Anwar Ibrahim isn’t going to win any Grammy awards, but in the chic tearoom of Paris’s Hotel Bristol he suddenly breaks into a 1960s hit: “Please understand just how I feel / Your love for me, why not reveal? … ” (He is probably channelling the Freddie & the Dreamers version.)
It’s an incongruous sound coming from Malaysia’s skinny opposition leader, with his professorial spectacles and greying goatee. Then Anwar returns to his coffee with honey (“very odd combination”, he concedes) and explains that he and his children used to sing the song together when they visited him in jail. “The guards would all be in tears hearing us,” he chuckles.
Anwar spent six years in solitary confinement, accused of sodomy and corruption (which he denied). He was released in 2004, and in elections on May 5 might become prime minister. His multi-ethnic opposition coalition has a genuine chance of toppling the Barisan Nasional coalition, which in different guises has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957. Anwar considers Malaysia a “sham democracy” that favours a coterie of ethnic Malays. He promises to bring multi-ethnic democracy. If he succeeds, Malaysia will make a journey that resembles his own: from ethnic Malay supremacist to arrogant Malay ruler to chastened multi-ethnic leader. So much in his story echoes Malaysia’s story.
Anwar, who is in town to give a speech, has come to the Bristol alone this morning, without bodyguards, albeit warily. In Malaysia he worries about being bugged or murdered. Abroad he feels freer. But even here he is cautious: “All this opposition to the Shah, to Putin, were killed in London.” Drinking his odd concoction he recounts his life story.
He was born in 1947 into an ordinary Malay family. He called his Chinese and Indian neighbours “uncle” and “auntie”. But later he ran an Islamic students’ association, and in 1982 jumped to the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) – the ruling party that he now opposes.
Umno’s great cause was affirmative action for ethnic Malays, the country’s majority group. “Look,” Anwar says now, “I started in the 1960s. Basically the entire business outfits were controlled by ethnic Chinese. I started off very concerned, saying, ‘You have to have affirmative action for Malays.’ ”
The clever young man soared within Umno. In 1991 prime minister Mahathir Mohamad made him finance minister. However, Anwar and Mahathir later fell out. Anwar says he came to oppose affirmative action as a get-rich scheme for children of the ruling elite. And when he appeared on Time magazine’s cover in 1997, he says Mahathir was “very annoyed”. But Anwar admits he hadn’t anticipated Mahathir jailing him. “Nobody knew Mahathir as well as I did. Even his children were not as close to him.”
Suddenly Anwar was in a cell, with “all the time in the world”. “For six months Mahathir didn’t give me anything. No paper. So I sang, of course. My generation was Ricky Nelson, Paul Anka, The Beatles, Johnny Mathis. I also sing Malay songs, Hindi songs. Can you imagine how many hundreds of songs I memorised? It’s crazy.”
Later he was allowed books. Anwar’s habit of quoting classic authors in speeches isn’t simply an affectation. In jail he read them all: the Bible, Hindi epics, Lao Tse, Shakespeare. All of Shakespeare? “Four and a half times, copious notes,” he chuckles. He has even addressed an academic Shakespeare conference in Australia. He identified with King Lear, ousted from power, though after Anwar’s release Nelson Mandela teased him: “Why King Lear? Julius Caesar!”
In jail, says Anwar, “I learned a lot. You see people being tortured. I was beaten badly, but the world knows about it. How many thousands in Malaysian prisons being treated that way? Nobody knows about it.”
Out of jail, Anwar became a multi-ethnic politician. Of course allying with other ethnic groups was his best hope against Umno, but, he insists: “I matured.” He now sees “Malay supremacy” as “a major problem”.
His newfound multiculturalism hasn’t kept him from a favourite pastime of Malaysian politicians: Jew-baiting. Umno has long enjoyed pointing out Anwar’s friendships with American Jewish politicians. “They printed my picture with Paul Wolfowitz and sent it to every village,” he grumbles. So in 2010 Anwar enjoyed pointing out that Umno’s “1Malaysia” campaign curiously resembled an Israeli “One Israel” campaign. He said the same PR agency concocted both.
Wasn’t this anti-Semitic? Anwar protests: “I had to face the domestic audience that portrayed me as a Jewish agent.” But, he adds, sadly: “Frankly, I’ve not been able to recover fully, because some of the Jewish establishment in the States went very severe.”
Still, by Malaysian standards Anwar is multicultural. His other plank is Umno’s corruption. Perhaps because he fell, his own family remains comparatively austere. When I met his chatty veiled daughter in Paris, and instructed her on local taxis, she asked me about metro tickets. “Budget!” was how she summed up her travel strategies.
In the 2008 election, Anwar’s coalition got 47 per cent of the vote. Now, despite government control of most media, he could feasibly win. Then he might finally get the job that Mahathir denied him – but now possibly as a humbler man