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Anwar Ibrahim’s Quiet Triumph

After being twice imprisoned, Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim stunned the country by leading a broad coalition to electoral victory in 2022. His government has lasted longer than many expected and is poised to implement much-needed reforms that promise to sustain robust economic growth.

SINGAPORE – The path from political prisoner to political power is by no means well-trodden, but those who have made the arduous journey in recent decades include luminaries such as Nelson Mandela, Jawaharlal Nehru, Aung San Suu Kyi, Michelle Bachelet, and Václav Havel. To this august group must be added Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who, after nine years in prison, is now showing the same zeal as Mandela did for institutional and economic reform rooted in democratic values.

When I first met Anwar, in 1976, he was president of Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM), the Islamic youth movement that he had founded, and seemed destined for a life spent in the opposition. But then, in 1982, the ruling party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), wisely invited him to join their ranks. In 1993, after a rapid ascent, Anwar became deputy prime minister in Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s government and was his heir-apparent – until the Asian financial crisis intervened. In 1998, Mahathir sacked Anwar over policy disputes that mushroomed into suspicions that Anwar was plotting a coup.

Anwar’s fall was as swift as it was steep; a photo of him appearing in court with a black eye and bruises, courtesy of Mahathir’s police chief, shocked the world. Anwar was given two long prison sentences, and was an inmate from 1999 to 2004 and again from 2014 to 2018. But he did not break, and during this time emerged as the leader of a newly invigorated opposition.