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Anwar Ibrahim >
Basic Biography

Anwar Ibrahim was born in a northern town in Malaysia, Bukit Mertajam, in 1947, into a middle-class urban family. Both of his parents were active in the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which had been formed in 1946 as an assertion of Malay political identity during the time when the British were reestablishing control following World War II. The town where he was born had a number of well-known religious schools, but his own education was secular, with religious education being provided in the afternoons. He received his secondary school education at the Malay College in Kuala Kangsar, a highly regarded school established by the British originally to provide an appropriate education for children of Malay ruling families. He attended this school from 1960 to 1966 and already exhibited his leadership abilities in a variety of activities, ranging from interscholastic debate to religious activities.

He was a student at the University of Malaya, where he concentrated in Malay studies and received his bachelor's degree in 1971. Early in his career as a university student, he became active in student affairs. Already in 1969, during his second year, he was president of two important student organizations, the University of Malaya Malay Language Society (PBMUM; Persatuan Bahasa Melayu Universiti Malaya) and the National Union of Malaysian Muslim Students (PKPIM; Persatuan Kebangsaan Pelajar-Pelajar Islam Malaysia). These groups tended to concentrate on issues of Malay identity, and Anwar's “early career as an activist centered far more upon issues of Malayness.”8 Judith Nagata, The Reflowering of Malaysian Islam (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1984), p. 89. Anwar was, for example, responsible in these organizations for organizing the “Consciousness Raising Campaign,” in which students went to live in rural areas on order the raise their consciousness of the problems of the Malay rural poor. “There was an esprit de corps, but a Malay one. The main aim was still to arouse the student spirit to struggle for the Malay race.”9 Zainah Anwar, Islamic Revivalism in Malaysia: Dakwah among the Students (Petaling Jaya, Malaysia: Pelanduk Publications, 1987), p. 16. It was not until the early 1970s that there was a greater Islamic emphasis.

A major explosion of intercommunal violence in May 1969 became a turning point in the history of independent Malaysia. Malaysia is an ethnically pluralist society, with Malays representing only about half of the population and Chinese and Indians as major minorities. The Chinese controlled a significant proportion of the economy, and the 1969 riots involved attacks on what was seen as the privileged position of the Chinese. Following the 1969 riots, the government engaged in a major effort to improve the economic position of Malays in the country. Anwar Ibrahim and the groups he led played a significant role in advocating Malay rights. However, his Islamic commitment meant that he was an important factor in redefining Malay ethnic rights in more Islamic terms. Already his role as an activist intellectual, both articulating themes and working to implement them, was a key to his significance. A close associate from that early period recalled that it was he who began to “rationalize the theme of our struggle for socioeconomic justice with the ideals of Islam.”10 Kamaruddin Muhammad Nor, as quoted in Anwar, Islamic Revivalism, p. 12

Soon this activism led to the establishment in 1971 of a more formal organization bringing together students and younger professionals who were concerned with issues of social and economic justice in Malaysia. Anwar recalled that at that time “we were impatient and angry about the plight of the Malays, their education, rural development, rural health. … We were very angry, disgusted and critical of the government. There seemed to be no moral foundation and no spiritual guidance. We turned to Islam to fill this vacuum and to look for solutions.”11 Anwar Ibrahim, as quoted in Anwar, Islamic Revivalism, pp. 12–13. The new organization, Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM) reflected this dual focus of concern for Malay interests and the desire for Islamic renewal. It was Anwar who was the keystone for the new structure, both through his organizational leadership and his charismatic articulation of goals and aspirations.

