'It Was A Terrible Time'

Anwar Ibrahim is, for the for the time being, barred from holding office in Malaysia thanks to a politically criminal conviction dating from 1999. But in the general election on March 8, his People's Justice Party scored an unprecedented 31 seats in Malaysia's Parliament, and the broader coalition he is building nearly won a majority, ousting the party than has ruled the country for 50 years. Ibrahim was Finance minister and then deputy to strongman Mahathir Mohamad before becoming Malaysia's best-known political prisoner; as such, he has gotten used to great reversals in his life. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Lorien Holland at his office in Kuala Lumpur about his comeback, the opposition's triumph and his own political ambitions. Excerpts:

Holland: Did the election results come as a surprise to you?
Anwar: I was one of the small minority who believed we were doing well before the polls, so I was not that surprised. About three or four days before the election, [pro-government] newspapers were full of vicious personal attacks against me, so I knew things had to be going well, and that at that late stage the government was under siege.

What happened, exactly, on Election Day?
This was a defining moment for Malaysia. Nothing is going to be the same anymore. It is not unrealistic to imagine that we could actually have won a majority right then. If it were not for the [government's] cancellation of the indelible ink [for use on voters' fingers to prevent them from voting multiple times], we would have got 10 or 15 more seats.

You started your political life in the opposition. Then you joined the mainstream and rose to become deputy prime minister. But an acrimonious split with then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad eventually landed you in jail. Now, a decade later, you are ba ck. Are you aiming to become prime minister?
In terms of seats, we are very close to winning a majority in Parliament. Right now we have to build up consensus between the opposition parties. We have lots to build, lots of work ahead.

You are banned from holding office directly until April 15. What will you do after that?
I have said at many events that I will contest a by-election after April 15. We have 31 M.P.s now, so this will not be difficult. But right now, I am not focused on that. Things are moving so fast. We have to set up four state governments and forge a strong coalition. This is a democracy, but still we are in a panic about the swearing-in.

What is it like having your wife and daughter as M.P.s?
There was a press conference at the house and I was asking why, because I hadn't called a press conference. Then my daughter said, "Papa, this is not for you. This is my press conference." I was hoping to get the weekend off with [my wife] Azizah, but she has to go and visit her constituency. Sometimes, I do wonder why we chose these things. We're not mad, but maybe a little crazy.

Do you still see yourself as an East-West fusion figure?
I have been playing that role for a long time. It is an important one. You just can't assume that people understand each other. In our party, you need to reassure both the Malays and the non-Malays. You need people working together, being more sensitive to each other. We had the three races [Malays, Chinese and Indians] going together and campaigning; we really are a multiracial party.

What about now, are you bridging the gap between the other two opposition parties?
I have had extensive discussions with both of them. We agree we have to work to build a more cohesive opposition. In the next few days, we are going to meet in private and set out the parameters of lasting cooperation. We have already fixed the date and time.

What are your feelings toward your mentor turned nemesis, ex-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad?
You brought him up, not me. I have forgotten him. He is old, he is not well and he is not an issue for me. I am not out to prove anything to him. In order to succeed, we have to look beyond him.

Has your time in prison altered any of your views?
No one enjoys prison. It was a terrible time for me and my family. But it was at least a time for reflection. I read Shakespeare's complete works four and a half times. I read the Qur'an, I read Chinese classics and the Hindu Ramayana, and many, many great novels. Except for days when I was at court, I was just reading from 8 in the morning until midnight.

What are the most pressing issues ahead?
I passionately believe in democracy and freedom, more than before. These are issues of human concern that transcend race and religion. Before the election I was at a rally in a majority Chinese constituency, Bukit Penang. At the end, I had to hurry to another appointment. But a Chinese lady came up to me and she said, "Please, protect my children." As you can see, I am feeling quite sentimental. I do draw the line about politics being just a game. People support you because you have principles.