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Who is Anwar Ibrahim?

By Murray Hunter - posted Friday, 27 August 2021

There has been no other politician in Malaysia who is as polarizing as Anwar Ibrahim. People will usually strongly support him, or strongly dislike him. He has been accused of being a chameleon, telling different audiences, different things, an opportunist, seeking the prime ministerial position, and ‘the boy who cried wolf’, with his aspersions about having a parliamentary majority to takeover government, on a number of occasions.

In contrast, many see Anwar Ibrahim as Malaysia’s last hope. Anwar has been a student activist, grounded in Islamic theology, minister, deputy prime minister, leader of the opposition, spending more than ten years in jail, through detention without trial under the Internal Security Act, or ISA, and on, what has been touted internationally, as politically motivated charges, on two occasions.

Anwar, once called ‘the prime minister in waiting’, after Pakatan Harapan won the 2018 general election, while his old nemesis Mahathir Mohamed was ‘interim’ prime minister, has long been discussed as about as a potential prime minister for more than two decades.


His awe-inspiring speeches at political rallies, or ceramahs, as they are locally known, and long string of television interviews over the years, has more than adequately given him the opportunity to present his vison of what Malaysia could be. However, there is a strong feeling among many who feel they don’t really know who Anwar Ibrahim really is.

Anwar studied Malay Studies at the University of Malaya, and later undertook a master degree in literature from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, while he was interned under the ISA in 1974 and 75.

During his early years, Anwar became involved in student activism, and was heavily influenced by some of the left-leaning NGOs at the time. Anwar became close to, and was influenced by Mohamad Idris,  President of  the Consumer Association of Penang, which had an underlying suspicion of rapid industrialization and Western economic development paradigms. Anwar at this time developed an inclination for the need of a free economy, based on equity, good governance, social justice, compassion for those in need, and a tolerance towards diversity.

Anwar applied the above principles to his vision of Islamic interpretation, focusing on the social justice, rather than theological aspects. Consequently, Anwar sees compatibility between the principles of Islam and a democratic society. In Anwar’s frame, there is no paradox between the two, as he saw democracy encompassing an ethos of human dignity, anchored to the doctrine of universal values, that all humans are endowed by their creator, which all religions, including Islam share. 

These universal principles reflected in Islam are strongly opposed to religious nationalism, manifested in Malaysia as Ketuanan Melayu, or Malay supremacy. In addition, Anwar professes an approach which Islam evolves in relation to the immediate existential conditions of Muslims, similar to Tunku Abdul Rahman’s, and later Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s approach under the label Islam Hadhari.

Through the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM), Anwar moved to dakwah, or the spreading of the word of Islam through charity and education, targeted at the poor. Originally inspired and influenced by the philosophy of the Muslim Brotherhood, ABIM moved into partnership with the government on nation building, promoting the concepts of developing an Islamic university and Islamic banking within Malaysia, leading to the establishment of the International Islamic University of Malaysia, and Bank Islam Malaysia. These, however became just like the other Malay-centric institutions created to support the ethno-political status-quo. 


Anwar was recruited into government by Mahathir Mohamed and under his patronage became the minister for culture, youth and sport in 1983, agriculture in 1984, education in 1986, and finance in 1991. Anwar became deputy prime minister in 1993.

Anwar’s stint as education minister could have led to important policy breakthroughs. Instead, Anwar changed the name of the national language from Bahasa Malaysia to Bahasa Melayu, further bringing the country’s education system backwards. Anwar was criticized as undermining national unity, through further Islamization of education. Anwar, together with Mahathir Islamized the civil service, leading to many believing that Anwar was an Islamist. According to former Law Minister Zaid Ibrahim, Anwar is an Islamist who "helped Islamicise the whole government system" and played a major role in the Islamization of the education system when he was Education Minister in the 1980s.

As finance minister and deputy prime minister, Anwar was seen as a liberal. Anwar opposed the protectionist framework Mahathir had set up, which he saw as promoting cronyism and creating an environment for corruption to thrive. During the Asian financial crisis Anwar pursued free market principles, and criticized the business-political connect. This made many within the UMNO establishment very nervous, when Anwar opposed bailouts for ailing firms. Anwar crossed Mahathir by supporting IMF austerity measures which proposed cutting government expenditure twenty percent, cancelling mega projects, and cutting ministerial salaries.

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This article was first published on Murray Hunter.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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