It is nearly midnight and Anwar Ibrahim is pacing about an improvised stage on a flat-top lorry. Before him, in a muddy field pockmarked with puddles from an earlier tropical deluge, stand 3,000-4,000 people, including Malays, ethnic Indians and Chinese, representatives of this diverse nation. This is Sungai Buaya, a scrappy industrial zone 70km north of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital. It is three nights before Sunday’s general election, the most closely contested in the country’s history.
Mr Anwar is a wiry 65-year-old with rimless glasses, a thin moustache and a high forehead. His shirtsleeves are rolled up and there’s something about the way he occupies the stage that is reminiscent of a nightclub entertainer. His delivery is quiet, with a comic’s sense of timing. Each punchline is marked by a flash of teeth and a little chuckle.
At one point he addresses the subject of Mahathir Mohamad, the man who ran Malaysia for 22 years between 1981 and 2003, and is now Mr Anwar’s nemesis. “Mahathir says we’ll bury you in Johor,” he says, referring to a potential swing state in the south of the peninsula. “I said, ‘You’re 87 years old. You shouldn’t be talking about burying people. You should be thinking about your own grave’.”
Mr Anwar’s bid for the premiership – effectively his last chance to reach that life-long goal – is all about burying Mr Mahathir and his ideology, one with which Mr Anwar was once himself intimately associated. Mr Mahathir has not been in office since he stepped down in 2003, but the system he built, one based on quotas for ethnic Malays, remains intact. So does the inevitable corruption that such a system engenders, for example in the disposal of government contracts.
“This nation has to grapple with ‘Mahathirism’ and this election will prove whether that system carries on or is finally pushed aside,” says Eddin Khoo, an author who has known Mr Anwar for years and who is attending the rally. “Anwar is the only man who can do it because he knows Mahathir so well.”
That is an understatement. For years, Mr Anwar was the very face of Mahathirism, a concoction of state repression and government largesse, especially for the majority Malays who make up 60 per cent of the population. Mr Anwar concedes that he was “part of that system” – as former deputy prime minister he could hardly be otherwise – but says he opposed the use of notorious state security laws and always looked out “for the plight of the poor”.
His journey to this point has been long and tortuous. Critics would say it has been Janus-faced and opportunistic. His activism began as a Muslim youth leader in the late-1960s, pressing for the rights of majority Malays who had, for the most part, been economically marginalised by the more successful ethnic Chinese. As a student, he was imprisoned for 20 months under the Internal Security Act, which allowed for detention without trial.
In 1982 Mr Anwar shocked his supporters, not for the last time, by joining the party of his erstwhile persecutors, Mr Mahathir’s United Malays National Organisation (Umno). He was attracted by Mr Mahathir’s programme of affirmative action for Malays, a system known as bumiputra – meaning “sons of the soil”. He quickly shot up the ranks and, by the early 1990s, was being groomed as Mr Mahathir’s successor.
It was not to be. The 1997 Asian financial crisis proved disastrous for Mr Anwar. He threw in his lot with the austerity policies then being touted by the International Monetary Fund, plunging the economy into deep recession. He also began a pre-emptive strike against Mr Mahathir, launching a campaign against “cronyism” and “nepotism”. Retribution was swift. Mr Anwar was fired and subsequently jailed for six years on what many consider trumped-up charges of corruption and sodomy. In jail he was beaten and spent much of the time in solitary confinement.
On his release in 2004 he was initially barred from public office, but returned to politics in 2008. He now heads the three-party opposition coalition that is seeking to unseat Umno for the first time in Malaysia’s history. If he beats the odds – and the state-controlled press – by winning, he would seal one of the most sensational political comebacks.
But who is he? Islamist or liberal? Malay nationalist or ethnically colour blind politician? “He’s a very complex personality,” says Khalid Jaafar, who was once his press secretary. His time in jail humbled and changed Mr Anwar, he says.
Mr Anwar’s hardest intellectual juggle is over radical Islam. As well as two multi-ethnic parties, his coalition includes an Islamic party that advocates sharia law. In some constituencies, a vote for “reformist” Anwar means a vote for a party committed to public whipping and amputation for certain crimes.
Mr Anwar, who has retreated post-rally to a crowded truck-stop café for some naan and lamb curry, says Islamists have the right to advocate sharia law. That does not mean he supports it, he says, implying it will never be implemented on his watch. “I am not here to dispute Koranic laws, but we cannot compel non-Muslims to comply and we are bound by constitutional guarantees.”
Once an advocate of affirmative action, Mr Anwar now says he intends to “dismantle” a system he regards as racially divisive. “I consider it obsolete and harmful to the country’s competitiveness,” he says. In its place, he has promised ethnically neutral social programmes, including free education and lower fuel prices. The ruling coalition, which has hardly been shy of throwing around pre-election largesse, calls his pledges fiscally reckless. Mr Anwar, with a typical flash, retorts that he intends to strike a “balance between market economy and Occupy Wall Street”.
So what does he intend to do in his first 100 days in office, should he miraculously overturn the weight of incumbency that has prevailed for more than half a century? It is 2am at the end of a long day and Mr Anwar can’t resist a final joke. “Get some sleep,” he says.