Newly released Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim gestures during an interview with AFP at his house in Kuala Lumpur on May 17, 2018. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman
Newly released Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim gestures during an interview with AFP at his house in Kuala Lumpur on May 17, 2018. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

Bedecked with skyscrapers, Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur is a high-rise city. In that lofty context, the headquarters of the People’s Justice Party (PKR) are down to earth.

They occupy one in a row of nondescript low-rise buildings unfashionably far from downtown. Even the lettered number of the floor that includes the PKR leader’s office is anomalous: 3A.

As if the “A” stood for Anwar—Anwar Ibrahim, the head of the PKR. As if, years ago, the builder had presciently inserted the “A” floor, predicting correctly that the trials and incarcerations of Malaysia’s most famous political prisoner would end years later, on May 9, 2018, in a historic, peaceful, electoral ouster of Prime Minister Najib Razak and his inter-communal National Front, or Barisan Nasional (BN).

Included in the defeated coalition was its leading member party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which had been returned to power in every general election held in Malaya/Malaysia since 1959.

This writer has known Anwar since the 1980s. In November 2014 at Stanford University, I joined him and my colleagues Larry Diamond and Frank Fukuyama on a panel to discuss Islam and democracy, with specific reference to Malaysia. Anwar was on his way back to Kuala Lumpur.

He and we knew he was almost certain to be detained again on politically motivated charges of sodomy, a crime under Malaysian law. He could have gone into exile. He did not. He went home to face his accusers in the ruling UMNO party.

Then jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim (C) walks out from a court house in Kuala Lumpur on September 5, 2016. Photo: AFP/Stringer

He was jailed three months later, in February 2015, and was not released until more than three years later still, on May 16, 2018, not coincidentally a week after Malaysians had voted his four-party “Alliance for Hope”, or Pakatan Harapan (PH), coalition into office.

Promptly at the new government’s request, Malaysia’s king issued a pardon amounting to an exoneration that covered not only Anwar’s latest detention, but an earlier political jailing from 1999 to 2004 on the same sodomy charge.

On June 6, 2018 I visited Anwar at his office. He was in fine spirits. Had he chosen not to fly back to Malaysia after speaking at Stanford in 2014, had he opted for exile instead, he would not have been able to stage a martyr’s comeback into his country’s political life. “Out of sight, out of mind” applies to politicians as well as lovers.

Now Anwar is very much in sight, out of jail, and leading the PKR, the main party in the Alliance of Hope that ousted Najib’s National Front including UMNO.

The words “I’M BACK” appear next to his photograph on a poster in the elevator to his office. But the man upon whom Anwar’s immediate political future depends is also back.

The blunt, decisive, nonagenarian Mahathir Mohamad, who led the PH’s winning campaign against the incumbent BN, has reassumed the prime ministership that he held for 22 years from 1981 to 2003.

Malaysia’s newly elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad at a news conference, Pataling Jaya, Malaysia May 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

Prior to the May 2018 election, Mahathir apparently agreed that if the PH won, he would, as prime minister, free Anwar and eventually cede the position to him. Already the world’s oldest head of state, Mahathir will be 93 in July. In August, Anwar will be 71.

The gap of more than two decades between them suggests that time is on Anwar’s side. Or is it? Could history repeat itself? After all, it was Mahathir as prime minister who, in 1998, blocked his then-deputy Anwar’s ascent to the top slot. Mahathir fired him and, in effect, hounded him into prison.

The reason? In 1997-98, while the Asian financial crisis raged, Anwar as finance minister argued for relatively liberal, International Monetary Fund-friendly economic reform and opposed the corruption associated with Mahathir’s rule. Mahathir disagreed. He responded to the crisis along more or less state-nationalist lines, and he resented what he thought was Anwar’s premature ambition to replace him.

There are no visible signs of such acrimony between the two men today. They are indebted to each other. Technically, Anwar owes his freedom to Mahathir. But politically, without Anwar’s iconic status and popularity, the PH might not have won the lower-house majority that enabled Mahathir, as prime minister, to obtain his former rival’s release.

The good news is that Najib’s massively corrupt and incrementally despotic nine-year rule is over. The cautionary news is that Malaysian democracy is not yet fully secured, given the uncertainties and contingencies that could affect its future.

As for my having met Anwar on floor 3A, the “A” does not of course stand for Anwar. The elevator rises directly from 3A to 5 for a different reason. In spoken Mandarin, “four” sounds like the word for “death.” Only the tones differ. Whoever built the building, knowing that superstitious Chinese occupants would shun a numerically fatal fourth floor, called it “3A” instead.

Then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (R) and his then deputy Anwar Ibrahim (L) in a 1996 file photo. Photo: AFP/Francis Silvan

Will the ruse fool the devil? Will renascent Malaysian democracy survive? Bandwagoning is already underway, as venal officials and executives who benefited from Najib’s kleptocratic ways seek political safety by ingratiating themselves with the new government, potentially weakening its ability to clean house.

Nor were reformers necessarily encouraged when Mahathir chose his long-time ally Daim Zainuddin to head a Council of Eminent Persons to advise the new government. Daim both preceded and succeeded Anwar as minister of finance during Mahathir’s long and controversial earlier reign as prime minister.

Also concerning in this context was the June 8, 2018 decision by the Council’s head of media and communications to resign from the position because it prevented him from speaking freely. A veteran journalist, he had been criticized for reporting in his blog that the Najib administration had allocated public funds for the royal family’s expenses in 2017-18 far in excess of the amount allowed by law.

Anwar himself felt obliged to warn against disrespecting the country’s basically symbolic and constitutional monarchy—an arrangement whereby the national kingship in effect rotates every five years among the ceremonial rulers of Malaysia’s nine states.

In Anwar’s plausible if debatable view, the country’s newborn and vulnerable administration can ill-afford to criticize royals whose symbolic support it may well need in the years ahead.

The newly ruling “Alliance of Hope” for democracy in Malaysia, as it transitions from opposing to governing, will need to navigate skillfully the problematic space between reformist candor and pragmatic restraint.

That dilemma instantiates, on a far-from-whimsical scale, Anwar’s need to protect the democratic freedom of Malaysians to be outspoken in principle, while he works on a floor whose number is unspoken in practice.

Donald K. Emmerson heads the Southeast Asia Program at Stanford University where he is also affiliated with the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.