Editorial: Will Anwar Make A Difference?

Editorial Omong-Omong

3 min read

When Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim met with Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in Bogor, West Java, today (Jan. 9), he was a rookie prime minister facing a now battle-tested president of a country bigger and more complex than his own.

While Malaysians in general always tend to look down on Indonesians, assessing the nation by its maids working in their kitchens and inventing a degrading nickname “indon”, for them, Anwar fully realizes the significance of Indonesia for himself personally and for Malaysia. Also, he has a ton of respects for Jokowi, almost 15 years of his junior, bringing entourage members ready to support Jokowi’s dream project of building Indonesia’s new capital in East Kalimantan, one of the world’s largest islands Malaysia and Indonesia share.

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But when younger Anwar rose to power three decades ago becoming Malaysia’s finance minister and the deputy prime minister as well as one of Asia’s brightest stars, Jokowi was still a nobody, being employed somewhere in Sumatra, and later still struggling to begin his own furniture business before becoming Solo mayor in Central Java. By then, Anwar was already a household name in Indonesia, mingling with and learning from some of Indonesia’s biggest intellectuals – from Nurcholis Madjid, Habibie to Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, while studying Indonesia’s history, the richness of the nation’s intellectuals, the rise and the fall of Soeharto and then watching closely how 1998 Reformasi that toppled Soeharto unfolded.

Indonesians later on became Anwar’s strongest supporters. When in 1998 he was removed from all posts by then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, and then was jailed in 1999 after a trial for sodomy and corruption Anwar became a hero in the eyes of many young Indonesians who sent invitation after invitation for him to speak in various places within the archipelago despite Malaysian government’s strong objection.

This staunch support from young people in neighboring country possibly ignited his popularity among young Malaysians who could see what Indonesians saw in him, allowing him to make a comeback as Leader of the Opposition from 2008 to 2015 and formed coalition of opposition parties, the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition, and then joined forces with Mahathir in the new Pakatan Harapan, which went on to win the 2018 general election. After being tricked by Mahathir, Anwar again became the leader of the opposition for the second time in 2020, and then led the coalition to win a plurality of seats at the 2022 Malaysian general election. He finally was sworn-in as the tenth Prime Minister of Malaysia in November last year.

Even now, Anwar is still one of Southeast Asia’s most popular figures – if not the most popular – in Indonesia, looking at the excitement of local media, students, business and civil organizations during his Jakarta visit.

Anwar acknowledged Indonesia’s crucial role in his political comeback, telling the media before meeting with Jokowi that Indonesia was “a true friend” at a time when he “was cast out and sidelined.”

“Indonesia accepted me as a true friend, so I will never forget that,” he said, adding that Indonesia would always be given priority by Malaysia in bilateral relations.

So, when Anwar returned home, Indonesia can expect a much higher respect from Malaysia, and better relations with the neighboring country, with Kuala Lumpur could possibly be careful in inciting controversy and unnecessary anger from Indonesia, including when dealing with Indonesian maids and claims of cultural products and food.

While Anwar can make a difference in Malaysia’s relations with Indonesia, he is facing a daunting task back home, especially on how to clean Malaysia from corruption and nepotism as old guards of Malaysian politics and political mafia have not died with the removal and imprisonment of former prime minister Najib Razak. In his road to power, Anwar has made some concessions which can be detrimental to everything he wants to achieve, including economic progress and more equal society.

Concerns have been expressed over the government’s commitment to fighting graft after the controversial appointment of Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as deputy prime minister despite the multiple corruption charges against him in court.

Another concern is the allocation of jobs in the state-owned companies for people seen as cronies of old powerful parties and families, as well as the distribution of projects to those identified as having dubious track records, or appointed because their relations with the ruling elites.

Anwar, however, expressed his commitment against corruption and nepotism, declaring war on the “elite minority who have used their power to enrich themselves and their clans” when speaking in front of Malaysian community in Jakarta, send clear message of wiping out the practices even if “it cost him his job.”

Again, Anwar must have learned something from Indonesia in regard to this problem as he should have watched how a group of elites and businesspeople, most of them are old families having connection with Soeharto’s New Order, have empowered and enriched themselves more than two decades after the regime was toppled.

And just like what is happening in Indonesia, Anwar is also having a hard time in handling creeping conservative and radical groups, many of which supported him to become prime minister, especially when Islamist parties have dominated a number of states, and enforcing sharia laws there.

Kedah, for instance, is quickly banning gambling and alcohol, a move seen as a blow to Langkawi’s tourism recovery, while Melaka government says bikinis are ‘only suitable for the bedroom’ in a sign that the state now intruding deeper into private life of the citizens.

So far, despite claiming itself as a multicultural prime minister, Anwar has done nothing, or can’t do anything, to calm minority groups on the development.

In this aspect, if Anwar is slow, indifferent, or turn a blind eye to act, the impacts will be massive, affecting all aspects of Malaysian life, and it would be irreversible. Like what he has already zeroed in on corruption and nepotism, he should tackle this sectarian politics and politicization of Islam bravely without being afraid to also lose his job.

Anwar, as an intellectual, student of history, and champion of inclusivity and multiculturalism, knows very well this grave danger, and he should not look far, and again, he just have to take a look to the neighbor, Indonesia, to see how bad it can be. And as bad as it is now, a more conservative and radical Malaysia is the last thing Indonesia wants to see, having felt the consequence of receiving Malaysia’s exports of two suicide bombing gurus in Dr Azhari and Noordin Moh. Top.

Editorial Omong-Omong

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