Malaysia Dateline

“Anwar Ibrahim: Evolution of A Muslim Democrat,” by Charles Allers (New York: Peter Lang 2013)

Anwar Ibrahim is not an enigma. No one can ever be, when 1/7 of one’s life was spent behind bars; as was the case of Anwar Ibrahim.

If the “sharing” economy, in the form of Facebook, Instagram and Tweets, had stripped every bark of privacy from everyone without a single exception, this is even truer on Anwar Ibrahim than anyone else on earth.

What Anwar Ibrahim read in solitary confinement, the favourite sections of what he read—notwithstanding the voluminous nature of the Quran and the whole series of William Shakespeare, both of which accompanied Anwar Ibrahim at all time—were all known to the authorities, invariably, through keen observation of the Big Brother.

Indeed, it was George Bernard Shaw, a famous playwright, who once said: “Show me the books that the man reads, and I will show you the man.”

Anwar Ibrahim, in this textualist sense, was an open book from 1970s when he began his political career as a student rebel in University of Malaya, and open book again in 1999 when was rearrested, then (re-re) arrested in 2015; until May 9 2018, when Pakatan Harapan, which bore his rebellious DNA, finally won, leading to his full Royal Pardon on the basis of “miscarriage of justice”.

Thus, it is almost redundant to have to read Charles Allers’s book, in order to know Anwar Ibrahim, when his life has been rendered through the stale text of the previous authoritarian government and guided press.

Besides, what is there to know when Anwar Ibrahim’s most exciting next chapter, indeed as the Prime Minister in Waiting, is about to begin with his new electoral foray in Port Dickson ? Wouldn’t it more appropriate to read Anwar Ibrahim, after he has won in Port Dickson hands-down, than before the first vote was cast next week ?

Besides, given the fact that Anwar Ibrahim was shaped by both the Quran and the works of William Shakespeare, from cover to cover, wouldn’t it be far more useful to know Anwar Ibrahim through the interviews that he has given both before and after his numerous politically motivated incarcerations in 1999, or, 2015 ? It would appear that this too would make sense.

In a Q and A session in Singapore Management University just last month, Anwar Ibrahim gave a glimpse of his true feelings.

To the crowd of thousands, he averred that when he saw “Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad taking his oath as the seventh Prime Minister of Malaysia,” on TV, he wished “it was him (who was taking the oath).”

This was Anwar Ibrahim who was honest, candid, and to the point. He humanized himself, just as his prison stints had humanized him on the indignity of excessive powers left unchecked—which Anwar Ibrahim promised one day to counter-vail, as and when, he is allowed to be the next Prime Minister of Malaysia.

Come what may, Charles Allers, rather oddly, did not use the word “evolution” in the Darwinist sense. He should have. But he didn’t.

Thus the book read like a political and legal chronology of his days, in, and out, of prison, invariably, political persecution. Indeed, by obviating the Darwinist dimension, Charles Allers did not so much damage the credibility of the concept of “evolution,” but somewhat dampened the “revolutionary” nature of Anwar Ibrahim’s stature.

The missing dimension has to be noted, too, as the book in reality, carefully chronicled the number of legal appearances that Anwar Ibrahim had had to go through.

Yet Anwar Ibrahim, almost like a creature in Charles Darwin’s famous book, survived the whole daunting experience unscathed; admirably, as did his family.

That being said, Anwar Ibrahim had also confessed that imprisonment, “was something indescribably painful,” which he did not want to wish on anyone else.

Perhaps this is why Anwar Ibrahim’s warning—–that when he is the Prime Minister one day, all had to behave—-has always sounded been tougher and sterner than anyone who issued it. Anwar Ibrahim has been there, and done that, as they said.

Thus, if someone runs afoul of the law, Anwar Ibrahim will not be there to defend him or her. Only that he or she will be treated according to the most humane aspects of the laws.

By not showcasing Anwar Ibrahim as someone who went through the secular hell of brimstone and fire to emerge from his prison cell unharmed, the book did not highlight the extent to which UMNO—-and PAS—-was also a danger unto itself.

