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Anwar, the architect of reform and multiracialism

Sim Tze Tzin  |  Published:  |  Modified:

MP SPEAKS | In early 1999, then sacked deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim faced a dilemma. He was in jail. The 10th general election loomed on the horizon. The Social Justice Movement, Adil, triggered by reformasi was running out of steam and the only way forward was to form a political party.

The obvious choice was to form a Malay party to replace Umno. Vast numbers of Malays, outraged by injustice inflicted on Anwar, supported the reformasi movement. Non-Malay support, though considerable, saw it as a fight among Umno elites. They were also cautious about the political instability.

Anwar had to make a decision.

He decided to form a reform-seeking and multiracial party. The motto was political and economic reform (Reformasi) based on justice for all Malaysians. At that time, that was absolutely unthinkable.

Some leaders, having just left Umno, were strongly against this idea. They felt that sharing political power among races under the concept of justice for all, was implausible.

Ever since Merdeka, Malaysian political discourse had been based on race and religion, and to certain extent still is till today.

There had previously been attempts by Umno founder Onn Jaffar to form multiracial parties. Under his leadership two such vehicles - Independence of Malaya Party and Parti Negara - were formed in the 1950s but fizzled out.

The other multiracial party was Gerakan, formed in 1968, and was an ethnic Chinese dominated party with a multiracial overlay.

Anwar eventually put his foot down on forming a party that would be reformist and multiracial.

Perhaps jail time had given him time to think through the future of Malaysia.

Had he wanted to save himself, he would have chosen the easier way. Instead, he chose a path less traveled and more arduous.

Hence, on April 4, 1999, Parti Keadilan Nasional, a party with multiracial representation, was born.

Hell and back

However, Parti Keadilan Nasional did not win many seats in the 1999 general election (GE10). By 2004, PKR ended up with a single seat in GE11 with only a wafer-thin majority of 504 votes. Many founding leaders returned to Umno and most Malaysians thought this multiracial party experiment was headed for oblivion.

But, Anwar’s conviction for reform and multiracial politics did not ebb.

Shortly after his release from jail in 2004, Anwar once again stirred the political waters by proposing to replace the New Economic Policy (NEP) with the Malaysian Economic Agenda (MEA). NEP has long been the sacred cow of the Malay polity. Replacing NEP with an egalitarian MEA risked alienating the Malay majority.

How could such an agenda be viable politically?

Anwar took quite a few years to convince the Malay leaders and aware Malay middle class to accept his proposal.

By the approach of GE12, his multiracial approach and ‘justice for all’ agenda had begun to resonate with the initially sceptical non-Malays and significant numbers of Malays.

In GE12 in 2008, Anwar created a political tsunami that denied the ruling Umno-BN of its customary parliamentary supermajority. Newsweek magazine rightly described him as “Anwar - to hell and back”.

The multiracial Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) won significant support and became the largest opposition party in Parliament.

Finally, the concept of a truly multiracial party with an egalitarian agenda had made it into the mainstream of Malaysian political discourse.

In GE14 in May this year, the PKR logo was used as the common logo by Pakatan Harapan components. One of the concerns was whether conservative rural Malay voters would accept a multiracial political party.

The voting results proved sceptics wrong. Harapan won the election.

The multiracial political experiment that was started 20 years ago, had finally won the majority support of Malaysians. Credit must be given to its original architect, Anwar Ibrahim.

He must be given the chance to take this reform agenda to Parliament and eventually Putrajaya. I am confident he will reform and realise his vision of justice for all.


SIM TZE TZIN is Bayan Baru MP. He joined the reform movement two decades ago, and is still traveling this arduous journey with PKR.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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