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  • Writer's pictureAzeem Ibrahim OBE

Anwar Ibrahim may prove a powerful voice for Asia

He is deeply interested in the fate of the Myanmar Rohingya, and keen to facilitate a just solution to their years-long plight.

After so many years, and so many leaders, who have not passed the test, Malaysia is giving a long-standing opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, a chance to govern. He was made prime minister last month, after years in the wilderness.


Ibrahim is an interesting man. I interviewed him last year, when it briefly seemed as if power might be his. That chance slipped away, but he demonstrated immense perseverance, and maintained that if he lived to be a hundred, he would be prime minister. It seems he did not need to wait that long.


In the 1990s, Ibrahim was a widely respected deputy prime minister and finance minister, holding the latter post for most of that 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 European, North American, and Soviet stranglehold on development was being radically upended, setting the stage for the twenty-first century.


Ibrahim in many ways represented the optimism and boldness of his country -- while he remained respected and restrained in his economic stewardship. Some older Malaysians look back at those days as a golden age.


But after that time, Ibrahim was not rewarded with higher posts. For years he languished in opposition, and often in jail, imprisoned by a series of corrupt and desperate men who could not extinguish his appeal or his particular claim to political support -- at the head of an explicitly multi-ethnic, multi-religious party.


Half a century earlier, Singapore had left Malaysia after an explosion of ethnic chauvinism. Singapore went on to become fabulously wealthy and internationally revered. Malaysians who noticed the dynamo on their doorstep thought bitterly that an anti-sectarian political movement might have made the entire country rich, with Singapore a valued member of the federal state.


It is that non-sectarian future that Ibrahim's movement advocates.


The past cannot be undone, but its lessons can be learned. And Ibrahim has learnt the lessons of the good years of the 90s, and the bad years that came afterwards.


Malaysia continued to grow under his opponents, but the country suffered too. It suffered corruption and financial scandals, most notably the scandal of 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).


This was an unimaginable fraud of great audacity. Its aftermath left Malaysia reeling and humiliated.


This was a scandal so vast, that the sitting prime minister, Najib Razak, was first arrested and finally jailed on corruption charges -- swept up in an anti-corruption dragnet which shamed the nation.


And beyond the shaming, many billions of dollars of state funds -- which were intended to be invested on the nation's behalf, disappeared. Not only were the Malaysian people robbed, they were denied the benefit of the investments supposedly made on their behalf.


Scandal upon scandal, much of the money left the country in the hands of the fugitive financier Jho Low, who has still escaped justice -- and, even worse, some of it ended up, it seems, in prime minister Razak's personal bank accounts -- and in the form of luxury goods purchased by his wife.


Malaysia has long desired a way to come back from the confidence-shaking effects of this scandal -- a political and economic clean slate.


This is something Ibrahim can provide.


And he can also provide something for the rest of Asia, as a financial manager and a non-sectarian politician. Rather than being on the take, or being chauvinist in his own way, Ibrahim's long time in opposition has hopefully taught him the value of alliances.


He will be keen to reassure the remainder of the ASEAN nations that Malaysia is in good hands, that it is back, and that it is open for business. These are good things, and they are things to which Malaysia's friends and allies can also be subject.


In these globalized times, the success of our neighbours does not make us poorer. A more prosperous Malaysia, with a new sense of purpose in its rule of law, can only be a good thing.


And for Bangladesh, Ibrahim has another special resonance. He is deeply interested in the fate of the Myanmar Rohingya, and keen to facilitate a just solution to their years-long plight. So many of Ibrahim's predecessors did not care about this vital issue. They had other problems in their heads, and little interest in helping Bangladesh share the burden.


But Ibrahim has said that he will not make the same mistakes. He wishes the Rohingya to escape their restrictive legal situation, and to be given the rights in Myanmar which would allow an equitable settlement of their situation, and an end to the limbo of their residence in refugee camps. As Bangladesh attempts to move this issue forward, we hope it can have an ally in Ibrahim.


And for all of Asia, the success of a peaceful opposition leader who endured imprisonment and denounced the corruption of his predecessors is a good thing to see. We must hope he achieves the successes he has spent decades planning to attain.

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