Interview

'Remind People that I Won’t Be Free for Long'

Anwar Ibrahim on Malaysia’s mishandling of MH370, President Obama, and good Jews and bad Jews.

Malaysia's embattled opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim may not be meeting Barack Obama when the U.S. president visits Kuala Lumpur on April 26-27, but he has a message for him: Ibrahim's party won the 2013 election in this Muslim country of 30 million people, and Obama's meeting with the wrong guy.

"How is it conceivable that the U.S. government could ignore the massive election fraud in Malaysia?" Anwar asked. "I would like to see the United States remain consistent and coherent in their policy of supporting democracy. Sending drones to Afghanistan for democracy, and ignoring that I garnered 52 percent of the popular vote? We won!" he said in a phone interview with Foreign Policy on April 17.

Ibrahim was Malaysia's deputy prime minister and finance minister until he ran afoul of the long-serving former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad. The political conflict led to a 1998 conviction on sodomy and corruption charges, followed by 6 years in solitary confinement. In 2008, Ibrahim put together an opposition coalition that he claims would have won the 2013 government election, had the elections been fair -- which the ruling government, helmed by current Prime Minister Najib Razak disputes. Convicted again of sodomy in March -- an almost certainly politically motivated overturning of an earlier acquittal -- Anwar may face another long spell in prison. "Remind people that I won't be free for long," he told FP. (The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Foreign Policy: If you had been prime minister, how would you have handled the MH370 inquiry differently?

Anwar Ibrahim: Although the media here is completely controlled by the government, Malaysia is not. I would say that given this situation, the issue is how you manage a crisis. You must remain consistent with your statements. And transparent! Otherwise, nobody will trust you.

Why is the government concealing critical information about the radar? Or the passenger manifest of those who use stolen passports! Why is the cargo manifest not made public, knowing very well that is relevant? What are we hiding?

Mangosteens are not in season -- but Malaysian Airlines confirmed they had three to four tons of mangosteens on board. The Thais didn't have it now, nor did the Indonesians -- so how on Earth did they get all of these mangosteens?

All of these contradictions have caused a lot of concern -- that the government is concealing information, and even worse, misleading.

It is very difficult to understand that in this day and age you can have a huge plane and not detect it.

FP: Do you think Prime Minister Najib [Razak] knows where the plane is?

AI: I don't think so. I don't know. But what is questionable is why are they now concealing relevant information. What sort of integrity can we have when we can't release this critical information?

FP: U.S. President Barack Obama will meet with Prime Minister Razak on Saturday. Would you like Obama to mention your situation to him?

AI: The United States is more preoccupied with TPP [the Trans-Pacific Partnership] and international trade than issues of freedom and repression. It's not an issue if Obama meets me or not. But if you preach democracy, you have to be consistent.

Unlike most countries, the prime minister and foreign minister would take any steps to not let any foreign leader to see me. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said to me, "I'll meet you in Ankara, it's too much hassle to meet you in Kuala Lumpur!"

FP: And if Obama wanted to meet with you in KL?

AI: I would be surprised that the U.S. president can be dictated to by Malaysian protocols.

FP: Malaysia lacks diplomatic relations with Israel. What would it take for you to establish them?

AI: I was hammered by the government here for what I told the Wall Street Journal in a January 2012 interview: I was attacked as pro-Jew, pro-Israel.

The ruling party already hangs my picture saying all the Jews -- Robert Rubin, Madeleine Albright, Paul Wolfowitz -- are Anwar's friends! And that is quite effective. My photograph with [former World Bank President] Wolfowitz is in many villages around Malaysia.

I make no apologies about them being my friends -- they are good Jews! There are good Muslims and bad Muslims, just like good Jews and bad Jews. I choose the good Jews.

If I'm a friend of Bob Rubin, he was secretary of the treasury -- yes, he's a friend, what's the problem?

In the United States, APCO and other public relations firms portray me as anti-Semitic. I have taken a large beating through Najib's hiring of APCO as his consultant. As you know, they have been involved in Nigeria and Kazakhstan in the past, and the highest paid is Malaysia -- $20 million in one go!

I don't have a problem with the government using APCO -- but why must they use paid bloggers, journalists, to demonize me in the United States? [APCO did work for the government of Malaysia until 2010. In an emailed statement, Adam Williams, APCO's global media relations manager wrote that "we have never worked to portray Mr. Anwar as anti-Semitic. We have never taken editorial control over or paid bloggers or journalists to write stories. It is against our code of conduct as a firm."]

So I will be very careful: I continue to support the plight of the Palestinians. It is important for Israel to recognize the plight of Palestinians, and recognize their rights. And contingent on this we can explore with countries such as Turkey, Qatar and Indonesia the right way to engage with Israel.

FP: Last summer, Prime Minister Razak responded to a question about the Arab Spring in Malaysia by saying there was "no basis for people to go onto the streets." Do you believe that?

