine-year prison term added for the sodomy charge the following year.

The sentence was widely criticised by foreign governments and human rights groups as trumped up and politically motivated. Homosexuality is criminalised in Muslim-majority Malaysia, with laws strictly enforced and offences carrying a jail term of up to 20 years.

Photos of Anwar with a black eye, inflicted in prison by Malaysia’s then police chief, were published in newspapers around the world, turning him into a symbol for a struggle that adopted the battle cry of “reformasi”, or reforms.

Anwar Ibrahim
Anwar Ibrahim in custody with a black eye and a split lip. Photograph: CNN/Reuters

He was released in late 2004 after his convictions were overturned, and took a brief hiatus from politics to go into academia, returning to lead an opposition coalition in the 2013 general election – after which he was jailed in 2015 on new sodomy charges that had been made in 2008.

He was given a royal pardon in 2018, and these claims were also condemned as politically motivated. Anwar returned to parliament months later in a byelection.

In 2016, 92-year-old Mahathir surprised the country when he decided to run for election again. That led to another unexpected and more turbulent reconciliation between Anwar and Mahathir – in an effort to oust the prime minister, Najib Razak, who was linked to the multibillion-dollar scandal at the state fund 1MDB.

They scored a historic victory against UMNO and Najib, who is now serving a 12-year jail term 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 sense the people’s strong desire for change and to see Malaysia progress in a new direction,” Anwar said before last week’s polls. After his swearing-in on Thursday, Anwar will finally get to set that direction.


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