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Full circle: Why the coming together of Anwar and Zahid is no surprise

The presidents of PKR and Umno share a strong bond despite leading different parties.

4 minute read
Anwar Ibrahim (right) and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi share a light moment together before an Umno event in 1998. The two have remained friends despite their subsequent political divergence. Photo: AFP
Anwar Ibrahim (right) and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi share a light moment together before an Umno event in 1998. The two have remained friends despite their subsequent political divergence. Photo: AFP

Recent friendly gestures between Umno and PKR leaders should come as no surprise to the seasoned observer of Malay politics, nor the admission by PKR president Anwar Ibrahim that his party has been in talks on the possibility of a political alliance with Umno, led by Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

The revelation in fact brings to full circle the long relationship between the two politicians.

It began in the 1970s when both Anwar and Zahid were student activists at Universiti Malaya.

But it was their involvement in Umno which brought them closer together, especially in the 1990s – a period marked by Anwar’s meteoric rise in the party during the era of Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

At one point when Anwar was deputy president, Zahid was Umno Youth chief as well as a close advocate of Anwar’s prime ministerial ambitions.

Zahid’s position in the party was due to Anwar’s support, after Abdul Rahim Thamby Chik, an ally of Mahathir, was forced to resign over accusations that he had molested an underage girl.

A statutory rape charge against him was later withdrawn due to lack of evidence.

How inseparable the current crop of PKR and Umno leaders are can be seen in an incident that took place in Kuala Lumpur 25 years ago.

In 1996, a group of Umno Youth members stormed a hotel where activists were gathered for the Second Asia Pacific Conference on East Timor, or Apcet II.

The conference was organised by local NGOs in collaboration with rights activists in the region to show support for East Timor, then an Indonesian province ravaged by violence in the wake of an independence movement crushed by Jakarta.

The Umno Youth secretary at the time, Saifuddin Nasution Ismail who is currently PKR secretary-general, had mobilised a mob of around 400 protesters to heckle the conference participants. The Umno stand at that point was to stop any break-up of Indonesia, siding with the ruling Golkar party of then-president Suharto.

The Umno mob which stormed the conference hall, led by then-Umno Youth secretary Saifuddin Nasution Ismail (circled in red). Photo: Facebook

It was reported that the Umno mob stormed the conference hall, breaking its doors, throwing chairs and verbally and physically abusing the participants.

Pandemonium ensued, and police moved in only to arrest the conference participants for refusing to disperse.

Those arrested included Tian Chua, Syed Husin Ali and Elizabeth Wong, all of whom are still part of PKR.

Two years later, at the Umno general assembly in June 1998, there was talk of Anwar trying to wrest control of Umno from its strongman Mahathir.

The speculation was proven true when Anwar’s key ally Zahid brought up allegations of cronyism and nepotism in the award of government contracts.

Zahid’s speech to Umno delegates was seen as an attack on Mahathir, who did not take the assault lying down.

He retaliated by listing the companies and individuals who had obtained the projects, exposing Zahid as one of them.

The simmering tension between Mahathir and Anwar reached boiling point when, on Sept 2, 1998, Anwar was sacked as deputy prime minister. He was also stripped of his posts in Umno on the back of allegations of sodomy and misappropriation of power.

Here, again, Zahid was among the Umno leaders who stood by Anwar.

When Mahathir launched a crackdown on the reformasi movement, he was among those of Anwar’s supporters detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA).

But Zahid was released from ISA ahead of many others and has remained with Umno ever since, declaring his loyalty to Mahathir instead.

As Anwar spent time behind bars, Zahid began rebuilding his political fortunes in Umno.

From the lowly post of a deputy minister under Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Zahid climbed over the years to hold important Cabinet portfolios, culminating in his appointment as deputy prime minister under Najib Razak, replacing Muhyiddin Yassin who was sacked in 2015.

While Zahid and Anwar were politically distant, they remained close friends.

“They were actually brought together by their common dislike of Mahathir,” a former officer who had worked closely with both politicians told MalaysiaNow.

Ahmad Zahid Hamidi visiting Anwar Ibrahim when the latter was admitted to hospital in 2017. The two leaders have remained close friends despite leading different political parties. Photo: Facebook.

Zahid was also among the most vocal Umno leaders who attacked Mahathir when the former prime minister launched a campaign against Najib in the wake of the 1MDB scandal.

In 2017, Zahid also launched a personal attack on Mahathir, taking a dig at the latter’s ancestry and claiming that he was an Indian.

It was then that Mahathir revealed why Zahid was unhappy with him.

“Zahid should remember, when he became the DPM, he came to see me to try and seek my sympathy, my support. I told Zahid the truth. Even if Najib resigns, which is impossible, Zahid must still wait for Umno to decide who should replace Najib,” Mahathir had said.

In 2016, Anwar and Mahathir patched up their relationship for the first time in almost two decades.

But the ceasefire proved fleeting, and even their alliance in Pakatan Harapan could not stop them from becoming staunch enemies again.

“With both Anwar and Zahid finding themselves out of power, it is probably the best chance for them to finish where they left off 23 years ago,” said a former PKR MP.

This time, Zahid faces multiple charges of corruption, criminal breach of trust and money laundering.

He has joined forces with Najib, already convicted of seven charges of corruption.

Their friendship has come full circle.

And it has also been written in black and white, twice.

Once, in the form of a letter by Zahid and Najib to the Agong, backing Anwar’s bid to become prime minister, and again, in the form of two identical press statements issued by Zahid and Anwar.