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.

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The meal arrives, the food sparsely presented on earthy yellow plates. Anwar’s features four large chunks of lamb, while mine looks like a clump of crisply cooked sausage rolls dusted with fine greenish powder. I’m a touch disappointed but when I pick one up it crumbles enticingly between my fingers, and, dipped into a spoonful of the thick, brown dal, tastes rich, charcoaly and pleasing.

Anwar seems especially happy with his pudina bread, mentioning again the supposed health benefits. I ask how he managed physically during the trial, mindful that following his release from prison in 2004—the charges were eventually quashed after six years inside—he flew to Germany for surgery, following repeated beatings. He sighs. “It has been hard. Very hard,” he says, admitting that his back may need further work.

For all that, he seems surprisingly free of bitterness: prosecutors in Malaysia might have appealed his acquittal but for now he seems to be revelling in his status as a free man. The harshest words he has to say about his former boss Mahathir, who led Malaysia for more than two decades until 2003, is that he represents the “past face of Asian leaders ... of Asian values, condescending to our citizens; where democracy or freedom are seen as essentially western constructs.”


As his thin fingers bring together small parcels of bread, lamb and dal, he tells me there should no longer be any reason to see a contradiction between Islam and democracy. “The vast majority of Muslims are under democratic rule,” he says, “or are opting for democracy, as in Egypt.” The old leaders—be it Mahathir, ousted Arab despots, or, by implication, Najib Razak, Malaysia’s current elected leader—are out of touch with what he describes as a new wave of Muslim democracies.

What sort of leader would he be? Anwar mentions Turkey as an inspiration. It’s an interesting one, given Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also accused of authoritarian leanings and making religious alliances that undermine his country’s secular state. Anwar says the two men have similar hopes for Islamic democracy, and have discussed the wider opportunity presented by the recent Arab uprisings. “I talk about the Malaysian Spring, but our route will be elections,” Anwar says, adding with a flourish, “It’s going to happen very soon!”

Yet, even if you take Anwar’s liberalism at face value, he still has domestic constraints to contend with, not least from his awkward and ideologically inchoate opposition movement, which combines a trio of parties representing liberal, ethnic Chinese and orthodox Islamic views.

He tells me that if he wins power in the election likely to be held this year, his goal will be economic improvement. It is an aim for which he again picks a western intellectual model, in the egalitarian ideas of Harvard philosopher John Rawls. I find it hard to imagine Rawls being a widely agreed upon reference point within his coalition, but it is equally hard to imagine this thoughtful man as much of a closet Islamist either.

Is dealing with his more orthodox Islamic allies easy? Anwar smiles, ruefully. “From time to time they would object to Elton John coming to the country,” he says, “or to Beyoncé for dressing too sexily.” But, beyond that, he says the three opposition parties agree on the need for basic rights and freedoms. His own beliefs help cement the consensus, he says: “If it was some non-Muslim, they’d think that I was a bit wishy-washy and easy, but, no, I’m a Muslim. People ask, ‘Do you believe in the Koran?’ and I can say ‘Yes.’ ”

Pushing a little, I ask whether he would allow hudud, a controversial form of sharia law that involves corporal punishment for certain crimes, to be introduced in Malaysia. He looks pained, and exhales slowly before admitting this is “one of the more difficult issues I have to deal with”. There follows a lengthy exercise in square-circling, in which he refuses to rule out their introduction but says they would need to be in line with other rights and also to have widespread pubic support. “We must reach a consensus, which is not possible in the foreseeable future, but what if you’re given a situation where all Malaysians agree? Who am I to say no?” The explanation has a kind of logic, but it is also unsatisfying.

Anwar has by now finished eating, and is dipping his fingers in a bowl of warm water. I ask him how he found the meal. “Very heavy, but very delicious,” he says, before singling out the lassi for special commendation. Our time is drawing short so we pass on pudding and order coffee, which Anwar has with honey.

I put the question that has been on my mind throughout, namely whether all this quoting of Rawls and Shakespeare is little more than an alluring put-on to gain admirers abroad. For the first time he seems riled. “I quote Shakespeare in Kuala Lumpur and the Koran in the Muslim villages but the message is consistent—and coherent,” he says. The response is his most passionate, and comes with more hand waving than normal.

The problem of his twin world views cuts the other way, he says, with his friendships with foreigners—and in particular Jewish foreigners—used against him by opponents. “For the past 13 years they have accused me of being a Jewish agent or befriending Jews,” he says. “In every village during elections these people put up photographs of me and Paul Wolfowitz.”

But, he continues, speaking of rural voters: “You gel with them if you talk about the Koran as the essence of freedom. ‘You are born free, you are all children of Adam, so why do you insult groups based on difference of race or religion or colour?’ ” Such attitudes are not popular with the orthodox religious establishment but he says the debate is healthy: “Oh, they say, ‘But it’s a different interpretation.’ Well, let the other sheiks counter me!” he concludes, tapping the side of a nearby mineral water bottle for emphasis.

Anwar has a reputation as a fiery public speaker, and, as we prepare to leave, I ask him if he is looking forward to heading back and starting the campaign. He says he is, and I believe him, although I can’t help but feel that he must wish his country didn’t require him to contort this way and that, to try to bring west and east together. As we part I wish him well for the journey ahead, in both senses. I suspect it might be the last time he quotes Shakespeare for some time.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.

James Crabtree is the FT’s Mumbai correspondent.