Mahathir 'compassionate', Najib's fall from grace 'karma', says Anwar

KUALA LUMPUR: Reformist Anwar Ibrahim returned to the national spotlight on Wednesday (May 16) after his release from prison.

After a marathon day of meeting with the Malaysian king, bidding emotional farewells to the guards he says were kind to him and addressing a packed news conference, Anwar excused himself for an appointment he cannot miss – ice cream with his young grandchildren.

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Anwar Ibrahim spending time with his family. (Photo: Sumisha Naidu)

These are the ordinary moments Anwar is trying to savour. But three years after he first entered prison on a sodomy conviction, nothing is ordinary about Malaysia. 

Just that morning, for instance, he walked free, ahead of schedule but no longer as an opposition leader. Now, he is the de facto head of a party in government.

“It’s a new dawn for the country, it’s a new experience,” he tells Channel NewsAsia, in an interview at his home in Kuala Lumpur. 

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Anwar has been fully pardoned by the king for a sodomy conviction he says was orchestrated by former prime minister Najib Razak in a bid to keep him out of politics.

Since Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan defeated Barisan Nasional (BN) in a shock election victory, Najib has had a spectacular fall from grace. He resigned as BN chairman and president of his party UMNO after being barred from leaving the country, as well as being investigated by authorities over “many complaints”.

“In a way it’s like karma, you have to pay for what you did,” Anwar said of Najib now.

“I personally have no malice, I’ve forgiven. But then public funds and other criminal activities involving others must be dealt with.”

Anwar said he has also forgiven current Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The two were political rivals after Anwar was sacked by Mahathir as deputy prime minister in 1998. When he was sent to prison in 1999, he blamed Mahathir for being behind it – the same way he has of Najib.

Almost two decades later, however, Anwar gave his blessings for Mahathir’s new party to join his opposition alliance – united in their bid to defeat a bigger enemy – Najib and his government.

“I had my reservations and cynicism about the so-called reconciliation efforts,” Anwar said.

“But (Mahathir) came to see me and he showed such compassion and concern which I thought was absent in the past.”

It was Mahathir who helped secure Anwar’s royal pardon and Mahathir whom Anwar said has shown “stark” commitment to the reform agenda that his party has long championed.

Anwar Ibrahim greets Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad following Anwar’s pardon and release from prison. (Photo: Bernama)

“It took a lot of work by party leaders, NGOs to convince him it’s not just a matter of toppling Najib – he’s just one man,” Anwar said.

“We’re talking about a system that is disintegrating and has made corruption a culture and abuse of power, and intimidation as necessary for the survival of the government.”

HAPPY TO TAKE BACKSEAT FOR NOW: ANWAR

Anwar said he believes Mahathir has done a good job in tackling this so far. Within days in office, Mahathir has set up an economic advisory and institutional reform council, begun investigating scandals including state investment firm 1MDB and terminated contracts of thousands of “political appointees” to the government.

His commitment is why Anwar is happy to take a backseat for now while his former boss runs the country once again.

“Looking at his performance and his sacrifices and his tenacity throughout the period of elections, I think he deserves to be given a chance and I believe many Malaysians have that trust in him – and I share that,” he said.

“I think the country needs to be governed effectively and too many things need to be done in the initial period, and I think he has begun.

“It’s my duty to support his endeavours.”

There is a plan, however, for Anwar to take over, but only after Mahathir is done with his work. The veteran politician has said that may take up to one to two years.

Meanwhile, Anwar plans to at least be a member of parliament again. The last time Anwar got out of prison, his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail had vacated her seat so he could contest it. This time, however, she has been named Mahathir’s deputy prime minister.

Anwar Ibrahim speaks to the media as his wife Wan Azizah looks on, after his return to their home following his release on May 16, 2018. (Photo: AFP)

“I was told that if Azizah steps down then there’ll be a vacuum of leadership, then I’d have to opt for another constituency,” he said.

“We have to negotiate among our friends in (my party) Keadilan whether they should resign at this early stage.”

However, he said there’s no rush.

After his years behind bars, Anwar wants to take some time for himself – travelling, honouring speaking engagements and, perhaps, eating more ice cream.


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