By Kornelius Purba
The Jakarta Post
Asia News Network
Anwar’s years-long political imprisonment has not diminished the nation’s confidence in him. This is crucial for him now that he is very close to becoming prime minister. He, his wife, their five daughters and one son have been humiliated by his political opponents, but May’s election proved that the Malaysian people remain respectful of the family.
Assuming office as the PM is just a formality for Anwar now. While some observers may dismiss that assertion as naive and illogical, it is well-grounded. As prime minister in the 1990s, Mahathir was so eager to jail his deputy Anwar on sodomy charges that Indonesians derided Mahathir for over-zealous politicking.
Both Anwar and Mahathir will prove that the fears and predictazions they will renew their past political spat are totally unfounded.
Their focus now is on leaving a long-lasting legacy for their country rather than pursuing vested interests in the manner traditional to Malaysian governance. This is partly down to their advanced ages – Anwar is 71 and Mahathir is 94.
For his part, as a former dictator, Mahathir has achieved all his political ambitions. He is now the world’s oldest democratically elected leader. This is perhaps the last chance for him to be remembered as the beloved “grandfather” of Malaysia.
Another reason for optimism about the two figures is the new government’s courage not only in bringing former premier Najib Razak and his wife to justice, which is a popular move with minimal risk, but more importantly in renegotiating dubious projects worth billions of dollars signed during Najib’s tenure. The Mahathir government has to deal with China’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The new Malaysian government is daring to take risks to realise its election promises. These actions include the cancellation and renegotiation of mega-projects with China, and the delay and rearrangement of a high-speed train project with Singapore. Few people had expected that Mahathir could persuade Chinese President Xi Jinping to soften his stance on China’s globally strategic projects, but they were wrong. Against the odds, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has also agreed to postpone the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore railway project for two years.
And last week, the Cabinet of Muslim-majority Malaysia surprised the world by announcing the abolition of the death penalty. Although this radical policy was part of the ruling coalition’s campaign platform, it clearly failed to gain adequate attention from the voters.
After his swearing-in as an MP for the Port Dickson constituency on Monday, Anwar reiterated his vow to support Prime Minister Mahathir in ruling the country for two years. In return, Mahathir will fully engage Anwar in the daily activities of the government, including through Anwar’s wife, Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.
The international media – or more precisely the non-Malaysian press – have been pessimistic about future relations between Mahathir and Anwar, while at the same time the Malaysian media have had to readjust to a totally new landscape. For years they defended the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) on even controversial topics such as the 1MDB scandal, while at the same time hurling criticism at the opposition. Now they have to change their attitude toward Anwar and, to a certain extent, Mahathir.
Sweeping reforms occurred in neighbouring Indonesia more than 20 years ago. Angered by massive corruption and abuses of power practised by strongman Suharto, his family and cronies, the people forced the self-promoted Army five-star general to end his dictatorship in May 1998.
On May 9 of this year, reform-demanding Malaysian voters granted an overwhelming victory to the opposition coalition. They severely punished the ruling UMNO and its Barisan National coalition.
It is very likely that Mahathir will transfer power to Anwar in less than two years. For Anwar, laying a strong foundation for a sustainable democracy in predominantly Muslim Malaysia will be much more challenging than just becoming a national leader.
To realise their visions, the two brave-hearted statesmen deserve the support of their people.