After years of imprisonment, Anwar Ibrahim has made a political comeback in his newly formed coalition with Malaysia‘s current Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – who supported Anwar’s first conviction and imprisonment.
Mahathir led them to election victory in May.
The 71-year-old Anwar, who was pardoned of a sodomy conviction that put him behind bars for a third time in 2015, is the designated successor to Mahathir.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Anwar talked about the new era of governance after his return, the importance of free media, and the $250bn debt that Malaysia has incurred.
Al Jazeera: What is it that you are offering to Malaysians?
Anwar Ibrahim: We need to focus on the economy of the country so to ensure that there is fair distribution and also look particularity at the poor and marginalised.
Al Jazeera: You were sacked by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, but you did a deal to work with him. How do you trust him?
Anwar Ibrahim: I have worked extremely well him recently and fought hard against him as well. But at one point we realised that we were struggling because of the decline in our economy and essentially a very corrupt system. We both felt the interest of the nation so we agreed that we should be prepared to work together for a common cause.
Two considerations: number one in our work, of course, there has some level of trust, and I have no reason to doubt or question his goodwill. We have extremely good rapport, we meet casually every week, at times even twice a week. And secondly the ruling coalition has made it very clear that it’s not Anwar’s or Dr Mahathir’s decision, it’s the decision of the ruling coalition based on the mandate given during the last elections.
The mandate that was given was that Dr Mahathir will assume the premiership, after which Anwar will take over for the rest of the term until the next elections where the people will finally decide.
Al Jazeera: What is that common cause?
Anwar Ibrahim: We have spelt that out in a common platform, a manifesto, on what we term as a democratic transition: free media, independent judiciary, political leaders with integrity and institutions to combat corruption and abuse of power. These are the guidelines that both Dr Mahathir and myself and the party and the coalition have agreed to do and to be fair to Mahathir, he has undertaken that responsibility in this new term to affect these changes and the reform we have agreed upon, although I must concede it will certainly take some time because the country has been used to the same system of the past 60 years.
Al Jazeera: How would you define free media for Malaysia?
Anwar Ibrahim: By free media I mean not to be condescending that the leaders know best and extend that with corruption and abuse power. So free media to my mind, of course, means a responsible media, which means certain rules which they have to observe, but this doesn’t have to be decided by the ruling power. Instead, it should be through an ethics committee run both by the media and authorities.
So free media certainly means that people will have to speak up their mind where they are able to express their agreement or disagreement with the policies and the government. So to put those in power in strict scrutiny and check whether the judiciary is truly independent, or if the political powers are making decisions based on their interest.
Al Jazeera: Tell us about your recent visit to the United States?
Anwar Ibrahim: I had a session with World Movement for Democracy and Islamic Cultural Center of New York, and of course took the opportunity to express my take on number of issues, including democratic transition in the Muslim world, whether Islam is compatible to democracy, the rise of Islamophobia in the West. And I am pleased because these exchanges are important.
Al Jazeera: In relation to your answer, what do you think about New Zealand’s worst-ever attack that killed 50 people in two mosques?
Anwar Ibrahim: I concur fully with the New Zealand prime minister [Jacinda Ardern], it is important to call a spade, a spade. If it is terrorism it is not only confined to Muslims or the developing countries. It can also [be] perpetrated by the white supremacy and this has been an ongoing trend. The victims are not only the Muslims in the mosque, it’s the Sikhs in gurdwaras and Christians in church. But the West has been rather muted on this new trend although we have seen such a rise in racism in Europe, and of course the Islamophobia and [white] supremacists in the US.
So we must clearly attribute to a particular trend and ideology which is against mainly Muslims and also the migrants. What the New Zealand authority has done must be fully supported.
Al Jazeera: Can you tell us a bit about your stance on Malaysia’s foreign policy, including how you would finance the country’s under-resourced military to address security challenges.
Anwar Ibrahim: Well, this is the same leadership with the same platforms and some of my colleagues are in the government, so I am not departing from what is generally a known policy. The emphasis may differ, the focus may change, otherwise, we conform to what has been agreed upon.
On foreign policy, we embark on a very aggressive diplomatic stance and not necessarily considering military strength, while we should do what we can to strengthen and to make the armed forces more efficient and strategic, we cannot embark on a massive militarisation because the country cannot afford it.
Al Jazeera: The agreement you reached with Dr Mahathir was that he would become the prime minister if your coalition won the elections of 2018. What is the clear plan of succession between you and Mahathir?
Anwar Ibrahim: Dr Mahathir as announced repeatedly that he must not stay beyond two year and for now we should give him the space and latitude to govern and in the right occasion I will inshallah assume office.
Al Jazeera: What will be the new era of politics after you assume premiership?
Anwar Ibrahim: It is a much difficult time now because it’s an immediate transition, I will certainly have to continue that reform agenda that Dr Mahathir has began. I don’t foresee many radical departure from what was agreed upon because he is acting upon what was agreed upon in the manifesto in the ruling coalition.
Al Jazeera: What is the latest on the massive $250bn debt that Malaysia has incurred in the scandal?
Anwar Ibrahim: We will have to mend the economy, attract foreign investment, and ensure we are more efficient but at the same time we cannot afford to ignore the concerns and difficulties encountered by the masses, so it is very precarious position that we are in now, but I think given the problem or predicament of the president I think we are able to shoulder on and navigate and I just hope things will be much better in the next one or two years.
Some cases are in the court, trial will commence next month, on the 1MDB funds we are working with the department justice US, Switzerland and other international authorities to get back some of the losses but I don’t think we can get everything back but we are determined to get major portion back.
Al Jazeera: What do you think about a diverse political structure, racially inclusive?
Anwar Ibrahim: It has been quiet inclusive, we have a Malay deputy prime minister, Chinese finance minister, and Christian chief judge. I mean, finance is the most important portfolio other than the PM and that goes to the Chinese and minister of communication with digital economy goes to a Sikh. So that’s Malaysia – it’s a multi-racial country.
Al Jazeera: How does it feel like to be free?
Anwar Ibrahim: Ecstatic! To taste freedom, only when you have been unfree either in prison or denied basic freedom for you to appreciate the meaning and value of freedom. For me, I rejoice this. One cannot imagine the situation where you cannot eat what you want, wear what you want, sleep when you want, you are denied access to your family your loved ones, so freedom means a lot.