KUALA LUMPUR: Anwar Ibrahim has made the biggest political gamble of his life by forging an alliance with Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, his political nemesis for the past two decades — all in the hope of “saving Malaysia.”
In an exclusive interview with Arab News, Malaysia’s former deputy leader said: “We have had our problems, but we are focused on efforts to save Malaysia from corruption, racism and gross injustice.”
Anwar was Mahathir’s deputy premier during his first stint as prime minister, before he was sacked in 1998 and later imprisoned on charges of sodomy and corruption.
The political veteran was freed from prison and given a royal pardon last week.
In a “David and Goliath” contest, the Alliance of Hope (PH) defeated the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) government at the recent national polls, offering both politicians a political lifeline.
Inside the People Justice Party’s (Keadilan) headquarters, the mild-mannered Anwar said he is “rejoicing and appreciating the meaning of freedom.”
“I feel great (and) happy to be with the family, although I am not spending much time with them,” he said.
Since his release from prison, Anwar has undertaken a relentless series of meetings and interviews, with only a few hours’ sleep each day.
“My next plan is to go back and sleep,” he joked.
Mahathir has hinted to reporters that his primeministership could end within one or two years to make way for Anwar to take over the leadership.
That time frame could allow the charismatic Keadilan leader — now basking in his new-found freedom — to chart a political comeback.
“In the next few months I will contemplate contesting a seat to be an MP so that I can follow developments in the parliament and outside the parliament more closely,” he said.
Anwar caused a stir when he gave the green light for Mahathir to be Malaysia’s seventh prime minister if the Alliance of Hope (PH) took office.
“Firstly, (Mahathir) had the opportunity to lead the campaign in the elections and, secondly, I was in jail. It’s a pragmatic consideration,” he said.
The relationship between the two leaders has always been a complicated one.
Early in his political career, Anwar, a former Islamist and student activist, made a political U-turn when joined the Barisan Nasional (BN) under Mahathir. He was subsequently appointed deputy prime minister in 1993.
However, their political relationship quickly crumbled and Anwar was sacked in 1998. A relentless Anwar kickstarted the reformation movement and formed the Keadilan political party.
Since then he has been in and out of prison under both Mahathir’s and Najib Razak’s administrations for what have been described as politically motivated sodomy charges.
Now the two leaders have united against Najib, who is facing mounting criticizm over his lavish lifestyle. Claims of misuse of power have also angered many Malaysians, including those from the ruling Malay party UMNO.
“The elections or the struggle is not just about me — it is about what we can do to save the country. If it means working with Mahathir, that is fine with me,” said Anwar.
Before the elections, Mahathir courted controversy by forming Malaysia’s Malay and Indigenous Party and subsequently joining PH. Activists highlighted his tainted record on human rights and iron-fisted leadership.
“You can’t erase the past, but you can be reasonable enough to chart a new future,” Anwar said.
Mahathir had made amends for his past wrongdoings and was willing to move on for the sake of the nation, he said.
A key aim of Mahathir’s newly minted administration is tackling the 1MDB corruption scandal, with billions of dollars allegedly siphoned off from Malaysia’s state investment fund.
Since PH took power, former prime minister Najib Razak had been stopped from leaving the country and his properties raided by police as part of an investigation called by Mahathir.
In a recent speech at his constituency in Pekan, Najib lamented that the government “did not treat him well.”
“Personally, I went through that. I understand the predicament,” Anwar said, recalling his experience as a political detainee.
“But he is being treated well as far as I am concerned, far better than the first few weeks that I had to be hauled up and imprisoned. Nevertheless, whatever request he wants to make, he should make it.”
One of the mandates of the new government is to uphold “the rule of law,” with a fair and just judiciary system.
This extends to the 1MDB case, Anwar said. “The judiciary cannot be compromised. The trial should be handled by a senior judge with impeccable credentials.”
He said if the government stopped “all the leakages (of money) and corruption, we would have billions extra at our disposal.”
Anwar said he is committed to ending the culture of corruption in government: “Projects that are given to cronies that are supposed to cost 20 million but cost 40 million — this needs to stop.
“We have given our commitment to stop this rot,” he said. “The rakyat (people) should not support a government that is corrupt.”
Anwar also addressed the recent escalation of terrorism in the region, including the recent bombing of three churches in Indonesia.
Malaysia and Indonesia share similar challenges in countering terrorism, he said.
“Our problem is in the past, we tend to lump everyone together as extremists — the moment they dislike you, if they criticize you, then they become the extremist.
“But we need to be tough against the perpetrators of violence, Muslims or otherwise. When you commit violence, you commit harm to an ordinary person,” he said.
Anwar emphasised the need to “address this issue in the rural heartland, the conservative hub and in traditional schools” to combat terrorism.