AI: He's presiding over an authoritarian regime with no free media, a compromised judiciary -- and all of this is being exposed. Naturally he would sound like Hosni Mubarak!

I would frankly concede that the government is not as blatantly dictatorial or cruel as Mubarak's. We have better infrastructure and investment is coming. But its authoritarian manner, endemic corruption -- that's why people are talking about going to a major rally on May 1.

FP: Why were you accused of sodomy -- why that particular crime?

AI: I am clean, so they had to resort to something that conservative Muslims would find distasteful. It has been used by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein against his opponents. Even Hitler in one case, if I'm not mistaken. It's convenient.

They can haul up young guys and get them to say it -- with not a shred of evidence! No witnesses!

I should add: No one should be above the law. But that sodomy law is obsolete because it is rarely used except against me or other opposition leaders. Second, you have to produce evidence! It's shocking.

FP: Back to political matters, how would your policies towards China differ from Prime Minister Najib's?

AI: The position of the government is purely trade and business, and soft on China.

While we are very [much in favor of] strong relations, our position on issues on human rights is certainly more pronounced.

I have personally taken a position on Uighurs in China -- we have appealed to the international community to be cognizant that the Uighurs have a right to be heard. We have evidence of abuses and oppression towards them. Our position has always been to encourage China to give them their rights.

FP: If you were Malaysia's prime minister and were meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, would you bring up the case of the imprisoned Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo?

AI: I would certainly -- in a polite, nuanced way. We are a small country, and we are not in a position to provoke. But it would be unacceptable for me, after being imprisoned for more than 7 years of my adult life, and completely insensitive to ignore the plight of prisoners of conscience.

MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images

Interview

You Must First Invent the Universe

A conversation with legendary video game developer Sid Meier about the worlds he’s made, the people who have played in them, and how his Civilization resembles reality.

Sid Meier has made a career of putting the world -- many worlds, actually -- at people's fingertips. For over 30 years, he has developed video games that allow people to build empires and rewrite history.

He is known for Civilization, one of the most famous series of computer games ever made. When it debuted in 1991, gamers flocked to its colorful and compelling chronicle of the military, economic, technological, and cultural rise and fall of civilizations spanning 6,000 years of human history. The game allows players to assume the role of George Washington, Alexander the Great, Nebuchadnezzar, or one of a dozen other famous leaders to guide their civilization's development -- building armies, developing technology, and amassing fortunes along the way. For many players, Civilization made history and politics fun for the first time, a chance to get hands-on with controlling the destiny of nations. Some 23 years later, millions of copies have been sold and the franchise is now in its fifth edition. Foreign Policy spoke with Meier about the inspiration behind the game and whether it can help us to understand current events.

Foreign Policy: What inspired you to design Civilization in the first place?

Sid Meier: There were a couple of games I had played that had good [game] mechanics, some good ideas. As a game designer, you're always thinking, "If I were to do this game, I would add this or change that." I had been playing Sim City and another game called Empire. These were what are now called "god games," where a player starts small and builds up over time. We had just finished Railroad Tycoon, which also had a bit of that quality. You started with one little railroad, you added track, and built this railroad empire.

People liked the idea. So we said: What's the topic that we could build upon this idea of starting small and building up? Let's just do the whole history of civilization. There are all sorts of cool stuff there. The idea was to make a game of that instead of blowing things up -- which is what most of the games were about at that time -- a game of building something that was your own design, so that every player would have a different story, a different path through the game, so that they own the experience.

FP: Were you always interested in history?

SM: I always had an interest in history, and especially military history. Part of the inspiration for Civ was to relive the life of Napoleon, or Julius Caesar, or other great leaders who had made a small nation into an empire. It was kind of a Walter Mitty fantasy.

FP: The Civilization games became almost a cultural phenomenon. What about them speaks to people?

SM: We really didn't design it in, but as I look back, I realize there is a really interesting growth path in the game. In the beginning, you have one or two military units, just a couple of technologies, and just a couple choices to make. The game opens up and unfolds gradually at your own pace. And before you know it, you're dealing with lots of interesting decisions.

There is also that one-more-turn quality. There are enough different things going on that there is never really a good time to stop. In one city, you're building something, and when that is done, you're exploring this other continent. And then you meet the leader of another civilization, and you're wondering how that is going to turn out. There are enough different threads in your imagination at any one time. One of the reasons that Civ has become this well-known phenomenon is that people remember the night when they stayed up to 3 a.m. playing it. It's these experiences that stick with you.

FP: It seems to me that it taps into people's desires to get hands-on with history. 

SM: I think it's doing history your way. What if things had gone this way instead of that, or how would I have dealt with these great world leaders? Maybe you believe that military power is the answer, or culture is the way to go. You can explore all these directions.

FP: Which of the empires in the game resembles today's United States? 

