December 09, 2022
The news has been particularly fraught and relentless recently; so much is happening. A major war in Europe continues, financial issues such as inflation and energy price rises sweep the world in developed and developing nations alike, and there is a World Cup to watch and dissect.
In the current climate, it is hard to find time to stop and think — and harder still, sometimes, to acknowledge tentative good news stories. But that only makes it all the more vital to ensure that we do indeed stop to mark such moments.
One such tentative positive step was recently taken by Malaysia. Anwar Ibrahim, a perennial opposition leader, took office as prime minister last month. That he might do so seemed unlikely, even impossible, for more than two decades. In all that time, during crisis after crisis, scandal after scandal, Ibrahim toiled in the political wilderness. It was a very difficult road.
Even now, as the BBC reminds us, Ibrahim will not have an easy ride. There are forces arrayed against him that threaten to render his time in office short and unsuccessful.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. First, a reminder of who Ibrahim is, what he represents and why his election, after all these years, is good news not only for Malaysia but for the whole of the Muslim world.
In the 1990s, Ibrahim was his country’s finance minister and deputy prime minister. His long tenure and steady hands meant he was internationally respected. His time as head of Malaysia’s economy coincided with a period of remarkable growth and optimism. It was the era of the Asian tigers.
Not only a competent finance minister, Ibrahim also proved from the beginning of his political career to be a socially aware Muslim. From the 1970s he was at the head of an Islamic revival movement in Malaysia. As a co-founder of Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia), his party and ideals combined social concerns and care for the poor and dispossessed with an explicit vision of Islam.
Ibrahim’s politics were shaped around a vision of a kind of multiethnic, globally aware Islam. He was, and is, a proud Malay and a proud Muslim. In contrast to transnational Islamism, Ibrahim favors social progress within nation states. His vision for Malaysia sees it taking its place both within the Islamic community and the wider world.
That Anwar Ibrahim, a perennial opposition leader, would take office as prime minister of Malaysia seemed unlikely, even impossible, for more than two decades.
All of this will be central to his future plans because Malaysia has many problems. It is a corrupt society where the rule of law is an inconsistent principle. For years, the country was run by a succession of prime ministers whose Byzantine sense of politics was accompanied by an almost imperial taste for wealth and luxury.
Competent economic management is a soothing balm in the aftermath of such crises and scandals. So, too, is a modest philosophy of government steeped in the civic teachings of Islam, led by a party that consists of a multiethnic, multifaith coalition.
Such virtues, once expressed, tend to spread. If Ibrahim succeeds, Malaysia will transcend the recent scandal and turmoil and could well become a beacon for the region and the wider Muslim world: A country that recovered from poor governance, greed and moral corruption, and sought through its own efforts to instead build a brighter future for its people.
Ibrahim faces many challenges, not the least of which includes the global economic crisis. With China in perpetual slowdown and the US and Europe teetering on the brink of recession, the prospects of growth for many countries have been depressed.
Ibrahim cannot imagine that he will enjoy immediate success. The headwinds he faces are strong. But as his supporters have said, would the people of Malaysia rather be led by an experienced man long kept out of positions of power, or by the leaders from its recent history: Men accused and even convicted of corruption, or men whose political coalitions failed to stand the test of time?
We must hope that the long-awaited leadership of this perennial opposition figure proves capable of bringing about the transformation that Ibrahim’s supporters have so long imagined, for their sake.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is director of special initiatives at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington D.C. and the author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim
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