The comeback ‘kid’

The by-election victory of Anwar Ibrahim, the de facto leader of Malaysia’s ruling coalition, marks another milestone in his dramatic comeback, putting him within touching distance of the prime ministership. During a chequered career, as Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s deputy in the 1990s and later as leader of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), he served jail sentences on charges of corruption and sodomy. But he seems determined to put the past behind him. In the May general election, the man who has symbolised democratic resistance for years helped break the 60-year political monopoly of his former party, the United Malays National Organisation. The defeat in that election of the scandal-tainted Najib Razak, a UMNO veteran, was scripted by an unlikely alliance between the nonagenarian Mr. Mohamad and his former nemesis, Mr. Ibrahim. That collaboration came with an assurance of a handover of power by Mr. Mohamad to his protégé at an appropriate time. This was an extraordinary story of reconciliation: Mr. Ibrahim had been sacked in the 1990s by his mentor and imprisoned on allegedly trumped-up charges. In a first step, Mr. Ibrahim was granted a royal pardon and released from prison within days of the election victory of the Pakatan Harapan, the alliance formed by the two leaders. Underpinning the new bonhomie is a deep reformist instinct to consolidate Malaysia’s status as a middle-income economy. Revelations of controversial investments at Malaysia’s 1MDB state fund that led to the ouster of Mr. Razak provided the impetus to set aside past personal and political differences. For instance, the rhetoric on the incompatibility between Western democratic norms and Asian values had been a distinguishing feature of Mr. Mohamad’s previous tenure of nearly two decades. Conversely, the complementarity between Islam and democracy underlies Mr. Ibrahim’s outlook; a man who draws liberally from the Koran and Shakespeare, depending on his audiences. The response to the 1997 Asian financial crisis had also highlighted serious differences between Mr. Mohamad and Mr. Ibrahim. Curiously, the issue has acquired currency during the recent stock market turmoil. The Malaysian central bank governor has pointed to a potential need to impose capital controls to address the market volatility in recent months. Concerns are also bound to arise over Mr. Mohamad’s strongman past. But the Prime Minister has assured the four-party governing coalition that he will be guided by the norms of majority rule and accord due weightage to the largest partner, the PKR. Underlying the unfolding political transition in Malaysia is the emergence of change with continuity. Such a gradualist course is sustainable over the long term.

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