SM: One of the things we avoid is forcing the player down a certain path, or trying to recreate history. This is a brand-new version of history that you as the player create. One of the stories we often hear is that a player meets Gandhi [the leader of the Indian civilization in the game], and pushes Gandhi to the point where he is really upset and launches nuclear weapons.

We're giving players a sandbox. Trying to create a specific situation detracts from the feeling that the player has control and is able to determine the direction of the game. There are places in the game where you can decide what type of government you want, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each. Civ may represent some of the forces and considerations that are involved in running a country, but I wouldn't claim that we have any particular insight into the United States today. 

FP: You must have seen every strategy that players have used. Some are aggressive, some are stupid, some work, and some don't. Do you see the United States ever pursuing similar strategies?

SM: I think there is a general question of short-term versus long-term decisions. Sometimes something will seem like the right answer for a short-term game, but in the long term it will be detrimental to your country. Civ certainly introduces you to a lot of general concepts of decision-making and trade-offs: The idea of allying with other civilizations versus being at war with them, looking at the cost of things versus their value. In a military or an emergency situation, buying military units in Civ may be the best thing to do. Otherwise, your money is best spent elsewhere. You're thinking like a leader in terms of consequences and trade-offs, and trying to come up with a plan for a world where things change and evolve every turn. You have to have the flexibility to change your strategy. Maybe that's the lesson for today. 

FP: Do you pay a lot of attention to historical accuracy?

SM: Most of our decisions were based on common knowledge, as opposed to some intense research of obscure details of history. What we were actually trying to do is allow you to play based on your own knowledge of history, not because you have read the same history books that we have. We use broad, familiar ideas to drive the game. For example, the player knows that inventing the wheel in the game is probably going to be helpful. 

FP: The game is essentially a narrative epic of how civilizations progress over thousands of years. Is this how you view the path of human history?

SM: The original design of Civ was the rise and fall of civilizations. There would be occasional setbacks, such as the Dark Ages, that you would have to overcome, and the glory of overcoming them would be satisfying. But what we found was that when bad things happen, people would just reload the game. They were not interested in the fall of civilizations. Just the rise of them. 

So we ended up with a game of constant progress. We actually started to understand the psychology of gamers. When something bad happens, often they blame it on the computer, or the designer, or some other outside force. They would think it wasn't fair, and they would reload the game.

We also found the same phenomenon when nuclear weapons came into play in the game. Players did not have much hesitation in using nuclear weapons against the AI-controlled civilizations. But if somehow the AI used a nuclear weapon against them, it would be: "wait a minute, that's not fair." The message of Civ is that [nuclear weapons are] a lose-lose for everybody. But we found that we couldn't allow the AI to use them, because it was destroying the player's experience. If the player is destroying the AI's experience, then it's only the computer that suffers. 

FP:  Do you have a favorite power or strategy in Civ?

SM: I guess I tend to think of Civ in terms of the various types of gameplay now, rather than as particular powers. I've tried most of the strategies in the game at one time or another. I think I enjoy getting away with small victories against larger opponents: beating them to build Wonders [special cultural achievements with in-game benefits] first, or maybe snatching away a prime spot on the map. It makes me feel clever. 

FP: How would you say the Civ games have evolved?

SM: It's pretty surprising to look back, I guess, 20 years now, and see it still cranking along. With each iteration, we brought in fresh designers. Keeping the basic core concepts but adding in new elements, new ideas. By Civ III, we got to the point where we realized that for every new thing we put in, we had to take something else out, because the game was in danger of overwhelming the player. We kept up with graphic advances, added multiplayer, added networking, all the cool stuff that the progression of computers has allowed us to do. But it's always been a game where you didn't need the latest cutting-edge computer. Then there's been a player community that has created mods and maps and variations that have added another dimension to the game. All of that explains why we are the fifth generation of Civ and the game is still alive. 

FP: So what is the secret of Civ's longevity?

SM: I think there is a combination of these grand ideas -- war and peace, exploration, 6,000 years of history, great leaders -- in a playable format. You can easily make a game with these elements that is unplayable or overwhelming. What we've tried to do is introduce these elements in a playable, manageable way, so that you as the player can master and experiment with them. Combining these things is the power of Civ. 

FP: Has anyone told you that Civ has affected their real lives?

SM: I have often heard of people whose interest in history or politics was stimulated. Occasionally, you'll meet a proud parent who says, ‘My son knew all about Napoleon because he ran into him in the game and he got interested in him.' We've always had the Civilopedia in the game where you could look up more information. Also, there have been teachers who have used the game to expose students to world history in a fun way. That kind of feedback is really gratifying. 

FP: Have we seen the last of Civ?

SM: No. We're not done with Civ, but we also like to do other things. Last year, we released XCom: Enemy Unknown, which is a game about an alien invasion and Ace Patrol, a game of WWI aircraft. We like all kinds of strategy games. I'm sure Civ will be a part of our future for quite some time.

(c) The Photo Group 2012 via Flickr