Anwar Ibrahim may find influential Western media once sympathetic towards him to be less complimentary this time around, as supporters of the PKR leader stick to his claim of having secured the backing of MPs to assume the country’s top job.
At least two influential media outlets, seen as hallmarks of Western public opinion, recently issued scathing analyses of his latest bid to occupy the prime minister’s seat.
The Economist magazine slammed the move as a “naked power grab”, while a prominent columnist for the Nikkei Asian Review called him “Mr Yesterday”.
On Sept 23, Anwar called for an urgent press conference at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, declaring that Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government had fallen and claiming to have a “formidable” majority of MPs behind him.
London-based financial journal The Economist, in its opinion column on Oct 3, called Anwar “the perennial prime minister-in-waiting”.
“How would more upheaval help contain the pandemic, revive the battered economy, or improve the country’s dismal politics of patronage and race? Mr Anwar had once cared about policy. This seemed a naked power-grab,” the magazine said in its Banyan column which focuses on Asian politics.
The column was a far cry from the glowing reports by prominent news outlets more than two decades ago, when Anwar appeared on the cover of influential magazines such as Time and Newsweek.
Just a year before his sacking, Time magazine famously ran a cover story titled “Anwar and the future of Asia”, while others hailed him as among “Asia’s fastest-rising political stars”.
It was his fall from grace in 1998 that turned him into an icon for reforms in the West, which was already riled up by Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s speeches at global forums.
But such endorsement from powerful media outlets is apparently no longer the case for Anwar.
Conversations with several key figures who worked for the politician two decades ago, at a time when he was portrayed as a villain by domestic media, revealed that he might no longer enjoy such coverage.
They point to Anwar’s “fading charisma” compared to his status as the face of Asian democracy, among descriptions used in editorials and opinion columns by influential media outlets when he was dramatically sacked from Mahathir’s Cabinet 22 years ago.
This was followed by his mobilisation of the Malaysian public who took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur with his “reformasi” battle cry.
“To Western journalists, Anwar at that time represented the elusive utopian personality the West had been looking for, one born in the Islamic incubator and yet friendly to the West’s agenda for reforms in the Muslim world,” a former adviser for Anwar, now based in London, told MalaysiaNow.
He said Anwar then had the benefit of being portrayed a Muslim “reformist and democrat”.
“So while the local media was busy spinning news about Anwar the ‘troublemaker’, he faced no such problems abroad as he had already built a wide network of friends close to Western opinion makers,” the British businessman said.
After his release in 2004, Anwar wasted no time reconnecting with his network in the West, securing speaking engagements at prominent universities in the US to speak on topics such as Islam and democracy.
But with improvements in his personal and political fortunes, especially in the wake of electoral gains in 2008, came increasing scrutiny of his brand of politics.
“His image as a political victim who spent years in jail was slowly replaced with that of another Asian politician eyeing the top job,” said a Kuala Lumpur-based businessman who was tasked with campaigning for Anwar’s release from jail in the late 1990s.
A former journalist who had been part of his team of writers said Anwar might find it more difficult today to get positive coverage from influential international media outlets.
“Twenty or 30 years ago, the Western press would embrace anyone standing on the platform of reforms and democracy.
“They have become more scrutinising now – ask Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma. She is a good example of how a much-loved democrat quickly turned into a villain,” the 68-year-old told MalaysiaNow.
A recent scathing attack on Anwar by William Pesek, the Tokyo-based columnist for the Nikkei Asian Review, may illustrate the point.
The award-winning journalist wrote that Anwar had changed from a reformer who captured the world’s imagination to a “Mr Yesterday” out on a “blatant power grab”.
“Anwar’s New Malaysia is more vanity project than policy shift,” Pesek wrote late last month.
“Prior to the last few years of political chaos, Umno spent six decades in power looking after Malaysia’s dominant ethnic and religious group. Yet so hungry is Anwar for power that he seems willing to rehash the retrograde ideas he fought against in the 90s.”