‘Remind People that I Won’t Be Free for Long’

Anwar Ibrahim on Malaysia’s mishandling of MH370, President Obama, and good Jews and bad Jews.


Malaysia’s embattled opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim may not be meeting Barack Obama when the U.S. president visits Kuala Lumpur on April 26-27, but he has a message for him: Ibrahim’s party won the 2013 election in this Muslim country of 30 million people, and Obama’s meeting with the wrong guy.

"How is it conceivable that the U.S. government could ignore the massive election fraud in Malaysia?" Anwar asked. "I would like to see the United States remain consistent and coherent in their policy of supporting democracy. Sending drones to Afghanistan for democracy, and ignoring that I garnered 52 percent of the popular vote? We won!" he said in a phone interview with Foreign Policy on April 17.

Ibrahim was Malaysia’s deputy prime minister and finance minister until he ran afoul of the long-serving former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad. The political conflict led to a 1998 conviction on sodomy and corruption charges, followed by 6 years in solitary confinement. In 2008, Ibrahim put together an opposition coalition that he claims would have won the 2013 government election, had the elections been fair — which the ruling government, helmed by current Prime Minister Najib Razak disputes. Convicted again of sodomy in March — an almost certainly politically motivated overturning of an earlier acquittal — Anwar may face another long spell in prison. "Remind people that I won’t be free for long," he told FP. (The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Foreign Policy: If you had been prime minister, how would you have handled the MH370 inquiry differently?

Anwar Ibrahim: Although the media here is completely controlled by the government, Malaysia is not. I would say that given this situation, the issue is how you manage a crisis. You must remain consistent with your statements. And transparent! Otherwise, nobody will trust you.

Why is the government concealing critical information about the radar? Or the passenger manifest of those who use stolen passports! Why is the cargo manifest not made public, knowing very well that is relevant? What are we hiding?

Mangosteens are not in season — but Malaysian Airlines confirmed they had three to four tons of mangosteens on board. The Thais didn’t have it now, nor did the Indonesians — so how on Earth did they get all of these mangosteens?

All of these contradictions have caused a lot of concern — that the government is concealing information, and even worse, misleading.

It is very difficult to understand that in this day and age you can have a huge plane and not detect it.

FP: Do you think Prime Minister Najib [Razak] knows where the plane is?

AI: I don’t think so. I don’t know. But what is questionable is why are they now concealing relevant information. What sort of integrity can we have when we can’t release this critical information?

FP: U.S. President Barack Obama will meet with Prime Minister Razak on Saturday. Would you like Obama to mention your situation to him?

AI: The United States is more preoccupied with TPP [the Trans-Pacific Partnership] and international trade than issues of freedom and repression. It’s not an issue if Obama meets me or not. But if you preach democracy, you have to be consistent.

Unlike most countries, the prime minister and foreign minister would take any steps to not let any foreign leader to see me. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said to me, "I’ll meet you in Ankara, it’s too much hassle to meet you in Kuala Lumpur!"

FP: And if Obama wanted to meet with you in KL?

AI: I would be surprised that the U.S. president can be dictated to by Malaysian protocols.

FP: Malaysia lacks diplomatic relations with Israel. What would it take for you to establish them?

AI: I was hammered by the government here for what I told the Wall Street Journal in a January 2012 interview: I was attacked as pro-Jew, pro-Israel.

The ruling party already hangs my picture saying all the Jews — Robert Rubin, Madeleine Albright, Paul Wolfowitz — are Anwar’s friends! And that is quite effective. My photograph with [former World Bank President] Wolfowitz is in many villages around Malaysia.

I make no apologies about them being my friends — they are good Jews! There are good Muslims and bad Muslims, just like good Jews and bad Jews. I choose the good Jews.

If I’m a friend of Bob Rubin, he was secretary of the treasury — yes, he’s a friend, what’s the problem?

In the United States, APCO and other public relations firms portray me as anti-Semitic. I have taken a large beating through Najib’s hiring of APCO as his consultant. As you know, they have been involved in Nigeria and Kazakhstan in the past, and the highest paid is Malaysia — $20 million in one go!

I don’t have a problem with the government using APCO — but why must they use paid bloggers, journalists, to demonize me in the United States? [APCO did work for the government of Malaysia until 2010. In an emailed statement, Adam Williams, APCO’s global media relations manager wrote that "we have never worked to portray Mr. Anwar as anti-Semitic. We have never taken editorial control over or paid bloggers or journalists to write stories. It is against our code of conduct as a firm."]

So I will be very careful: I continue to support the plight of the Palestinians. It is important for Israel to recognize the plight of Palestinians, and recognize their rights. And contingent on this we can explore with countries such as Turkey, Qatar and Indonesia the right way to engage with Israel.

FP: Last summer, Prime Minister Razak responded to a question about the Arab Spring in Malaysia by saying there was "no basis for people to go onto the streets." Do you believe that?

AI: He’s presiding over an authoritarian regime with no free media, a compromised judiciary — and all of this is being exposed. Naturally he would sound like Hosni Mubarak!

I would frankly concede that the government is not as blatantly dictatorial or cruel as Mubarak’s. We have better infrastructure and investment is coming. But its authoritarian manner, endemic corruption — that’s why people are talking about going to a major rally on May 1.

FP: Why were you accused of sodomy — why that particular crime?

AI: I am clean, so they had to resort to something that conservative Muslims would find distasteful. It has been used by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein against his opponents. Even Hitler in one case, if I’m not mistaken. It’s convenient.

They can haul up young guys and get them to say it — with not a shred of evidence! No witnesses!

I should add: No one should be above the law. But that sodomy law is obsolete because it is rarely used except against me or other opposition leaders. Second, you have to produce evidence!
It’s shocking.

FP: Back to political matters, how would your policies towards China differ from Prime Minister Najib’s?

AI: The position of the government is purely trade and business, and soft on China.

While we are very [much in favor of] strong relations, our position on issues on human rights is certainly more pronounced.

I have personally taken a position on Uighurs in China — we have appealed to the international community to be cognizant that the Uighurs have a right to be heard. We have evidence of abuses and oppression towards them. Our position has always been to encourage China to give them their rights.

FP: If you were Malaysia’s prime minister and were meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, would you bring up the case of the imprisoned Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo?

AI: I would certainly — in a polite, nuanced way. We are a small country, and we are not in a position to provoke. But it would be unacceptable for me, after being imprisoned for more than 7 years of my adult life, and completely insensitive to ignore the plight of prisoners of conscience.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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