Malaysia’s PM-in-Waiting looks back at the trials he faced in his political career, and charting the course ahead, suggests India take a more positive leadership role
Few politicians could have scripted a comeback of the kind Datuk Seri Anwar Bin Ibrahim has made. He has been elected back to Parliament 20 years after being imprisoned on charges of homosexuality and sodomy by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad in 1998. Mr. Ibrahim, who was acquitted in the case and later received a full royal pardon, partnered Dr. Mahathir in elections as part of the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance for Hope) that came to power in May 2018, and has been named the successor to Mr. Mahathir, who says he will step down before May 2020. Mr. Ibrahim says ties with India are well below potential and must be strengthened.
You have visited India in the past, and now are here as part of the government headed by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad. How do you see bilateral ties with India going forward?
I think Malaysia established strong ties under PMs [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee and Dr. Manmohan Singh to the present, but the progress in recent years under [former Malaysian PM] Najib has been small compared to what we hoped to achieve in terms of trade and investment, in comparison to the ties with China, for example. The potential for India is much more. PM Modi was one of the first to travel to Kuala Lumpur after Dr. Mahathir was sworn in, and I met him for very good discussions. During my visit here, I have met with [Congress president] Rahul Gandhi who said he was studying the Malaysian Opposition (win)…(Laughs), and also stressed the importance of trade and cultural ties, which I will also speak to Prime Minister Modi about [during the meeting on Thursday].
One big thorn in the side of the relationship is the presence of Zakir Naik, a preacher accused of hate speech in India and of inciting terrorists to carry out an attack in Bangladesh. Has India raised this with you during Prime Minister Narendra’s Modi’s visit or otherwise, and are there any assurances your government will give?
This has not been raised with me personally. We do not subscribe to all allegations unless we are furnished with the details. We would need some evidence to the effect. Malaysia has been tough on terrorism, and if we are given incontrovertible evidence that someone has been involved, we would not tolerate it.
The government has sent an official request for Mr. Naik’s deportation. Yet to the disappointment of many in Delhi, Dr. Mahathir even met him and then said publicly that he would not be deported. Surely, the Indian request could have been considered.
The meeting took place prior to that request. The authorities are yet to be given formal evidence. Yes, there is a request from India, but we don’t act purely on a request unless there is also a strong compelling case. We do not condone any form of terror.
What are the other regional issues India and Malaysia can work on together?
Well, I feel India as a democracy in the region should take a more positive leadership role, and I have said that I am disappointed that India has taken a position on Myanmar for example that business first and human rights in the background, both when Aung San Suu Kyi, and now with the Rohingya, we hoped India would be the voice of reason and champion the cause of justice.
To come to government formation, most were surprised to see you and Dr. Mahathir, the man who imprisoned you, come together to fight elections. Have there been any regrets about the decision?
No, because we did succeed in toppling the corrupt regime and we now are dealing with the huge financial problems left behind. Also Dr. Mahathir has announced a major programme of agenda. Of course, there are concerns amongst our younger supporters, including my daughter [Nurul Izzah Anwar] who has now left party positions out of growing disenchantment, and we have to concede that people expect more from our government. The abdication of the King, although it is a separate issue, also came at a time which made it seem as if the government was in trouble. But to the credit of Tun Mahathir, he has given a clear direction to the government.
How difficult was it to enter the partnership itself … did you need to forgive Mr. Mahathir?
I am not a hypocrite, and I will say that it was a difficult decision and equally painful to my wife and children who had suffered so much. I told them we have to look forward for the country’s sake. Azizah [his wife] was committed, went ahead in the campaign. The problems faced by the country were more acute than the problems I faced. Being in jail, solitary confinement, the assault by the police chief, the humiliation of sexual and treason allegations were all very hard, but eventually we won. Despite all the money, judiciary, etc., stacked against us, one cannot stop the will of the masses.
You are now in a strange sort of limbo, as the Prime Minister-in-waiting. Yet no one really knows when the handover from PM Mahathir will be. Do you know?
Yes, both PM Mahathir and I have agreed and the party has agreed that it won’t be more than two years (May 2020), but I said it is important that we shouldn’t announce the date. We want PM Mahathir to effectively run the country with full support, not as a lameduck. We need to be united and focus on the serious economic problems.
You have already been through 20 years of very trying times. Isn’t two years a long time to wait?
(Laughs) It’s only eight months since I was released, and I really do want to take my time, travel, meet people without all the protocol. These things would be lost once I take a position of power, and I just need some space to study what I need to do.
Do you worry however, that you may never become PM?
I am 71 years old, and I have been to hell and back and hell and back again, so I am not overly concerned about the future.
I know people think politicians don’t mean that, but I do. Que Sera Sera (What will be, will be).
What about the role of your wife, Deputy PM Wan Azizah… Will she have to step down when you become PM?
Yes, she has said she wants to step down when I assume office because she feels it will not be proper. She will continue to play her role, especially for health and culture and welfare.
One of the first big decisions made by the Mahathir government was to cancel three major Chinese infrastructure projects that were part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Is the government considering withdrawing from the BRI as well?
No. I visited China after PM Mahathir’s visit, and said we had issues with some of the projects that were exorbitant. Dr. Mahathir also said that we are not against China, we want Chinese investments, but the BRI projects we cancelled were not viable for us.
How will you embark on economic reforms given the massive $250 billion debt that Malaysia has incurred?
The main issue is governance. With proper investment we can resolve our issues.
The debt may be huge but the fundamentals are strong for a trading nation, a net exporter of petroleum like Malaysia.
I hope we can work more aggressively with India on increasing trade and investment as well.