Just as UMNO could cannibalize the life and career of Anwar Ibrahim, its voracious appetite could turn inward against itself. And it did.

The regime resilience of UMNO, turned out, to be an aggressive gene, which churned out more and more rebellious leaders, as and when the rent of the state was not proportionately distributed.

Thus, towards May 9 2018, more and more stalwarts of UMNO abandoned UMNO, not surprisingly, by making a beeline to join Tun Dr Mahathir, the only President of UMNO to have quit, or, been sacked, by UMNO, at least three times over four decades.

The likes of Tun Daim Zainuddin, Tan Sri Rais Yatim and Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz all showed up at the events of Pakatan Harapan. This was not merely an indication of the failure of “who gets what and when” but “how much” and “how large” ?

When the wealth distribution formula in UMNO had failed, and is still failing, it goes without saying that the resilience of UMNO was all but a chimera. Charles Allers wrote a valiant book. But he did not completely grasp the delicateness and the human envy that come from bestial nature of the UMNO political economy.

Even PAS’s electoral alliance with UMNO, which the book could not have captured, since the book was first published in 2013, was not anticipated as a potential dalliance of the two political beasts.

Further more, Charles Allers did not explain why Anwar Ibrahim had had to go through the trials, time and again. If there was a conspiracy, why didn’t Anwar Ibrahim just leave ?

After all, Turkey was willing to provide a safe and comfortable sanctuary abroad. Indeed, much as Nelson Mandela was the paragon of a political prisoner, history showed that Nelson Mandela was caught, while trying to escape the Apartheid of South Africa, while Anwar Ibrahim on the other hand was put through the drill of mind boggling trials, where the prosecutor Muhammad Shafee could not even find any credible evidence in the second trial, and was compelled by the circumstances of the time to lean, like a crutch, on the unreliable testimony of one Saiful Bahri, a known Anwar hater in UKM.

Now had Charles Allers made a masterful effort to deploy the word “evolution” to good effect in the Darwinist sense, the book too would have shown Anwar Ibrahim to be nothing short of a stout hero and anti hero combined.

In UMNO, for example, Anwar Ibrahim was celebrated for his incendiary oratory. Out of UMNO, Anwar Ibrahim could in turn draw tens of thousands of people, all without the help of social media in 1998-1999, to see him speak as well. And, often they were spell-bound by his focus on reforms, justice and fairness.

Besides, in the “Survival of the Fittest,” one has to go up against the “Survival of the Fattest,” too. Charles Allers, once again, did not provide a sense of whom or what Anwar Ibrahim was up against, other than a group of cronies who appears to enjoy the parlor game of dripping the proverbial poison into the ears of the Prime Minister, who was then Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad between 1981-2003.

Although Charles Allers made an outstanding contribution to Malaysian Studies—-that corpus of books and literature that formed the social construct of the country—-more can yet be written by Anwar Ibrahim in future, especially if Anwar Ibrahim does not pre-empt the process by first talking openly and candidly in every single interview that has since been his signature style. Overall, this is a solid book to keep in one’s personal diary.

But to know Anwar Ibrahim is to know how he will once again perform as an “MP,” and eventually “PM”—–when the reins of office are passed to him, as Tun Dr Mahathir affirmed, “in two, possibly, three years.”

Meanwhile, to prevent Tun Dr Mahathir from being a lame duck Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim has wisely given Tun Dr Mahathir a wide berth to choose the exact time to step down in retirement. While this arrangement is both unique and unprecedented in Malaysian history, it is not the least exceptional, as Tun Dr Mahathir had once given the full leash of his powers to Anwar Ibrahim in 1994, when Anwar Ibrahim was the interim chair of all the cabinet meetings for a good two months.

It was a two months that won Anwar Ibrahim a lot of praises and compliments too, due to his safe and steady stewardship of the country. History can rhyme and repeat itself in a good way, if two leaders take it as inevitable, that they are now bound in a three legged race, which does not allow any single misstep, period.