In the early 1970s, Anwar's importance and visibility increased as student activism became an important part of the Malaysian political context. At first, many of the concerns were related to student-university issues or more internationally oriented protest demonstrations, like those in Kuala Lumpur during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. However, a new militancy in off-campus demonstrations and a growing attention toward issues of governmental corruption and social and economic justice within Malaysia itself gave added significance to ABIM. In late 1974, developments reached a critical point. A series of open clashes between police and students demonstrating on a variety of issues12 See, for example, M. G. G. Pillai, “The Importance of Students' Status,” FEER, 29 April 1974, pp. 14–15, and M. G. G. Pillai, “Graduating in Campus Confrontation,” FEER, 4 October 1974, pp. 11–12. reached a climax in December. Peasants in Baling, in northern Malaysia, became upset by deteriorating economic conditions, and in November began a series of marches and demonstrations in protest. When the authorities forcibly stopped these protests, students on a number of campuses organized “demonstrations of sympathy and support for the undeniable social distress in Baling.”13 Denzil Peiris, “The Emerging Rural Revolution,” FEER, 10 January 1975, p. 30. By early December, more than a thousand students had been arrested, and the government prepared to close university campuses in response to what became a major crisis.14 M. G. G. Pillai, “Taking up the Student Gauntlet, FEER. 13 December 1974, p. 14.

Anwar Ibrahim was among the students arrested, and he ultimately spent two years (1974–1976) in detention for his activities in the Baling crisis. Although government officials made the charge that the problems were the result of “communist” agitation and conspiracy, it was clear to most observers that ABIM under Anwar's leadership was the most important organizing force in the expanded protests. This represented a significant change in the nature of effective opposition to government in Malaysia. One informed observer at the time noted that the

most formidable force in this new opposition to what is, in fact, a Malay Government, claims legitimacy from the principles of Islam. … Hitherto, the opposition was either nakedly communist or based on Chinese dissatisfactions. Whatever “red herrings” were drawn by the Government across the Baling upsurge, it was essentially and predominantly a confrontation between Malays and their Malay Government.15 Peiris, “The Emerging Rural Revolution,” p. 30 .

Anwar, even in detention, remained in the forefront of the emergence of this new-style, Islamically oriented opposition, although in detention he had the time and opportunity for extensive reading in a wide range of subjects, including Western philosophy and Malayan history.16 Anwar Ibrahim, interviews with the authors, June 1990.

Along with establishing ABIM, the emerging group created a private secondary school, Yayasan Anda, which became the base for a network of private schools. The new schools were created to provide an alternative to the government schools, presenting curricula that combined Islamic and secular modern education. In addition to his organizational activities, Anwar served as the headmaster for the school, and many others from the ABIM group worked as teachers in the school. By 1980 the school in Kuala Lumpur under his leadership had thirteen hundred students, with many living in a student hostel since they came from outside of the city, and was an important base for the broader efforts of Islamic renewal.17 See Nagata, Reflowering, p. 93, and Henry Kamm, “Teacher Leads Malays Seeking Islamic Revival,” New York Times, 23 March 1980.

During the 1970s, Anwar became more highly visible internationally and was influenced by and was a part of the developing global network of Muslim activist intellectuals. He served as a member of the United Nations Advisory Group on Youth (1973–1974) and was a representative for Southeast Asia in the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (1976–1982). He was among the first Muslim leaders to visit Iran after the Revolution in 1979. He and his group made special efforts to read and understand the major thinkers in the Islamic renewal movements of the twentieth century, notably reading the works of Sayyid Qutb, Hasan al-Banna, and Abu al-Ala al-Mawdudi. In addition, they had direct personal contacts with major contemporary activist intellectuals, who played an important role in articulating the Islamist positions of the day. In Malaysia itself, the young Islamists had close relationships with Syed Naguib al-Attas, who was dean of the arts faculty at the National University. One theme that emerged from these discussions was an “understanding of the comprehensiveness of Islam as ad-deen (way of life),”18 Anwar, Islamic Revivalism, p. 13 . a concept that is at the heart of the Islamist understanding of Islam. Internationally, Anwar had a variety of connections. He had come to know the prominent Islamist scholar Ismail al-Faruqi in the early 1970s when Faruqi taught for a time in Malaysia. Faruqi's ideas played an important role in shaping Anwar's ideas.19 Ibrahim, interviews, June 1990. Islamic scholars from Indonesia were also important in helping to shape ABIM's Islamist mode. These included Deliar Noer, an Indonesian academic teaching in Australia, and, in the early 1970s, Imaduddin Abdul Rahim. However, Imaduddin's approach was relatively militant and hardline, while the ABIM leadership did not “agree with such a black and white interpretation of the struggle for Islam.”20 Kamaruddin Muhammad Nur, quoted in Anwar, Islamic Revivalism, p. 20. This reflected the developing approach of Anwar, which was to be strong in advocacy but to avoid extreme positions that could lead to militancy.

