After so many years, and so many leaders, who have not passed the test of government, Malaysia is giving a long-standing opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, a chance to rule. He was made prime minister in November, after many years in the wilderness—and years in jail.
Ibrahim is an interesting character. I interviewed him last year for Foreign Policy, something that was occasioned by a brief moment when it seemed as if he might finally take office. That chance eluded him, but he demonstrated immense perseverance. He always said, if it took fifty years, he would do it. And now he has.
Ibrahim is not a complete outsider, however. In the 1990s, he was a widely respected deputy prime minister and finance minister, holding the latter post for most of the decade. It was a time of growth and optimism, not least in Malaysia. This was a period of the Asian tigers—a bold and imaginative moment, where the cold war was over, peace dividends were cashed, and everyone thought the world could work together to become rich.
Ibrahim epitomized a good time for Malaysia. Some Malaysians look back at those days as a lost golden age.
But then came the wilderness. For years Ibrahim languished in opposition, and often in jail, imprisoned by a series of corrupt and desperate leaders who could not extinguish his appeal or his particular claim to support—at the head of an explicitly multi-ethnic, multi-religious party: a rarity in Malaysia.
Ibrahim learned the lessons of the good years of the 1990s, and the bad years that came afterward. Malaysia continued to grow under his opponents, but the country suffered too. It suffered corruption and financial scandals, most notably 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). This was a big one.
It was an unimaginable fraud of great audacity. Its aftermath left Malaysia reeling and humiliated. The sitting prime minister, Najib Razak, was arrested and finally jailed on corruption charges—swept up in an anti-corruption dragnet which shamed the nation.
Many billions of dollars of state funds—which were intended to be invested—disappeared. Not only were the Malaysian people robbed, they were denied the benefit of the investments supposedly made on their behalf.
Much of the money for IMDB left the country in the hands of the fugitive financier Jho Low, who has still escaped justice. Even worse, some of it ended up, it seems, in Prime Minister Razak’s personal bank accounts—and in the form of vulgar luxury goods purchased by his wife.
Malaysia has long desired a way to come back from the confidence-shaking effects of this scandal—to make for itself a political and economic clean slate. Ibrahim may be that man.
America can benefit from this. Just as we are increasingly aware that corruption anywhere hurts everyone—it hurts the people who lose their money through looting and theft, but also those corrupted by dirty cash—economies run fairly and well are likely to lift all boats.
“Why do I pursue this agenda? Because I am obsessed with the idea that Malaysia has this enormous potential—we have lost it due to bad governance,” Anwar told me last year. “You know, this is a unique country: Muslim majority, multiracial, multireligious. At least we claim to have some semblance of democracy—very fragile. We have not been successful in the past to mature as a vibrant working democracy. But we have the capacity to do that.”
This is clearly a man with whom America can do business. He is not a permanent American ally like Japan or Australia, but instead, Anwar represents a bridge between the West and Islamic world and a reasonable mediation between the United States and China.
Malaysia is, it need hardly be said, a strategic country. Geographically it is in the heart of the contentious Asia-Pacific. It does the majority of its trade with China—a key relationship. But Ibrahim has always maintained a principle of neutrality to keep up with all power blocs in order for his country to be able to function and make its way as a trading nation. His most recent manifesto, SCRIPT for a Better Malaysia, notes that his country must remain nimble and principled if it is to succeed in an era of U.S.-China trade competition.
It is also critical that Malaysian democracy is successful. As democracy is threatened worldwide, and with democratic backsliding in Asia specifically—notably in Myanmar—success stories like Ibrahim’s are worthwhile, and their continued success is in America’s interest.
After all, when Malaysia has been ruled by a series of corrupt men, we bit our tongues and toughed it out. When Ibrahim’s on-again, off-again ally Mahathir Mohammad was prime minister—and an erratic term it was too—we largely said and did nothing to rock the boat. This is better than that.
Now an avowed democrat, a believer in multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracy has come along to occupy the highest office in Malaysia, after years of struggle. It will not be easy. In fact, it will be a great and difficult job. But if Americans have surveyed Malaysian politics with resignation for most of this century, we might be able to breathe a little easier now that Ibrahim has achieved the first step of his long life’s dream.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington DC and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute US Army War College.