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Written by The Gardener 15 years ago to commemorate Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s private visit to the Philippines on June 6 and 7, 2008. Posting in 2023 to commemorate Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s official visit.

When I first met him in 1974 in Kuala Lumpur, Anwar Ibrahim was already a famous young man, having formed Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM). I was then based in Bangkok, Thailand and we were forming what was to be known as Asian Cultural Forum on Development (ACFOD). The aim was to conduct and institutionalize the inter-faith conversation and cooperation on the values of religion, revolution and development.

At our meeting in Malaysia’s cosmopolitan capital, Anwar wanted to check out why I wanted him to be part of ACFOD. He mentioned some Filipinos he had already known: Christians like Arturo Tanco, and Muslims like Jun Alonto. I remember I informed him that from Indonesia that my friend Abdurrahman Wahid of Nahdatul Ulama had already agreed to join, as had the Buddhist Sulak Sivaraksa of Thailand, the Hindu Swami Agnivesh of India and the monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Before long, I learned that for championing the cause of hard-pressed poor farmers in a northern Malaysian state, Anwar was suddenly detained without trial for two years–in the same years when the practice was also common in my own country.

Time flew so fast. The Indochina war came to an end (1975). Anwar joined the ruling party, UMNO, and in quick succession occupied various cabinet posts (in the Mahathir Administration). But not quite unknown to his compatriots, Anwar had a secret inspiration—the Filipino pioneering patriot, Jose Protacio Rizal. Like Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Pandit Nehru, and Rabrindranath Tagore and Sun Yat Sen, Anwar Ibrahim saw Rizal as among a few who belonged to no particular epoch, who belonged to the world, and whose life had a universal message.

Although his field of action lay in politics, which he bore in the cause of duty rendering a leader without ambition and a revolutionary without hatred, Rizal’s real interests lay in the arts and sciences, in literature and medicine. Anwar Ibrahim too is a voracious reader, most conversant with an entire corpus of Eastern literature and Western canons.

While he was Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar was fond of quoting this line from Noli, the first Southeast Asian novel (by Rizal): “In the history of human suffering is a cancer so malignant that the least touch awakens such agonising pains”… The book could have been about any nation, said Anwar, not just Spanish-ruled Philippines, in Asia. Rizal noted that healing must begin with honest diagnosis: “I will lift part of the veil that conceals the evil, sacrificing all to the truth, even my own pride…”

Anwar explained: “In a closed society, lifting the veil would be taboo. Indeed, Rizal’s social diagnosis was tantamount to subversion. In his time, the closed society was identified with colonialism, but that was only a cloak that wrapped it for a time. A century since Rizal was executed, Asia has had five decades of modern nationhood. But the cloak of colonialism has been replaced by coverings of various fashions and thickness, including dictatorships…we must remove the veil hiding our shame. More than ever, we need courage of Rizalian proportions to be honest with ourselves”.

And still more from Anwar Ibrahim of the Malay race: “The Philippine Revolution, the first of its kind in Asia, opened the floodgates of liberation against Western imperialism. More than physical bondage, it aimed to break the chains of mental captivity. In Rizal’s words” ‘We must win freedom by deserving it, by improving the mind and enhancing the dignity of the individual. loving what just, good and great, to the point of dying for it. When a people reach these heights…the idols and tyrants fall like a house of cards and freedom shines in the first dawn.’”

Not long after, Anwar would go to jail a second time for his unrelenting campaign against corruption and abuse of power and his commitment to the Rizalian ideals of empowerment, justice and equity. As acting Prime Minister in 1997, he introduced the controversial Anti-Corruption legislation which held public officials accountable for corrupt practices even after their departure from public service.

Anwar is the man whose understanding is that Jose Rizal’s programme for the liberation was for all Asia and in pursuing that programme, he became “Asian of the Year” per Newsweek International a decade ago. It was Malaysia’s Anwar who saw Rizal’s articulation of the idealistic foundations of an independent nation —of liberty, human dignity and morality—as unprecedented. He said, “The only justification for national self-government is the restoration of the dignity of the people. But this ideal will continue to elude us as long as abject poverty, rampant corruption, oligarchs and encomenderos remain. These evils will not be defeated until we liberate ourselves from mental incarceration. Then we can recover our own virtues and be, in the words of Jose Rizal, ‘once more free, like the bird that leaves the cage, like the flower that opens to the air’.”

As a prominent world Muslim leader, Anwar is again showing the Rizalian feature in his style. He certainly does not shy from criticising Muslim countries for their failings. During a meeting of Islamic scholars in Dubai, for instance, he condemned the torture of Iraqis at the US-run Abu Ghraib prison, but he also urged participants to scrutinize their own governments on decades for cruelty in their own gaols.

Today, the Prime Minister-in-waiting of Malaysia is widely recognised as an advocate for moderate Islam, cultural and religious tolerance, liberal democracy and international collaboration. He argues that Islam and Democracy should be compatible and decries the use of violence and crime in the name of Islam.” It is a moral imperative for Muslims to be fully committed to democratic ideals”, Anwar has said.

The “gross misunderstanding” of the relationship between Islam and Democracy was fed by corrupt and unaccountable governments in parts of the Muslim world, not by adherence to true Islamic values. He cites Indonesia as an example of a predominantly Muslim nation that began as a democracy. The Indonesian election of 1955 was relatively free and fair, but “was hijacked by the secular nationalist Sukarno. People tend to forget this fact: it was not hijacked by the Muslim parties in Indonesia”.

Or listen to his remarks that remarks that remarkably evidence the east-west integration that has become his peculiar charisma amd moved Time to name him to the top 100 most influential persons on earth: Whether it is Islam, Christianity, Judaism or other religions, faith reinvigorated could lead not just to bigotry, but may, when compounded with the elements of political and social discontent, cause us to express ourselves through violence and bloodshed,” Anwar once said. “But if moulded under the hand of universal wisdom it could be a force to free us from ignorance and intolerance, injustice and greed”.

Anwar Ibrahim arrives in Manila today (June 6, 2008) for a private visit. But how private can one be when the whole world knows he is Malaysia’s Chief Executive-in-waiting. Like Ninoy Aquino who was once time-barred from running for the presidency by age technicality, Anwar too could not run in the last Malaysian elections as it was deliberately scheduled only weeks before his re-qualification to stand for elective office. But the people all the more rallied behind his candidates and delivered a powerful message.

Anwar’s Group won 82 seats of the Malaysian Parliament’s 222 seats during the March 8, 2008 elections, wrestling control of five of Malaysia’s 13 states from the ruling United Malay National Organisation (UMNO)-led coalition, which held power since 1957. His wife, Dr. Wan Azizah, who is Parti KeADILan Rakyat President, and his daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar ran for Parliament last March and won convincingly.  (30)