One day he is in prison. The next, Anwar Ibrahim is Malaysia’s leader-in-waiting.
In a historic week in Malaysian politics that shocked the nation, the ruling party was kicked out of office after more than 60 years in power.
Mahathir Mohamad, a 92-year-old former prime minister, is again the country’s leader – for now.
But he promised to hand over the leadership to the country’s most famous former political prisoner Anwar Ibrahim – a former ally turned foe who critics say Mahathir helped put in prison on trumped-up charges.
Together this unlikely alliance has vowed to restore Malaysia’s reputation and rule of law – revising fake news laws, ending crippling taxation, and investigating allegations of massive corruption by the previous regime.
101 East spoke to Anwar Ibrahim ahead of Malaysia’s “new dawn”.
Al Jazeera: How does it feel to be a free man?
Anwar Ibrahim: As I’ve said, only when one experiences incarceration would one really appreciate freedom, or one earlier period, like one’s colonised, and then become free. Here you are completely cut off from the outside world.
AJ: You did a deal to work with Dr Mahathir – the man who sacked you, jailed you and called you ‘morally unfit to govern’. How can you trust him?
AI: That was 20 years ago. Things have passed and there are some considerations to protect, to save the country from endemic corruption, sliding downwards. He came and sought some sort of reconciliation, to make amends.
So I as a Muslim, as a human being, take it in a positive light. It’s always that principle that anyone wants to make peace with you, you should accept in the right spirit. But can we trust? It took time. It was a very painful decision. It was a tough decision.
I told him in fact in our meetings, I used to tell him, you know, I used to call him doc, doctor. But now I call him Tun. You know Tun it’s very very tough. Very difficult. And more difficult for the family too. But we have accepted. And he has also proven his mantle.
He was consistent, he has called for my release. He facilitated the process of release, which of course people say it’s just technical. It’s true. But then he did facilitate. So I think I have no reason not to trust.
AJ: Are you willing to do a deal with anyone to regain power?
AI: The principle is the agenda. If one is committed to reform, one’s committed to end injustice, one’s committed to ensure that, to stop cronyism and oppression of the masses.
Then who am I, it’s not Anwar as a person who should decide or dictate. It’s the people. In the last transformation as we have seen, it’s the decision of the people, not even Mahathir or Anwar or the parties.
It’s the people that suddenly realised it’s time to change from this obsolete corrupt order to a new independent government. And the wise thing that Malaysians have done is to translate it into votes. They were quiet. People were not certain of their moves.
They seem to be quite ordinary. But they were wise when it comes to taking the necessary steps.
AJ: Malaysia’s youth brought this new alliance to power. You’re 70 years old, Mahathir is 92, the world’s oldest leader. Is there no one else who can lead Malaysia into the future?
AI: There are very many competent youth, young leaders at our disposal I mentioned to Mahathir. They need to be given the position, the exposure, opportunity.
In our party, the Justice Party Keadilan, you’ll find that the majority of the leaders, vice presidents, key leaders are all young.
AJ: But we see the same old faces including Daim Zainuddin, who you accused of being the most corrupt man in Malaysia. What’s new about this government?
AI: Well he’s just appointed on an advisory capacity. That’s Mahathir’s decision. He has some ideas on economic management, has proven himself. But I have cautioned publicly, I said, ‘Look, you can give ideas but be mindful of the scandals and the corruption of the past.’
But I’ve said it publicly because it’s not easy for other leaders to say it. I said that I can take it, it’s Mahathir’s decision.
Ok, we concede. But you must remind Daim and the leadership that his ideas have got to be scrutinised carefully to make sure that he does not repeat the excesses of the past.
AJ: Former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s private residence has been raided. You have accused the government of financial corruption, of weakening the constitution, of corrupting the judiciary. Are Najib’s crimes forgiveable?
AI: Well let the due process take its place. I said his crime in terms of unjust incarceration and using all the institutions against me, that I am not going to pursue.
In terms of the investigations and the possible preferring of charge by the attorney general, that he has to accept.
People ask me, do you need to do it in the wee hours of the morning? I said I would do it differently but this is the practice in this country, and I think we need to adjust a bit.
AJ: You speak of a new dawn in Malaysian politics, racially inclusive. However, the top five positions in the new government are taken up by mainly one race. Do you think it is a right start?
AI: The majority race is still the Malays, the Bumiputera, exceeds 60 percent. But the portfolio, the key portfolio is given to a Chinese, the finance minister [Lim Guan Eng]. But I think the important point here is to show these leaders are Malaysians.