Although Anwar Ibrahim was very careful to remain within the bounds of legal opposition, he came to be viewed as one of the major figures in the alternatives to the political establishment of UMNO and its allies that had dominated Malaysian politics since independence (and before). ABIM, and Anwar himself, had worked with the more explicitly Islamic party, Partai Islam se-Malaysia (PAS). It had been thought that if or when Anwar became a direct participant in Malaysian politics, it would somehow be in the framework of PAS. As a result, it came as a great surprise to many when he joined UMNO and won a parliamentary seat in the general elections of 1982. “It was a move that shocked the country and distressed his followers in ABIM. His followers in PAS were stunned as they had considered him a potential leader of the part”21 Anwar, Islamic Revivalism, p. 39.

Anwar had become convinced that he could accomplish more for the Islamization of Malaysia by becoming a key member of the leadership than by remaining in the opposition. UMNO itself had recently, in 1981, come under the new leadership of Mahathir Mohamad, who was well known to Anwar. Mahathir had been an early member of UMNO but had come into conflict with the party leadership in 1969. Anwar worked with him during his time in opposition in the early 1970s and came to know him quite well.22 Ibrahim, interviews, June 1990. Mahathir later was in the cabinet in a variety of positions, and Anwar was convinced that Mahathir's commitment to the Islamization process was significant. Many of Anwar's old associates felt betrayed, while many others joined with him in the effort to establish a greater Islamic orientation within the political establishment itself.23 Esposito and Voll, Islam and Democracy, pp, 147–48. In this way, 1982 marks the transformation of Anwar from the most visible leader of the Islamically-oriented opposition to one of the major figures in the ruling political establishment.

In UMNO, Anwar gradually moved through the ranks of the leadership with great skill. Almost from the very beginning, he held cabinet positions. In 1983 he became the minister of sport, youth, and culture, and from 1984–1986 he served as minister of agriculture. From 1986 until 1991 he was minister of education, where he played an important role in giving a more formal place to Islam in curricula at all levels and especially in higher education. He worked closely with the International Islamic University (IIU) in Kuala Lumpur, which had been established in 1983, to create the Faculty of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences and basic departments in most of the social sciences and humanities. In 1991 he became minister of finance and emerged as a leading advocate of the globalist “liberal” approach to economic policy. In 1993 he was named Deputy prime minister, and most observers expected that he would be the eventual successor to Mahathir.

The Asian economic crises of 1997–1998 put great pressure on the relationship between Mahathir and Anwar, his minister of finance and deputy prime minister. Mahathir reacted strongly to the crisis with a rhetoric that alarmed the world financial leaders, and Anwar emerged as “the moderate, rational voice reassuring the international business community.”24 Keith B. Richburg, “Malaysia's Pop-Off Leader,” Washington Post, 13 October 1997. Tension apparently built up between the two leaders and came to a head in September 1998, when Anwar was relieved of all of his posts after refusing to resign. He then began a series of appearances that gained growing popular support for general political reform. At the end of the month, he was arrested and charged with a variety of crimes, including corruption and sexual misconduct. During his trial, his physical appearance indicated that he had been beaten, but he remained resolute in the affirmation of his innocence. In a series of trials that many called political show trials, he was convicted of corruption in April 1999 and sexual misconduct in August 2000 and sentenced to extended prison terms.

