Bill Clinton once styled himself the “comeback kid,” but he has nothing on Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim. Two weeks ago, the former deputy prime minister turned political prisoner was officially cleared to reenter politics, and many think he could become his country’s next prime minister. He spoke to FP about his return to power and how former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad thought he could break him.
Foreign Policy: When will you seek political office?
Anwar Ibrahim: I can now. The issue is when do I want to do it. [The opposition alliance] has five state governments with one federal territory, six regions that are the key regions. We have to make sure that they are managed well and transparently. There are a lot of things that need to be done because we are not just improving the performance of the previous government. I want to ensure that the coalition will stick together, and there is the responsibility of taking over the government. That is more pressing than my personally running for a seat in the Parliament, because that would deflect attention. But I am not discounting [my running for office]. We are still looking at it and it can even be soon.
FP: What explains your coalitions strong performance in the last election?
AI: It is a strength of a more multiracial, interreligious formula. We are forged together on the basis of our belief in democratic reforms. After all, this is not something alien. This is what was promised to us when we achieved independence in 1957. Coupled with this multiracial, interreligious agenda, we talk about a new Malaysian economic agenda. We have lost competitiveness. There is no independent judiciary. People tend to ignore the fact that a true democratic administration would give people more confidence.
The elections here were never free and fair. We dont have free media. I dont have 10 minutes of airtime on local television. Even the electoral process was clearly fraudulent. But with all that, we still made an extremely impressive showing. They term it now a political tsunami.
FP: So what is the most difficult part of leading an opposition party like this?
AI: You have to spend a lot of time engaging them. Getting them to agree is not just a matter of political expediency. It is a matter of creating a specific policy and reform agenda while protecting the interests of these party elements. The engagement is a series of conversations. It is tiring.
FP: Do you have concern about people defecting? How are you going to hold them together?
AI: For now we are very firm and committed to the program. In fact, it is the ruling party that is now worried about people defecting.
We have the numbers. We have 30 [members of the ruling party who say they will defect]. The question then is, why dont we move now? We are not moving now for a number of reasons. Number one, Parliament has not yet convened. Secondly, we want the majority to be comfortable. Number three, those that have committed must be tested that they are committed to the reform agenda. Otherwise the coalition can be volatile.
FP: Mahathir Mohamad was prime minister of Malaysia for 22 years before he retired in 2003. What do you think his legacy will be?
AI: I think [he will be remembered] as a young nationalist who came into the picture to try to make a stand in terms of change and becoming more independent, but grew to be too overconfident, too assertive, and turned into almost a megalomaniac. The country was his. This is often a problem with many of the leaders of emerging countries. You have the sense even now that he believes he cannot leave because of what [he thinks] will be destroyed. What is being destroyed? The media and the judiciary was destroyed under him.
FP: You got into trouble in the late 1990s once you began to criticize Mahathir, your former political mentor. Did you underestimate him as a political opponent?
AI: No, I didnt. But at that time I had strong views. He resented the idea of my rapport and contact with the West, particularly the United States. And I said, I know I am not on the CIA payroll. I have strong views on Iraq. I have very independent views. What is the harm of my treating America as a friend? He expects everyone else to be so anti-American to the point of being irrational.
FP: Do you think that Mahathir inadvertently made you a tougher opponent?
AI: Mahathir probably underestimated me. He always believed that people crack under torture or detention. He used to tell me in those days, when we were on friendlier terms, that what he dreaded most was to be detained without knowing when he would be released. So that is what he did to me. He underestimated me. He thought that I would break.
Anwar Ibrahim is former deputy prime minister and finance minister of Malaysia. He was sentenced to six years in prison on corruption charges in 1999, sentenced to another nine years for sodomy in 2000, and released in 2004. He now leads the countrys alliance of opposition parties.