The finance minister is Chinese but he’s a Malaysian, who thinks like a Malaysian, who is there to protect the interest of the Malaysian economy and the Malaysian people, regardless of race.
AJ: Are you a Malay first, or a Malaysian?
AI: To me, there is no contradiction. If you ask me, ‘am I a Muslim first or Malaysian first, Malay first?’ I am Malay, I am a Muslim, I’m Malaysian. I am an Asian. I am an internationalist at that.
I’m a practicing Muslim. I still consider Shakespeare as a genius, international genius. I associate myself largely with Shakespeare’s works and thinking. It does not erode my belief nor my culture, nor my state or nation.
AJ: Is there a clear plan of succession between you and Mahathir?
AI: People mention one year, some say one-year-and-a-half, some say two. In my discussion with him, he does not insist on this sort of clear timeframe. And I wanted him to be just comfortable. I just said, ‘you manage the affairs of this nation. I need time.’
I need to break a while, to be with the family, particularly when [wife] Azizah is now the deputy prime minister. And I need to fulfill my speaking engagements. I think the Muslim world also needs to hear the voice of reason on democratic transition and democratic accountability.
I’m not insisting and he’s not even pursuing this issue. I just had a long meeting, two long meetings in a week, which of course is something which is very encouraging. And that matter does not crop up. I’m free to express my views.
He gives me good access to meet him. But of course, I said to him probably after Ramadan I’ve got to do some travel to fellowship and et cetera, short span, outside, overseas.
AJ: You have spent your life fighting for your political career and to have a say in the running of this country. There’s a lot of hard work to be done – yet you say you don’t want a cabinet position. Why don’t you want to have a significant role from the outset?
AI: See the entire cabinet is composed of those, vast majority, 80 percent of those committed to the reform agenda since 1998. And I think they would do well, immensely, in influencing the cause and chart for the future of this nation.
Dr Mahathir has repeatedly said that he needs to undertake these measures. And he has done anti-corruption agencies [in such a way as to make them] independent, he has complained about the election commission. They need to be independent and fair.
I mean essentially that’s what we want. Now, why don’t I want to participate in the cabinet? I want him to have a free hand. I don’t need to feel like there is someone looking across the shoulder at every move.
It doesn’t make the government seem to be stable. When I part, then people know that Anwar is just waiting for his turn. He’s not clamouring for the post now.
AJ: Did your coalition alliance win the election or did Najib’s government lose it?
AI: I think it’s a combination of both. I think to be fair our friends have worked hard from the 2008 elections in particular, where the coalition was formed. And in 2013, we won the majority vote.
I mean that’s significant in a country with a fraudulent electoral process, and the entire system is stacked against you. And now I think with Mahathir adding to it, I think it’s a combination. But then the line has always been, consistently, the opposition towards Najib.
AJ: Your wife is deputy prime minister, your daughter is a member of parliament. You are set to be the next PM. Is this a family business? Are you building your own political family dynasty?
AI: Well Azizah is president of the party, it should be said, in her own right. And my daughter has informed the party that she does not intend to join the cabinet although she’s the most senior, other than the deputy president who is the chief minister of a state.
She’s the most senior position in the party, but she has declined, which I think speaks well of the relationship. And naturally, once I assume the premiership, Azizah will then resign. That is also the understanding known.
They continue to use this campaign – ‘can you imagine the prime minister, deputy prime minister husband and wife team?’, which is, of course, a blatant lie. Because we have made it clear once I assume the premiership, Azizah will resign.
AJ: Your wife has said she’s just keeping the seat warm for you. Now she is deputy prime minister. Is she still a proxy for you in that position? Is it appropriate that the second highest position in the country is taken up by proxy?
AI: Firstly, she’s president of the party and she led the party in my absence in incarceration, which means she had to handle everything, decisions taken on her own because she could meet me rarely.
And even then surrounded by guards, she’s not able to discuss anything substantive, which means, therefore, she has done it. Now, whether one is a proxy or not, it’s a matter of sharing the ideals.
I don’t see that as a problem at all. Yes, she said she would certainly want to share the views and ideals of the party and Anwar, except if I say ‘go and get yourself some money and some contracts’.
But I say look our ideals is to show, to make sure that you work to ensure … the focus is the welfare of the masses, not the cronies, not the colleagues, elite around the leadership. To make sure that we end corruption.
That’s fine with me. So she is in that sense a proxy. In fact, anyone can be a proxy to protect and implement these ideals.