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Anwar Ibrahim's Role In Malaysia's Dramatic Advance In Democracy


We have the story of a man behind an advance in democracy. He's a politician in Malaysia, which effectively had one-party rule. That changed when the opposition won an election last year, causing a peaceful transfer of power. Democracy may be retreating elsewhere, but not in Kuala Lumpur. Here's how CNN sounded after national elections there last May.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Celebrations across Malaysia as a new political era dawns after a shock result in the national elections. Mahathir Mohammed claimed victory after beating all the odds to oust Najib Razak and the coalition party which ruled Malaysia for over six decades.

INSKEEP: How did that happen? We have the story of that change in power through the eyes of a man who spent years in prison for his politics and has now risen to leadership. Anwar Ibrahim came by our studios. Over the last two decades, he was jailed repeatedly by other politicians and had reason to think he might never get out.

ANWAR IBRAHIM: But I am an incredibly - an incorrigible optimist.

INSKEEP: Anwar is 71. He has dark hair and a salt-and-pepper goatee. The lines on his face around his eyes hint at the stress of his captivity. For years, he suffered the fate of many Malaysian opposition figures.

IBRAHIM: It is not just jail. It is solitary confinement - no newspapers, no radio, no television. You don't have anybody to talk to.

INSKEEP: No book?

IBRAHIM: Books? Yes.

INSKEEP: They gave you a book.


INSKEEP: What did you read? What's a book that you read? Is there something I would know?

IBRAHIM: Well, I re-read the entire works of Shakespeare, Piketty on inequality, Steakley's sex...

INSKEEP: Thomas Piketty, who wrote a book about economic inequality? OK.

IBRAHIM: Yes. Yes.

INSKEEP: That's a thick one that will...

IBRAHIM: Yes, it's a thick one because there's an advantage to being in prison.

INSKEEP: He was able to finish the book. Here's how his life began to change. The ruling party that jailed him was engulfed in corruption scandals. Opposition grew. And then a former ruling party leader, Mahathir Mohammed, switched sides and took charge of the opposition coalition. Then he visited the imprisoned Anwar Ibrahim and asked him to serve as his deputy.

IBRAHIM: The manifesto was clear. Malaysia must emerge as a mature democracy. There's no turning back. So the media must be free, judiciary must be independent, and the Anti-Corruption Commission must be effective.

INSKEEP: Well, it's early yet. Anwar Ibrahim says the first step toward healthy democracy is freeing up the media. He's hoping to repeal an old sedition law the government used to imprison people like him.

IBRAHIM: But many others - thousands others, I mean, relatively unknown - but they did suffer in the sense that they would be charged, prosecuted and imprisoned for things that they expressed. I mean, we may agree or disagree, but I don't think it is our business to charge - to prefer a charge and imprison them for their views.

INSKEEP: The man on top is Mahathir, this man from the old regime...


INSKEEP: ...Who switched sides. Do you yourself expect to be prime minister of Malaysia?

IBRAHIM: Well, the agreement stipulates very clearly that Mahathir will hold office for maximum two years, which means soon I'm expected to assume the premiership.

INSKEEP: OK. So after that two-year period, you take over as prime minister, and you may have another two to three years. And then you will face the people, I suppose.


INSKEEP: How will we know if you have succeeded at the end of that five-year period?

IBRAHIM: I'm optimistic because, generally, people want freedom as opposed to a more oppressive rule in the past. Secondly, if they know that the resources of the country is not squandered by the political elite, then the services and the benefits of the people would be larger.

INSKEEP: There must be people who say, oh, he was an opposition leader, but now he's sold out. He's with his former boss.

IBRAHIM: It's true. In fact, my daughter, who was vice chairman - one of the vice chairmen of the party, recently resigned because she thought that we are not as assertive in calling for reform.

INSKEEP: Your daughter...


INSKEEP: ...Was effectively critical of you?

IBRAHIM: Which I think - yes. I mean, I would have to balance between the practical realities in terms of adjustments in this period of transition and the fact that the young would want to have a more assertive and consistent message. And I don't - I find difficulty to dispute views or position, although I say that patience is also a virtue (laughter).

INSKEEP: (Laughter) So you told her, actually, I think you're right about the facts, but I just have a different attitude about how long things take.

IBRAHIM: Yes. I said, you know, we have to be patient after all. Because she said, we have to start over - 20 years in and out of prison. The whole family was just shattered. But she represents the idealistic youth, but she's still supportive. But she's very critical.

INSKEEP: Does Malaysia need the United States?

IBRAHIM: Yes, I think. I make no apologies. We need United States' more vigorous and progressive foreign policy. I cannot say that we are too hopeful of the present position of foreign policy in the United States. Although, in my personal case, I should say from the days of President Clinton, Bush, Obama and less so under Trump, my issue was always raised at different levels.


IBRAHIM: But notwithstanding that, the general attitude towards promoting democracy, of course, have been relegated to the background. And that is, to me, unfortunate. You must encourage countries with your power and resources to support efforts towards peace, security and democracy. You cannot be ambivalent talking about democracy and then supporting all the tyrants and dictators of the world.

INSKEEP: So when you see the Trump administration grow even closer to Saudi Arabia, which the U.S. has always been close to, or even closer to the Egyptian military-backed regime, this bothers you?

IBRAHIM: I have no issues of countries having bilateral relations trade. I'm not suggesting that we go to war with every country. But their position must be clear. Why do you choose selective condemnation of some countries for being corrupt and oppressive, and some countries what was corrupt and oppressive continue to be your friends?

INSKEEP: Anwar Ibrahim, thank you for coming by.

IBRAHIM: Thank you for this.

INSKEEP: Anwar Ibrahim is a former Malaysian opposition leader, now prime minister in waiting.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRISTAN DE LIEGE'S "PAPILLON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.