Anwar Ibrahim will leave behind an “indelible political legacy” in Malaysia whenever his career ends, says University at Albany Prof. Meredith Weiss in the latest episode of The Pivot podcast. Anwar, as he’s known in his country and far beyond, has “helped to make possible political change in a system that was so rigidified” under the Barisan Nasional, which had ruled the country for 61 years.
Change is a constant in Anwar’s political career. His initial student activism, Weiss notes, was actually as a leftist. But he would soon shift toward a more Islamic brand of politics, founding the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (ABIM).
Anwar was later pulled into government by Mahathir Mohamad and groomed as his heir apparent. But the two had a falling out amid the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. And there began the next stage of Anwar’s political career, which included periods of imprisonment.
He remained on the margins — in exile or alternating between serving in prison or as leader of the opposition — until 2022 when he became prime minister of Malaysia.
The Evolution of Anwar
Not only have Anwar’s political alignments and fortunes changed, but his ideology has evolved too. The many transformations of Anwar Ibrahim — indeed, his many political lives — make not just a compelling personal story, but they also help us understand his country, Malaysia, and challenge prevailing views about the relationship between Islam, democracy, and liberty.
As he faced political trials at home, Anwar became an even stronger embodiment of the Muslim democrat, articulating a vision of governance and society based on the maqasid al-shariah (objectives of Islamic law). Today, he leads a multi-ethnic coalition, the Pakatan Harapan, and his politics, in the view of some, can be described as post-Islamist.
Anwar’s political adroitness and flexibility are major reasons for his survival and ability to disrupt the status quo. But as prime minister, he faces what is arguably his greatest test: whether he can live up to his promise of change.
Meredith Weiss, a professor of political science at the University at Albany, joins host Arif Rafiq to discuss the many political transformations of Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim over his political career. A prominent Islamist student activist, Anwar was cultivated by longtime Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad as his heir apparent, only to be victimized and imprisoned by him later. As a dissident, Anwar became an outspoken Muslim democrat both at home and on the global stage. Today, his politics, in the view of some, can be described as post-Islamist. Anwar Ibrahim’s fascinating political journey is not his story alone: it is that of Malaysia too.
Dr. Meredith Weiss is a professor of political science at the University at Albany and founding director of the SUNY/CUNY Southeast Asia Consortium. She has published widely on social mobilization and civil society, the politics of identity and development, electoral politics and parties, institutional reform, and subnational governance in Southeast Asia, with a particular focus on Malaysia and Singapore. Her books include Protest and Possibilities: Civil Society and Coalitions for Political Change in Malaysia (Stanford, 2006); Student Activism in Malaysia: Crucible, Mirror, Sideshow (Cornell SEAP, 2011); and The Roots of Resilience: Party Machines and Grassroots Politics in Southeast Asia (Cornell, 2020).
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.
He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.