KUALA LUMPUR — On the 14th floor of Malaysia’s Parliament building — a white, honeycombed 1960s box on the Kuala Lumpur skyline — Anwar Ibrahim speaks quietly for a man known domestically as a populist firebrand.
Talk of a general election in the next few months is in the air, on local blogs and even between the lines of the pro-government media, although Najib Razak, the prime minister, could wait until April.
“This will be a different election,” Malaysia’s opposition leader promises, dressed in a subdued blue suit and tie. “We are changing the entire political landscape of the country. I think a growing number, particularly the younger Malaysians, want Malaysia to evolve as a mature, vibrant democracy.”
What many younger Malaysians want was on vivid display two months ago, when tens of thousands of demonstrators turned out in central Kuala Lumpur for a rally organized by Bersih, an opposition-linked civil society group that advocates electoral reform.
The protest ended violently after demonstrators were dispersed by police using water cannons and tear gas.
It was a surprisingly strong showing of popular frustration that placed Anwar yet again in an uncomfortable spotlight, only months after his acquittal on sodomy charges — the latest chapter in a turbulent political career that has taken him from deputy prime minister and anointed leader-in-waiting in the late 1990s to prison, the formation of a political party and back into Parliament.
Video shot at the demonstration by Bersih, which is Malay for “clean,” showed him gesturing to the crowd — leading the attorney general to charge that he had been encouraging demonstrators to breach a barricade and enter a square where public protests are banned.
“Really flimsy,” Anwar says of the charge, repeating the gesture by rolling one hand over another. “Look at it clearly in the point of law, what is the evidence?”
Anwar’s supporters see this as another government-inspired ploy — just like the most recent sodomy charge — to keep him off the campaign trail.
The election will be close. It was at the hands of Anwar’s People’s Alliance that the ruling coalition, dominated by the United Malay National Organization, lost a two-thirds majority in Parliament in 2008 — a shock for a party that has ruled Malaysia since independence.
“The next election will be the most competitive in [the] history of Malaysia,” said Bridget Welsh, an expert in Malaysian affairs at Singapore Management University. “The opposition, while facing problems internally and its own trust deficit, has gained support by moving from problem-raising toward gaining experience at the state level in government offering more options for Malaysians.”
Now 65, Anwar acknowledges this is “probably” his last shot at becoming prime minister. He seems tired for a man facing his best shot yet of governing the country’s complex mix of 28 million Malays, Chinese and Indians.
“We present our manifesto, our policies and, of course, if I get a mandate, I continue. Otherwise, I think I’ll go back to teaching,” Anwar says.
Six years in jail on sodomy charges have taken their toll. Another cat-and-mouse game with Malaysia’s judiciary appears likely, thanks to his hand gestures at the Bersih rally. On Monday, a judge set a date in September for hearing an application by Anwar’s attorneys to dismiss the charge.
Yet he perks up when asked to rate the Najib administration’s record.
Two years ago, the prime minister rolled out a vast “economic transformation program” to more than double per capita income to $15,000 by 2020. The ruling coalition says it has created more than 3.3 million jobs and has been running a billboard campaign for multiethnic cooperation known as “1Malaysia.”
“You talk about ‘1Malaysia,’ but the race divide now is worse than before,” says Anwar. “Who would question the whole spirit of Malaysia? We don’t. But the action [of the government] is something else.”
Anwar’s supporters say he is one of the few whose agenda can pull together the country’s ethnic patchwork. Yet critics say his challenge in power would be holding together his coalition of the ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party, his own People’s Justice Party and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party.
“This is not a coalition based on just flimsy deals,” he insists. “We actually crafted clear policies. There may be some minor issues that we could argue on, even within one party or one race. But with the substantive issues, no.”
As he leaves his office, the opposition’s best hope for power seems more energized. But the fact that his office is devoid of any decoration — and that his desk is empty — reveals how pressured he remains.
“We don’t keep papers here because there’s no security here as far as we are concerned. I don’t leave anything here. It’s not good,” Anwar says, quietly again. “But then, that’s how we have to survive.”