A new era in the career of Anwar, and the history of the Islamic revival in Malaysia, began with his removal from office in 1998. In the brief period before his arrest, he laid the foundation for a new reform movement and party through a series of addresses and demonstrations that attracted thousands of supporters. Public leadership of this movement was assumed by his wife, Wan Azizah Ismail: she is an ophthalmologist trained in the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. She and Anwar were married in 1980, and she was not a highly visible figure until the events of September 1998. With Anwar in prison, she moved quickly to create the Parti Keadilan Nasional (National Justice Party) to provide an institutional base for the reform movement. The basic positions of the party and movement emphasize the importance of democracy and the recognition of the fundamental pluralism of Malaysian society. When it was formed, it had the potential for providing a bridge between the different major opposition groups, the primarily Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the explicitly Islamic PAS. In this it continued the intermediate position that Anwar had maintained within Malaysian politics between Muslim and non-Muslim and also between militantly Islamic and more secular Malay groupings. A basic question following Anwar's conviction was the degree to which he would remain in control. Supporters of Mahathir see Wan Azizah as “only a proxy leader, or a trustee for her husband.”25 “The True Struggle of the National Justice Party” (editorial, New Straits Times, 6–8 April 1999), Foreign Broadcast Information Service; FBIS-HAS-1999-0408, 6 April 1999 (from http://wnc.fedworld.gov). while she realistically said, “People do ask whether Anwar is behind this. … He is, in a way, but he's also behind bars. So I have to sink or swim.”26 Richburg, “New Voice,” 19 June 1999. The future of Anwar Ibrahim as an activist intellectual was unclear at the end of the 1990s.

Notes:

8. Judith Nagata, The Reflowering of Malaysian Islam (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1984), p. 89. Find it in your Library

9. Zainah Anwar, Islamic Revivalism in Malaysia: Dakwah among the Students (Petaling Jaya, Malaysia: Pelanduk Publications, 1987), p. 16. Find it in your Library

10. Kamaruddin Muhammad Nor, as quoted in Anwar, Islamic Revivalism, p. 12 Find it in your Library

11. Anwar Ibrahim, as quoted in Anwar, Islamic Revivalism, pp. 12–13. Find it in your Library

12. See, for example, M. G. G. Pillai, “The Importance of Students' Status,” FEER, 29 April 1974, pp. 14–15, Find it in your Library and M. G. G. Pillai, “Graduating in Campus Confrontation,” FEER, 4 October 1974, pp. 11–12. Find it in your Library

13. Denzil Peiris, “The Emerging Rural Revolution,” FEER, 10 January 1975, p. 30. Find it in your Library

14. M. G. G. Pillai, “Taking up the Student Gauntlet, FEER. 13 December 1974, p. 14. Find it in your Library

15. Peiris, “The Emerging Rural Revolution,” p. 30 Find it in your Library.

16. Anwar Ibrahim, interviews with the authors, June 1990.

17. See Nagata, Reflowering, p. 93, Find it in your Library and Henry Kamm, “Teacher Leads Malays Seeking Islamic Revival,” New York Times, 23 March 1980. Find it in your Library

18. Anwar, Islamic Revivalism, p. 13 Find it in your Library.

19. Ibrahim, interviews, June 1990.

20. Kamaruddin Muhammad Nur, quoted in Anwar, Islamic Revivalism, p. 20. Find it in your Library

21. Anwar, Islamic Revivalism, p. 39. Find it in your Library

22. Ibrahim, interviews, June 1990.

23. Esposito and Voll, Islam and Democracy, pp, 147–48. Find it in your Library

24. Keith B. Richburg, “Malaysia's Pop-Off Leader,” Washington Post, 13 October 1997. Find it in your Library

25. “The True Struggle of the National Justice Party” (editorial, New Straits Times, 6–8 April 1999), Foreign Broadcast Information Service; FBIS-HAS-1999-0408, 6 April 1999 (from http://wnc.fedworld.gov).

26. Richburg, “New Voice,” 19 June 1999. Find it in your Library

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