Anwar Ibrahim Discusses Shakespeare and His Six Years in Prison

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim discusses his recent acquittal.

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim discusses his recent acquittal.

Stories from the Financial Times. 
Jan. 29 2012 6:48 AM

Lunch With Anwar Ibrahim

The former Malaysian deputy prime minister discusses Shakespeare and his six years in prison.

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim at his home after his acquittal in January.

Photo by Kamarul Akhir/AFP/Getty Images.

Anwar Ibrahim is running late, snarled up somewhere in the rolling carnage of Mumbai’s traffic. But as I sit and wait it still seems remarkable that he is here at all. Only two days before, Malaysia’s opposition leader seemed likely to end up in prison for the second time. He had been on trial in Kuala Lumpur for the past 11 months on charges of sodomising a male aide, in a case that both split his homeland and dented its image abroad. Yet on January 9 the Malaysian High Court found in his favour, and so on the evening of his acquittal Anwar, 64, flew to India to speak at a conference about democracy in Asia, organised by Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.

I am waiting for Anwar in a darkened booth inside Peshawri, a Moghul-themed restaurant at the back of a fancy hotel on the edge of city’s airport. A sign outside says diners will “relish the cuisine from the finest Indian restaurant in the world”, while inside the low ceilings, rough wood furniture and carpets on the walls are meant to bring to mind imperial India’s north-west frontier. The effect is undone only slightly by the towering white atrium outside, complete with palm trees and Islamic style windows.

Anwar’s political promise can divide even his admirers. Some are convinced he is what he at first appears to be: a liberal reformer; a talented technocrat who steered his nation through the worst of the 1997 Asian financial crisis; a genuine intellectual, who has spent time at Oxford, Georgetown and Johns Hopkins universities; and perhaps even a man capable of bringing the spirit of the Arab Spring to one of Asia’s largest majority Muslim nations.


Yet, while the record is impressive, doubts remain about whether the man can deliver. Critics point to his early days as an Islamic student radical, or his lengthy spell in the 1990s at the heart of Malaysia’s ruling elite, when he rose to become deputy prime minister to the autocratic Mahathir Mohamad before ultimately breaking with the regime and in 1998 ending up in jail on a separate set of improbable corruption and sodomy charges. Others point to the fractious Malaysian opposition he leads, or grumble that he talks a good game in the west but flirts with Islamists at home.

Anwar turns up roughly half an hour late—just about acceptable by Mumbai standards, but he apologises politely, nonetheless. He has delicate features and is stylishly dressed in an open-necked white shirt and black corduroy jacket, with carefully brushed hair and a neatly trimmed beard. Before his arrival I had checked his Twitter feed (he has 120,000 followers) and at the top of his stream found a picture he had posted of himself engulfed in cameras following the verdict, with a comment saying the image looked “like Hollywood.” I ask him about it, and the events of the past 48 hours.

He seems genuinely surprised to have won. “There was an early breakfast with the family; my children, my son-in-law, daughter-in-law, all were there,” he tells me. “And I said, ‘We pray for the best, we say there is hope,’ but then, realistically ... ” He trails off. “I got my medicine, my toiletries ready,” he adds quietly.

As we pause the menus arrive, on large leaf-shaped slabs of wood. The food is cooked in clay ovens, inspired by cuisine from the region around the city of Peshawar, now in Pakistan. In practice this means the choices are heavy on barbecued meats. Anwar picks a peshwari kebab of lamb marinaded in yoghurt and garlic. I decide on tandoori aloo, a roasted potato concoction with raisins and cashews.

We also take a portion of the dal bukhara on the waiter’s recommendation—the menu describes it as a “harmonious blend” of lentils, tomato, ginger and garlic, and it is cooked overnight—while Anwar picks a mango lassi and some pudina paratha.

“The pudina leaf is supposed to be healthy,” he says approvingly, although I’m disappointed to discover later that pudina turns out be nothing more interesting than mint. The choices over, I mull a point of etiquette that has been bothering me for much of the day. When exactly ought one bring up sodomy over lunch? It seems inelegant to dive right in, but then perhaps better to get it over and done with, leaving the pudding for lighter matters.

Thankfully, Anwar spares my indecision and launches straight into the topic, as part of a flurry of details on the trial itself. He talks rapidly about the flaws of the case, the complicity of the government, and a medical report he says showed no “clinical evidence of penetration” on the aide he is alleged to have assaulted. Despite the seriousness of the topic, I am struck by how relaxed he seems. He speaks in an endearingly conspiratorial manner, leaning in to make his points before pulling back and often cracking a wry joke, before giggling a little to himself.

The recent trial also showed this theatrical side, as he tells me of attempts to win over the judge with quotes from Hamlet (“let us once again assail your ears, that are so fortified against our story”), along with references to Nelson Mandela and the 1963-1964 Rivonia trial of much of the African National Congress’ leadership. The Bard turns out to be an Anwar speciality—in 2006 he presented a paper to the World Shakespeare Congress, while a copy of the Complete Works kept him company in jail.

He credits public pressure from allies in America and Turkey for his release, although Britain’s role gets a less positive reception: “David Cameron was completely muted,” he says, crossly. He mentions other friends, including Al Gore and Paul Wolfowitz, whom he first met back in the 1980s and with whom he says he still talks. He speaks of them with such affection he doesn’t seem to be name-dropping; a neat trick.