2013 means elections to Malaysians, at home and abroad.
“Elections” or more specifically the general election can be readily replaced with the words future, change, hope or courage — perhaps all of them.
America has decided (in its last November polls), Europe has gone boring for a while and the Arab Spring is now a thesis fixation for many a political science student anywhere in the world.
Eyes can turn with little distraction on Malaysia, this quirky nation separated by the world’s largest sea, invisible association and indivisible identities.
Malaysia to many is a study of contradictions.
However, front and centre in this decision matrix within a convoluted Malaysia is Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the opposition and the most colourful politician in our nation’s history. Mahathir Mohamad tops the bill for most impact on all our lives but when it comes to flavour and curious aftertastes, there is only one Anwar.
Love him, hate him but don’t lie as a person living in this country that you are ignoring him.
I shared a few years ago my misgivings concerning the early Anwar, and after taking different paths over time how now I support him as the next prime minister of my country.
That has not changed. Though, today I work for him as do thousands of Malaysians across this nation working to re-chart the course for Malaysia.
Anwar made some major decisions leading to his ascension as Umno deputy president including a humiliating outflanking of the man he replaced, but they all pale to that one he made at the tail end of the country’s boom period in the last millennium.
The decisions as student leader, the marrying of activism and Islamic politics, the dramatic entrance into Umno and his reinvention as a broader centrist, on their own continue to be talking points but when he denied the only man he had to please to keep himself certain to be his heir, he rocked the foundations of certainty in Malaysia.
In 1998, Mahathir sacked and imprisoned his very hope of upping Umno’s Islamic credentials, and promptly set out an elaborate stratagem to destroy Anwar’s moral and religious credentials, in short to destroy the man.
Into the 15th year of this fracture, Anwar remains standing for the count. But he has confessed, it is tough living in a country where you are leader of the opposition and every day the mainstream media demonises him daily with unparalleled vitriol. As a father and grandfather, intermittently a member of the family grows up old enough to learn how vicious the world can be by how it treats him, but surely none wishes such a manner of learning.
He may not have known how deep and long the wounds would be in 1998, but he would have expected the worst.
The common attack that never goes away is that Anwar would do anything to become prime minister. If he was indeed that Machiavellian creature, what type of calculus would have backed his decision to piss off the most vicious politician the country has known. He was also at the peak of his powers.
Surely, he was better off biding his time.
That side of the coin is rarely discussed by the critics.
Anwar and his 16 Umno years
And then there is the discomforting question for the Anwaristas: are you going to hide the man’s role in Umno all those years? He was after all longer in Umno than the time Keadilan has existed.
While his family connected to Umno, no level of connections can easily explain his election as Umno Youth chief in the same year he joined the party.
Vice-president within five years, stayed loyal to Mahathir in the party split of 1987, left a heavy footprint in education, the Malay degree holder balanced the books as finance minister and, as mentioned earlier, beat incumbent Ghafar Baba as deputy president.
While he may have had his own style and principle, he was an Umno man for a long time.
Last year, facing a luncheon hall filled with the city elites, he admitted that he cannot wash his hands of the past. He was part of the regime, and he did his part to defend it as evidenced in the fall of the Party Bersatu Sabah (PBS) government in Sabah and then United Sabah Nationalist Organisation (USNO) marrying into Umno.
The symbol, with the contradictions
How many of us can say with a straight face that we would be this close to ending Umno’s monopoly of Malaysian politics if Anwar did not part company with Umno?
Anwar is the torchbearer of believable change.
This is not to undermine the wonderful and selfless sacrifices by a slew of leaders inside Pakatan Rakyat, like Lim Kit Siang and Nik Aziz Nik Mat.
But the vituperative nature of local politics for decades, the labelling and attacking of those traditionally in the opposition bench has rendered them unacceptable to other segments.
This is not their doing, but in politics perception rules. The first past the poll dynamics of a Westminster parliamentary system compounds the electoral math.
Kelantan had enough Muslims to render an Islamist party viable, and Penang enough Chinese for the DAP to have a fighting chance to win. PAS and DAP had and still have much more to their “value proposition” but Umno’s monopoly was built on disinformation, and they the victims of the character assassinations.
Which is why Anwar’s record as Umno’s ex-number two, while inviting permanent criticism, gives enough Malaysians confidence that Pakatan has leadership to match Umno.
It is the 16 years in key positions inside the party that runs the country that pumps up his CV.
He who is now where all before have fallen
Two last things then.
Anwar has led the longest and most potent challenge to Umno’s rule. Onn Jaafar’s experiment for multiculturalism ended abruptly and turned him into a recluse. Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah lit up a fire of rebellion based on being an Umno mirror party, and after two general elections folded.
The Keadilan story has gone past three elections, even if almost on life support in 2004, and today is poised to be the party contesting the most number of seats after Umno.
Second, symbols take a life of their own, after some time.
Anwar has become the symbol of change, as Cory Aquino was in the Philippines in 1986. Every fight has to have a central figure, and Election 2013 will gravitate around the leader of the opposition.
In some ways, those who were supporting Umno for decades, and now staunchly lined up to lead the lines, find comfort that the man they back has also gone through a transformation as they have.
Are there no flawed leaders? Or is it their flaws and how they choose their present that appeals them to the masses? That which provides the connection with the many?
Abraham Lincoln’s history to most people revolves around him being a US president, ending slavery, getting killed by an actor and having a beard.
Historians may rue the oversimplifications, speak of Lincoln’s centrist inclinations despite his opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act over the Missouri Compromise, and even point out that he only grew his “defining” beard late in his life.
But symbols overwhelm explanations. In a country historically short of inspiration and radically vacant of fair play, Anwar is the missing puzzle piece to change.
Don’t buy it? He has been on tour for more than five years, often to the same localities, and the crowds show up. To hear him speak.