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March 09, 2009

Anwar Ibrahim, an Interview in Malaysia

Photo: didiz I fotokahwin on Flickr using Creative Commons

by Dinda Elliott

What is it that makes some people so courageous, willing to risk everything for something they believe in? I am asking myself this question, thinking about how we Americans take so much for granted in the freedoms we enjoy every day.

In the cool, high-ceilinged villa that is home to Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia's former deputy prime minister, who spent six years in solitary confinement after challenging then prime minister Mahathir Mohammad, the drone of Islamic music fills the living room. The Anwar family is religious--his wife and daughters, now both politicians in their own rights, proudly wear tudongs, Malaysian headscarves reflecting Islamic modesty--and I figure the music is part of the Muslim atmosphere of their daily lives. But I am a little worried that my tape recorder will not pick up Anwar's soft voice above the din. I have waited ten years for this interview.

As Hong Kong bureau chief for Newsweek magazine, I had covered the anti-corruption and reform movement Anwar launched in 1998. Before he went to jail, I had interviewed Anwar and gotten to know him a little bit. Through secret channels, I was able to publish a letter from Anwar in prison when Newsweek named him "Asian of the Year." Or rather, I should say Anwar found a way--and dared--to sneak a letter to me.

I ask Anwar how he survived six years in solitary confinement. "It wasn't easy," Anwar replies. The worst moment, he says, was when his mother died. He just stared and stared at the wall, not knowing what to do. Mahathir had ordered to have cameras installed just outside his cell to prevent guards from chatting with him. Nonetheless, sympathetic guards would shout to the clinic down the hall that Anwar had a headache so that he could have some human contact. There, he tells me, he saw a young Indian man who had been severely caned for a simple theft. "As a politician, I used to say to people 'I feel for you,'" Anwar says, "but after prison, when you have seen something like that, it is very different. Yes, I feel other people's pain."

Halfway through our talk, Anwar stands up to turn off the music, which has reached a louder pitch. "Even here, we always have to keep on some music, because you know," he says, pointing to the ceiling, "there is always someone listening." Right now, Anwar is facing more charges--the second time the government has gone after him for alleged sodomy. The case has been kicked up to the high court, and Anwar says he may well go back to jail.

But the anti-corruption movement he launched has taken on steam. Last year, the opposition to the coalition that has ruled Malaysia for 50 years won five states out of 13, and the ruling coalition lost its two-thirds majority. Things have gotten vicious of late, as the ruling elite, widely considered to be extremely corrupt, fight to hold onto power. Most Malaysians think that is the reason the new case has been raised against Anwar. "Yes, they would like to get rid of me," says Anwar. "But I believe we will prevail."

There are certainly Malaysians who are suspicious of Anwar, arguing that he is a slick politician just like the rest of them. But like him or not, this man has more courage than I can possibly imagine. Yes, he is a politician; but at least he has a vision of a different, clean Malaysia. And Anwar is willing to risk everything for the sake of that goal.

Further reading:
* "Sexual Politics, Malaysia Style": The first charges again Anwar Ibrahim
* More from Malaysia: Penang's Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Obama-mania and bargaining at markets
* Dispatches: On the road


I've constantly found it difficult to explain the complicated political web that permeates Malaysian politics to people who are unfamiliar with the country but this article puts it in terms that would make the reader intrigued to find out more. Anwar's place in Malaysian politics at the moment is born of years of carefully planned character assassination and political back-stabbing by some of the most powerful people in the country. The skepticism that he meets from the people in Malaysia is clearly part of this carefully planted seed. I am by no means a supporter of the ex-ruling National Front party and only wishes Anwar all the best in the treacherous waters that is Malaysian politics. To know that my beloved Malaysia has someone like him fighting for it's real people and ideals, one can only pray and hope for the best.


Great article and insight on Anwar Ibrahim and how Malaysian politics works. One can only hope the next Prime Minister will not use the draconian laws of the Internal Security Act to arrest the opposition which made headway in the last general elections. Although, sad to report, it already has begun with the ban of two opposition newspapers.

The culture of corruption in Malaysia continues to thrive and will continue to do so as long as the sitting government continues in its old ways. Disheartening to see as this has gone unchecked and crime is on the rise. One can only hope Anwar and the opposition parties continue to stand strong and challenge the current government.

These are both very thoughtful comments -- many thanks. I agree that it's painful -- even sadder, sometimes comical -- to see Malaysia's farcical politics unfold. But the one thing I would add is that it's an absolutely wonderful place to visit as a traveler. The food is fantastic -- the best nyonya laksa in Penang, of course! -- and there is noplace else where you can really experience three colorful cultures right next to each other: Malay, Chinese, and Indian. It doesn't get much better than that.

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