Will Anwar Return to Umno Fold?
Other party rebels have left and come back, so Anwar could well do the
same or he could take over PAS
Straits Times, September 4, 2004
By Cheong Suk-Wai
IF TRUE success means standing up
where you fell, you can be sure Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim will rejoin Umno.
So the only question, say political observers, is: When?
Yesterday, the just-freed Umno dissident was careful not
to rule out the prospect of returning to the fold, saying that he ‘did not
preclude any discussion with Umno’ to agree on a reform agenda.
A day earlier, one of his staunchest supporters, Mr
Kamaruddin Jaafar, had hinted that Datuk Seri Anwar and his coterie might yet
reconcile with Umno. ‘A lot has happened, but we are not rejecting the
possibility. However, it will not be that straightforward or simple,’ he
Datuk Seri Anwar himself said cryptically: ‘If I can
work with Mahathir, there is no reason why I cannot work with anybody else.’
As political scientist Johan Saravanamuttu sees it,
Premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi—in keeping with his consensual style—might
just come to an understanding with Datuk Seri Anwar, which would then make
Umno seem ‘more attractive to the latter’.
But Prof Saravanamuttu stresses that that may take
‘weeks, if not months’ because Umno is very much about ‘gut politics’
for which Datuk Seri Anwar may not have the appetite at the moment.
As he puts it: ‘A whole lot of factionalism and
back-stabbing takes place, and a considerably weakened Anwar may be a little
broken in body and spirit for it.’
Upon Datuk Seri Anwar’s release on Thursday, Deputy
Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak told The New Straits Times that the question of
his predecessor rejoining Umno did not arise because he was the founder of
another political party.
But then, in 1990, Umno had welcomed back even his
current boss, namely, Pak Lah, after having consigned the latter to the
fringes for opposing Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s leadership in 1987.
A few Umno veterans, including Supreme Council member
Shahrir Abdul Samad, went so far as to say that Umno was ‘open enough’ to
accept Datuk Seri Anwar again and that it was ‘all up to him’ whether or
not to return to its fray.
Indeed, whatever one may think of Malaysia’s ruling
party, it has often provided a trial by fire for the country’s political
It expelled Tun Dr Mahathir in 1969 for challenging the
leadership of its then president Tunku Abdul Rahman in the midst of
Malaysia’s bloodiest race riots in May that year. But by 1972, Tun Dr
Mahathir was back in the rank and file.
It spat out former finance minister Tengku Razaleigh
Hamzah in 1987 for going head to head with Tun Dr Mahathir.
After breaking away and forming the splinter party
Semangat 46 in 1989, Tengku Razaleigh even joined forces with the
fundamentalist opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) against Umno in the
1990 and 1995 general elections. Yet, today, he is firmly ensconced within
So should Datuk Seri Anwar rejoin Umno, it would hardly
But economist and political observer Jomo Kwame Sundram
points out that Tengku Razaleigh was allowed back into the party only after he
was ‘greatly weakened’, when many in his camp had abandoned him.
Prof Jomo adds that Umno itself has become ‘a much less
democratic party’ today, which means its members have little room to diverge
from their top leaders’ chosen path (witness the constant calls for no
contests of the party’s top posts in recent weeks).
And the larger-than-life person that is Datuk Seri Anwar
would certainly need a lot more room than that.
Which is why it is not such a stretch to suggest that he
might just want to join PAS, from whose arms Tun Dr Mahathir snatched him when
he was bursting with potential in 1982.
But Prof Saravanamuttu is not so sure. As he sees it:
‘Anwar may not take PAS with all its baggage, namely its shabby showing in
the recent general election.
‘But to lead PAS, Anwar would have to re-engineer PAS
in such a way that it embodies his own take on Islam.’
Prof Jomo adds that Datuk Seri Anwar’s brand of
Islamist politics is ‘cosmopolitan and democratic’, and so akin to that of
former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid.
Still, PAS secretary-general Nasharudin Mat Isa made what
Prof Jomo called ‘a very important concession’ when he said Datuk Seri
Anwar could now take his place as the rightful leader of the opposition.
He could do so easily by reviving interest in the party
he founded in 1999, namely, Parti Keadilan Rakyat.
Since 1999, PAS and Keadilan have been in the opposition
coalition called Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Front).
Prof Jomo adds: ‘It would certainly be an interesting
proposition for Anwar—to lead PAS without being within PAS.’
But Keadilan was trounced at the March polls, and Pak Lah
has stolen much of the thunder from its reformasi calls against corruption,
cronyism and nepotism with his new policies.
So Datuk Seri Anwar has lost the platform he once stood
on and Keadilan is firing damp squibs at Umno. Plus, with Tun Dr Mahathir out
of the way, Keadilan has lost its main target.
The upshot is that, while PAS and Keadilan are in dire
need of a charismatic and thinking leader, only Umno can guarantee Datuk Seri
Anwar national leadership.
‘The choice seems obvious for a political animal like
Anwar, although the shape of his politics to come is still a big question
mark,’ says Prof Saravanamuttu.
But for now, Umno’s focus is on healing the gash in
Malay consciousness caused by its denouement of Datuk Seri Anwar even as he
himself focuses on healing his bad back.
As Prof Saravanamuttu puts it: ‘It is ironic that
Anwar’s release has raised Pak Lah’s stature and will serve Umno’s
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