“Go listen to Anwar speak at a ceramah, and I guarantee you’ll be convinced,” my friend told me almost 10 years ago.
Even in a crowd of hundreds of thousands, Anwar has the magical ability of making you feel like he’s speaking directly to you. Whether to students about the plight of rural-poor Malays in Baling, first-time protestors at Kuala Lumpur when he first uttered the transformative words of “Reformasi”, or the roaring crowd at the Black 505 rally who felt the elections was stolen from them. Unscripted and off-the-cuff, laced with humour and anger, Anwar tells you the story of the inequality between the haves and have-nots, and he makes you care for the country you longed to love.
For all his inadequacies, Anwar’s care for the disenfranchised is consistent and sincere. He had legions of supporters who would go out of the way for him, even at personal cost. He was popular and well-liked, certain of being prime minister in 2013. Surely, I felt, no government would be so foolish to jail him for a nearly identical charge of sodomy as in 1998.
When the sodomy case was nearing the end at the appeals court, supporters, including myself, followed the case closely. On one occasion, Anwar came out of court in the evening and was surprised to see his supporters who had waited under hot sun and pouring rain for him. Unperturbed by fatigue, Anwarthought the least he could do was to speak to them. He took the microphone and spoke about the weak evidence against him and the political motive to assassinate his career.
Di manakan ku cari ganti?
As the day turned dark, he looked at the faces of tired supporters – in the busy politics, a glimpse of humanity. He never paid them to come, he didn’t even have food or drinks ready for them. Yet they stood the whole day, just to catch a glimpse of the man they called hero – to cheer him on and ask him to hang in there. Visibly touched, Anwar said softly with a smile he could no longer hide, “Di manakan ku cari ganti?” (Where else will I find supporters like you?)
But Malaysia faltered.
In February 2015, the Federal Court convicted Anwar to 5 years in jail. Before the verdict, he lamented the deep-seated unfairness and institutional collapse, criticising judges who sold their “souls to the devil” by choosing to bow to the dictates of the political masters. “Going to jail, I consider a sacrifice I make for the people in this country,” he said.
“I will never surrender!”
In the next few days, my friends and I gathered hundreds of Malaysians in front of the Big Ben in London, and shouted against the blatant injustice, hoping that our cries would reverberate around the world. Many did not dare to turn up or show their faces, a few were even threatened.
Every Anwar believer has a story like that. We kept asking ourselves: If this could happen to a man like Anwar, what are our chances?
Opposition activists at that time reminded us of 1998. Masked and armed policemen stormed his house and throw him in police custody. He was severely beaten at the head and neck repeatedly, laying on the ground unconscious, saved only by teary helpers who could not bear such tragedy. He shocked the world when he walked out with a swollen blue eye. But he looked straight to the cameras with a fierce and unrelenting look, and raised his fist in the air.
Every Anwar believer would have a story they love to tell, because for him and his cause, you would have gone through 5 stages of grief.
First you tell yourself that no way in Malaysia would the courts make a bad decision twice. Then you continue toharbour an absurd level of hope as the police van drives Anwar to Sungai Buloh Prison. When you knew that Anwar will have to stay in prison for the next few years, you getangry at the country and the system, before tuning out of politics for months to heal. And then you accept this may behow things are and lose hope – before Anwar emerges again from bars to remind you that the fight is still on.
A generation’s dream in one man
Ask any Anwar believer and they will be the first to tell you how flawed he is. They will not understand why Anwar over-trusted his foes and fell for their traps over and over again; why he surrounded himself with cunning people who eventually betrayed him; or why he came so close to prime ministership so many times but never became.
But I realise the reason we feel so strongly for Anwar was because we have inadvertently placed all our hopes and dreams of Malaysia on one man, that his successes and failures felt like ours. This is, of course, too heavy a burden for anyone to bear.
From day one of his premiership, Anwar take over at a time of intense political instability, ethnoreligious polarisation, and unprecedented inflation. All of us must stand ready to contribute and do all we can to rebuild this country from where we find them, so we leave something good behind.
At the heart of it, Anwar’s story is about how courage, perseverance, and the childlike idealism of a better Malaysia could alter the fate of an underdog. He convinced me that this country is worth paying a high price for, and we are never too far from turning a hopeful page.
Moments before Anwar took his oath as the 10th Prime Minister of Malaysia on 24 November 2022, the sky started to drizzle in light rain, clouds above the palace forming in subtle grey. As the King called out his name, he slowly rose from his seat donning a black and gold baju melayu, and walked to the centre of the royal palace for the country to see. This is the man whom you’ve shed tears for, this is the man who embodied your country’s beautiful contradictions, this is the man who symbolised your eternal aspirations for a better Malaysia.
As he uttered the words of oath, the grey clouds started to part, making way for a man who rose from the ashes – igniting, once again, the spirit of a nation. Outside the palace gates, Anwar supporters, with broken backs and sore feet, let out a chant that captured their highest ideals: Re-for-ma-si.
(Edited version originally published here: https://m.malaysiakini.com/columns/645788)