Few politicians could have scripted a comeback of the kindDatuk Seri Anwar Bin Ibrahimhas made. He has been elected back to Parliament 20 years after being imprisoned on charges of homosexuality and sodomy by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad in 1998. Mr. Ibrahim, who was acquitted in the case and later received a full royal pardon, partnered Dr. Mahathir in elections as part of the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance for Hope) that came to power in May 2018, and has been named the successor to Mr. Mahathir, who says he will step down before May 2020. Mr. Ibrahim says ties with India are well below potential and must be strengthened.
You have visited India in the past, and now are here as part of the government headed by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad. How do you see bilateral ties with India going forward?
I think Malaysia established strong ties under PMs [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee and Dr. Manmohan Singh to the present, but the progress in recent years under [former Malaysian PM] Najib has been small compared to what we hoped to achieve in terms of trade and investment, in comparison to the ties with China, for example. The potential for India is much more. PM Modi was one of the first to travel to Kuala Lumpur after Dr. Mahathir was sworn in, and I met him for very good discussions. During my visit here, I have met with [Congress president] Rahul Gandhi who said he was studying the Malaysian Opposition (win)…(Laughs), and also stressed the importance of trade and cultural ties, which I will also speak to Prime Minister Modi about [during the meeting on Thursday].
Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled there from Indonesia, where India has strengthened the strategic and maritime relationship, given the need to build a free and open Indo-Pacific. Is that something Malaysia would consider too?
Well, ASEAN was established purely to ensure that the region remained independent of cold war rivalries, and Malaysia would like to keep that independence but in the South China Sea problem for example it has failed to come up with a position as a whole, and therefore we are also exploring bilateral possibilities. I think specific proposals have been submitted by India to the previous government, which we will try and respond to positively.
Specifically a report suggests Malaysia may consider purchases of Indian fighter aircraft….
I think India has submitted a proposal to refurbish our old Sukhoi planes, which is an attractive suggestion to me, although some believe that we should buy new ones. The fact that India is strategically placed to provide these aircraft and services is something we acknowledge will be very useful, as the costs are a big factor for our economy.
One big thorn in the side of the relationship is the presence of Zakir Naik, a preacher accused of hate speech in India and of inciting terrorists to carry out an attack in Bangladesh. Has India raised this with you during Prime Minister Narendra’s Modi’s visit or otherwise, and are there any assurances your government will give?
This has not been raised with me personally. We do not subscribe to all allegations unless we are furnished with the details. We would need some evidence to the effect. Malaysia has been tough on terrorism, and if we are given incontrovertible evidence that someone has been involved, we would not tolerate it.
The government has sent an official request for Mr. Naik’s deportation. Yet to the disappointment of many in Delhi, Dr. Mahathir even met him and then said publicly that he would not be deported. Surely, the Indian request could have been considered.
The meeting took place prior to that request. The authorities are yet to be given formal evidence. Yes, there is a request from India, but we don’t act purely on a request unless there is also a strong compelling case. We do not condone any form of terror.
What are the other regional issues India and Malaysia can work on together?
Well, I feel India as a democracy in the region should take a more positive leadership role, and I have said that I am disappointed that India has taken a position on Myanmar for example that business first and human rights in the background, both when Aung San Suu Kyi, and now with the Rohingya, we hoped India would be the voice of reason and champion the cause of justice.
To come to government formation, most were surprised to see you and Dr. Mahathir, the man who imprisoned you, come together to fight elections. Have there been any regrets about the decision?
No, because we did succeed in toppling the corrupt regime and we now are dealing with the huge financial problems left behind. Also Dr. Mahathir has announced a major programme of agenda. Of course, there are concerns amongst our younger supporters, including my daughter [Nurul Izzah Anwar] who has now left party positions out of growing disenchantment, and we have to concede that people expect more from our government. The abdication of the King, although it is a separate issue, also came at a time which made it seem as if the government was in trouble. But to the credit of Tun Mahathir, he has given a clear direction to the government.
How difficult was it to enter the partnership itself … did you need to forgive Mr. Mahathir?
I am not a hypocrite, and I will say that it was a difficult decision and equally painful to my wife and children who had suffered so much. I told them we have to look forward for the country’s sake. Azizah [his wife] was committed, went ahead in the campaign. The problems faced by the country were more acute than the problems I faced. Being in jail, solitary confinement, the assault by the police chief, the humiliation of sexual and treason allegations were all very hard, but eventually we won. Despite all the money, judiciary, etc., stacked against us, one cannot stop the will of the masses.
You once said, freedom after it has been denied, is a torture. What did you mean?
