Dennis Ignatius: The canonisation of Anwar Ibrahim

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Putting a sitting prime minister on a pedestal is always bad – for them and for the nation too.


Honestly, I’m puzzled and not a little troubled by the growing idolization of our prime minister. One recent article gushed about his “spiritual depth and breadth”, about how he has the “attributes of a great soul”, a “true light”. Another article suggested that all the prime ministers who came before him were but pygmies beside the great man. Others extol him as a renaissance man, a great scholar and philosopher. He’s even being compared to Nelson Mandela. And now, of course, we have the biopic, “Anwar: The Untold Story”.

As one civil servant remarked, after sitting through a weekend seminar on Malaysia Madani, “Anwar is being treated like some kind of prophet whose every word must be studied and meditated upon”. Is this the beginning of a personality cult?

Such is the adoration of Anwar that anyone who dares to criticise the great leader is quickly set upon by legions of his fawning followers. There are even viral messages going around claiming that Anwar now stands alone in the fight for a better Malaysia, that no one – even in his own cabinet – is doing anything to help him. The messages then urge everyone not to criticise Anwar but to trust him. Anwar knows best; the rest just please keep quiet.

As a nation, we seem to have learned nothing from history; putting a sitting prime minister on a pedestal is always bad – for them and for the nation too. Remember, it wasn’t so long ago that we were hailing Dr Mahathir as a saviour. He too had his own biopic, “M for Malaysia” which everybody raved about until he showed his true colours.

Let’s get real; like all our political leaders, Anwar comes with a history and flaws of his own. Remember that he was Dr Mahathir’s right-hand man at a time when corruption blossomed. Much of the mess in our education system as well as the politicization of religion can be laid at his feet as well. Arguably, we are in the mess we are in today in no small part because of Anwar’s legacy. History ought not to be airbrushed.

OK, so he’s apparently a changed man now; he’s endured long years of political persecution and was unjustly incarcerated. In time we might come to appreciate just how far-reaching his Damascus Road experience was.

In the meantime, there’s no denying that he’s the man for the moment, the only one who offers some hope for the nation. Going by all his speeches, he certainly seems to understand our hopes and aspirations.

But let’s not forget that politics is often a dirty game full of shady deals, unholy compromises and blurred lines. Left to their own devices, politicians all too frequently trade principle for power. They all want to hold on to power for as long as they can and will often pay whatever price to do so, great soul or not.

We do well to remember that old adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

After spending a lifetime in government, I’ve seen all the hypocrisy, the deception and the vile things that are done in the name of politics. It has made me a cynic, deeply distrustful of the corrosive effects of the power we so trustingly put into the hands of “great” men.

We shower upon them accolades and honours and invest in them all our hopes and dreams for a better future. And time and again, we have been disappointed and left holding the bag of all their misdeeds and failures.

We can’t afford to make the same mistake again. Instead of rushing to put Anwar on a pedestal, we ought to be more circumspect, critical and demanding of him, judging him not by his good intentions alone but by what he actually does. And not four or five years from now but day by day, deed by deed.

It is precisely because we cannot afford for him to fail that we must unapologetically demand that he live up to his promises instead of normalizing or excusing his failures and mistakes. Is it right, for example, to hold our peace when Azam Baki is reappointment MACC chief?

So, for goodness’ sake, let’s hold the pedestals, the accolades and the adulation till later – once their work is done and we have the benefit of hindsight to evaluate their performance. Cynicism about our politicians, I submit, is a necessary prerequisite for that better Malaysia we all want to see. – Dennis Ignatius