Introduction of Anwar Ibrahim

Ffifteenth Annual Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture on Democracy in the World

It’s an extraordinary honor for me to introduce Anwar Ibrahim this evening to deliver the 15th annual Lipset Democracy Lecture.  It’s also a great personal pleasure to welcome Anwar back to Washington.

I first met Anwar in 2005 when he arrived in Washington after spending five years as Malaysia’s most famous political prisoner.  He was already a major international figure, recognized for his role as a reform-minded political leader, a Muslim democrat, and an activist defending the rights of poor people and minorities.

He was first arrested in 1974 and spent twenty months in prison for leading student protests against rural poverty and hunger.  He headed the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia back then, and co-founded the International Institute of Islamic Thought in 1981.

His career took a dramatic turn in 1982 when he joined the ruling UMNO party that was headed by Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad. Anwar’s star rose quickly as he was appointed to a number of government ministerial posts, including Minister of Education.  He was made Finance Minister in 1991 and became Mahathir’s Deputy Prime Minister two years later.  He was credited with promoting market reforms that spurred Malaysia’s rapid economic growth in the 1990s, and he was hailed for successfully guiding Malaysia through the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997.  Asiamoney named Anwar Finance Minister of the Year in 1996, and he was Newsweek’s Asian of the Year in 1998.

But Anwar’s political fortunes soon changed when he launched a bold attack on the culture of cronyism and nepotism within the UNMO coalition and also challenged Mahathir’s protectionist policies.

He was fired from the cabinet and then arrested, beaten, and sentenced to prison on trumped-up charges of corruption and sodomy.

Almost as soon as Anwar arrived in Washington in 2005 after his release from prison, he became a core member of our community of democracy intellectuals and advocates.  He spoke at numerous forums that we organized here in Washington, in New York, and abroad.  He wrote two article for the Journal of Democracy.  He gave keynote addresses at two global assemblies of the World Movement for Democracy, one held in Istanbul in 2006 and the other in Jakarta in 2010.  And he delivered an eloquent talk at a symposium we held at the Library of Congress in 2007 on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of President Reagan’s Westminster Address that had launched the creation of the NED.

In all of these speeches Anwar defended the universality of the democratic idea and systematically rebutted the various doctrines that were circulating at the time making the case for authoritarianism.  These doctrines included what he called “the Asian values mantra” claiming that democracy is a Western idea unsuited to Asian cultures, the view that Islam and democracy are inherently incompatible, and the argument – now prominently being promoted by China – that “human rights and freedom are a stumbling block in the eradication of poverty” and that authoritarianism is needed for development.

“Democracy,” Anwar said at the Library of Congress, is not about the choice between starvation and freedom.  It is about the freedom to overcome poverty and tyranny without compromising in the struggle against either.”

Anwar has always been prepared to pay the price for his beliefs.  After the opposition coalition that he led was denied the victory it had won in the Malaysian general election of 2013, Anwar vowed to lead a “fierce movement” against election fraud and to reform the country’s electoral system.  As a result, he was once again sentenced to prison.

Anwar didn’t mince words in the statement that he made to the judges after the verdict was announced.  He accused them of being partners with their “political masters” in “the murder of judicial independence and integrity.”

“Yes,” he said, “you have passed judgment on me, and I will, again for the third time, walk into prison, but rest assured that my head will be held high.  The light shines on me…the shame is on you…Going to jail, I consider a sacrifice I make for the people of this country….My struggle will continue…”

And indeed it has continued.  In the historic election held in Malaysia on May 9 last year, the opposition coalition that Anwar negotiated with Mahathir while he was still behind bars swept to a resounding victory as the people of Malaysia revolted against massive corruption.

Anwar received a royal pardon and was released from prison.   He then stood for and won a by-election that returned him to the parliament.

As we meet this evening, Anwar’s struggle continues.  We don’t know if the 93-year old Mahathir will honor the agreement he made before the election to transfer power to Anwar after two years.  We only know that Mahathir is not getting any younger.  And we should never underestimate Anwar’s political resilience, courage, and determination.

Over the years Anwar has shown a singular ability to turn adversity to advantage, even to find strength in suffering.

In his speech at the Library of Congress, he said that “Throughout these ordeals my passion for freedom and justice has grown in intensity.”

Anwar Ibrahim is a rare figure – a political leader who is also a courageous democracy activist and a serious democratic intellectual as well.  Marty Lipset would have felt very proud that Anwar is speaking to us tonight in his name.  It’s now my honor to introduce my friend Anwar Ibrahim to deliver the Fifteenth Annual Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture on Democracy in the World.