INTERVIEW The first person that visitors to the PKR headquarters will meet is mustachioed security guard Balu, who usually stands at the entrance to the building in the high-end neighbourhood of Tropicana in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.
Although he has a seat in the information booth, Balu could not help but crack a joke when asked why PKR has not provided him with a chair: “In this party, the biggest problem is seats.”
In the latest episode, the seat in question is the post of Selangor menteri besar, with the ‘Kajang Move’ being seen as a way to unseat Abdul Khalid Ibrahim and replace him with PKR de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim.
A consummate politician, Anwar, who is contesting the Kajang by-election in a bid to enter the state legislative assembly, insisted on prefacing his plans with the word 'If'.
“If I become MB,” he said, raising his voice on 'if', “it will be until I become prime minister.” He smiled.
Anwar's meeting with Malaysiakini yesterday was sandwiched between a long list of media interviews, and even his cheery pink candy-striped shirt did not mask the shadow of fatigue on his face.
Still, fatigue cannot push a seasoned player like Anwar to say what he should not - that the MB’s post is merely a stepping stone and Khalid another pawn to be toppled on the longer route to the premiership.
Instead, Anwar painted a gentler picture of friendship and politics. Khalid, he said, is a good friend but Selangor needs “political clout”.
“It is sad how... he has to leave. It is sad. The circumstances and the dictate of the time requires that Selangor be driven,” Anwar said, clenching his fist at the end to prove this point.
“I cannot accept Selangor being held every time to ransom. Every other week you have this problem, these attacks.
“We seem to be quite helpless, either they (the BN) use state apparatus or some NGO and not much can be done ... we will not allow this to happen. This requires political leadership.”
'It's not about the money'
Enter Anwar - former finance minister and someone so deft in political manouevring that he managed to oust Ghafar Baba for the Umno deputy president’s post in a heartbeat despite Ghafar's four-decade long career in the party.
But Khalid (right) , too, has solid credentials. Under his stewardship, Selangor reserves now stand at an astounding RM3 billion, a mountain of cash that he jealously guards.
Khalid has refused to play politics with the funds, either through politically-expedient projects camouflaged as state initiatives or through feeding the party.
Critics of the ‘Kajang Move’ claim that this is actually the main reason behind the manoeuvre. They say it is just a bid by PKR to break into the coffers.
Anwar shrugged, as if this is nothing new, and without missing a beat lamented how “unfair” such accusations are.
“How can I, at this stage of my political career, compromise on good governance? It is sheer insanity if I do that! ... On that score, I am not going to change.”
What he will change, however, is how the reserves are used. He argued that there is no point talking about reserves with issues like poverty and public housing still a problem in the state.
“The mantle of economic management is not good reserves but good management of the economy. If you spend money, say the reserves, for public housing and free education for Universiti Selangor students, then is it wasting public money?”
Solution to Bible seizure
Anwar took the long and winding route in responding to a question as to why he chose to finally intervene in Selangor.
At the end of this, it was not difficult to conclude that one of his grouses was the way the state has handled the Bible seizure issue.
While the Bible Society of Malaysia continues to await the return of the copies seized, Anwar sees this as a cut-and-dried “administrative” matter. This, he said, will be his first stop as menteri besar.
“I would say: ‘Guarantee that they won't be distributed to Muslims, don't send them to schools and only use them for Christians. I want it in writing.' And then I (would) send them back,” he said.
Comparing himself to Anwar, Khalid last week had said that, unlike him, Anwar can face impossible demands (he uses Hindraf's demands as an example) but at the end of the meeting, those making the demands will be part of Anwar's fan club.
It is this trait that Anwar seems to be banking on to deal with rising religious tensions over the use of 'Allah' by non-Muslims.
If he heads the Selangor government, Anwar said, he could use state resources to build the confidence of Muslims so they would not feel threatened by purported threats to their faith.
He said he has met Muslims who are “virtually fearful” of mass Christianisation and this means the issue is “beyond political”.
“No, I don't believe Islam is threatened or (that) we (would) allow it to happen. I would say you have all the resources at your disposal to strengthen the position of Islam, to use the mosque to educate, to launch your dakwah (preaching) programmes.
“But you should never allow people to be held to ransom, to instil this sort of fear among the non-Muslims. This is something that is just pathetic after half a century of independence.”
If Anwar becomes Selangor menteri besar, would he then support a change in the state enactment to bar non-Muslims from using ‘Allah'?
In answer, he related the anecdote of a Permatang Pauh Muslim scholar who had questioned him as to why non-Muslims want to change the enactment.
“I told him, Tuan Guru, if you have a non-Muslim living on Jalan Masjid, then technically he cannot use the term ‘Jalan Masjid’.
“(The scholar) said, ‘He can.’ I said, ‘But this is the law.’ Then he was shocked and his immediate reaction was (that) you have to correct the law, not knowing the implications.
“So I think we have to explain. People say, no, we change the law. But I think give it time, we have to explain. Don't underestimate or overestimate your influence or power without engaging with the people.”
Deference to palace
Outside Khalid's reverence for his “political animal” instincts, Anwar, too, prides himself as being in tune with sentiments on the ground.
Reading this while planning the ‘Kajang Move’, Anwar has known that, even if the palace cannot legally reject his nomination as menteri besar, it would be unwise to arrogantly brush off the influence of the palace.
“I know the (state) constitution, I understand it. But as deference to the ruler, I always said that in a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, it's not just the legal constitution.
“If you accept the institution of royalty, then there is the paraphernalia, the facade of office that you need to recognise, and that means deference.”
Royal assent, protest votes and consensus within Pakatan Rakyat are hurdles he has to clear to become menteri besar, but these are all things that Anwar and his team of advisers have accounted for.
This is why his candidacy was announced less than 24 hours of Kajang incumbent Lee Chin Cheh's resignation from the state seat and why he is “taking the soft line” in explaining why it was done.
It also means admitting to “mistakes” - like leaving DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng in the dark over the ‘Kajang Move’, blaming “pressure” to get things going and miscommunication (perhaps he thought DAP adviser Lim Kit Siang would tell his son).
Simply put, he said, Kajang was chosen among several seats because its demographics reflect that of the state and doing it now means there will still be time for Anwar and Pakatan to prove their chops in Selangor before the next general election.
“I cannot go on with this (and the feud within PKR Selangor and attacks by BN) on a protracted basis. I have to decide. It was a very difficult decision, not very popular in this instance and Malaysiakini is partly responsible.
“But the decision has to be made for the larger interest and I think, at least for a start, we have caught BN off guard. Nobody anticipated it...”
Neither did the people, some of whom are incensed that PKR is forcing yet another by-election.
For now, though, Anwar almost appears proud.
“It's not bad (the responses). It means we had read the sentiments, which to me is a positive trait in political leadership.”
THE ANWAR INTERVIEW
Interview by Steven Gan, RK Anand and Aidila Razak.