We speak of freedom in general terms. But when it is taken away from you on a personal level. Then even when you are freed, it is a torture to think that you can walk where you like, eat what you want and meet whom you like.
You are now in a strange sort of limbo, as the Prime Minister-in-waiting. Yet no one really knows when the handover from PM Mahathir will be. Do you know?
Yes, both PM Mahathir and I have agreed and the party has agreed that it won’t be more than two years (May 2020), but I said it is important that we shouldn’t announce the date. We want PM Mahathir to effectively run the country with full support, not as a lameduck. We need to be united and focus on the serious economic problems.
Clearly it isn’t so settled, as you had to issue a statement saying that you have no differences with PM Mahathir. Why did you need to do that?
Despite our understanding, it doesn’t stop people from trying to create problems. Not just from cronies of the old system, or from Mahathir loyalists, but some of my own supporters who are impatient for me to take charge. So I needed to put the statement out
You have already been through 20 years of very trying times. Isn’t two years a long time to wait?
(Laughs) It’s only eight months since I was released, and I really do want to take my time, travel, meet people without all the protocol. These things would be lost once I take a position of power, and I just need some space to study what I need to do.
Do you worry however, that you may never become PM?
I am 71 years old, and I have been to hell and back and hell and back again, so I am not overly concerned about the future.
I know people think politicians don’t mean that, but I do. Que Sera Sera (What will be, will be).
What about the role of your wife, Deputy PM Wan Azizah… Will she have to step down when you become PM?
Yes, she has said she wants to step down when I assume office because she feels it will not be proper. She will continue to play her role, especially for health and culture and welfare.
When the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance for Hope) came to power, it was called a “new dawn”, yet especially with your daughter distancing herself, it seems the reform agenda hasn’t yet shown dividends, and the focus is solely on prosecuting former PM Najib. Are you satisfied with the government?
The excesses by Najib cannot be defended. But we are observing due process, giving all avenues for defence. We also are awaiting responses from countries like UK, Switzerland, Australia etc where we believe as much $30 billion have been sent. So it is up to the courts, but the cases I think are quite compelling, including one for $2.6 Billion that he has himself admitted to accepting from a Saudi prince in his personal account. But you are right, we cannot delay reforms or our agenda for these cases.
Are there parallels with Sri Lanka, India, Maldives, where governments have come to power on anti-corruption platforms, but if they aren’t able to deliver in a certain period, the tables could turn?
I think our cases are quite specific and I have followed the cases in the countries you mentioned. But I think Malaysia has been different.
One of the first big decisions made by the Mahathir government was to cancel three major Chinese infrastructure projects that were part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Is the government considering withdrawing from the BRI as well?
No. I visited China after PM Mahathir’s visit, and said we had issues with some of the projects that were exorbitant. Dr. Mahathir also said that we are not against China, we want Chinese investments, but the BRI projects we cancelled were not viable for us.
How will you embark on economic reforms given the massive $250 billion debt that Malaysia has incurred?
The main issue is governance. With proper investment we can resolve our issues.
The debt may be huge but the fundamentals are strong for a trading nation, a net exporter of petroleum like Malaysia.
I hope we can work more aggressively with India on increasing trade and investment as well.
Yet Malaysia has also considered a request from Pakistan PM Imran Khan for a bailout….
I did meet Imran Khan when he came to Kuala Lumpur, and I felt there was a breath of fresh air about him, and for Dr. Mahathir and me, we feel we should support the democratically elected government there. There is no question of a bailout however, because we are in no position to do that, but certainly we hope to assist in Pakistan’s transition from military dictatorships and corrupt regimes. But our position with India has not changed either, and we have a lot to learn from India’s growth.
The decision by the government to reverse its promise at the UN to sign the convention on racial freedom International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) has left many, including Malaysian minorities feeling betrayed….
To me this is an important issue, because many of the groups in support of the convention have been my supporters and helped my being released. I explained in parliament on the ICERD: we reject any discrimination as a country. So we rejected the convention because of the concern that this would violate our constitution that gives affirmative action to the Bumiputras (original Malays). I do accept that these groups had supported me, and even internationally, we have upset human rights groups who had supported me. But I hope they understand our position.
How do you convince minorities including the roughly 30% Chinese-origin and the Indian-origin people that they are safe under your alliance when conservative majorities come out and the government bows to them?
Our party has more support than the Indian party in Malaysia. We will not condone discrimination. In 2008 we took a firm stand on rebuilding a temple that had been dismantled by the previous government for a building project, and we did. We lost some votes, but that is the cost of ensuring justice…We have four Indian-origin members of the cabinet now, and what is important is merit.