By Mohsin Abdullah
I begin this article by stating some of the things Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is known for. But I'll have to say this is not according to chronology of events.
Other than being famous (or should it be infamous?) as a firebrand student leader, Anwar is also known as a leader of ABIM. The Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement was initially characterized by its efforts to intensify Muslim youth activism through missionary and educational activities.
Anwar is also remembered for being instrumental in setting up a private education institution called Yayasan Anda, aimed at helping mostly poor Malay students unable to enter public institutions of higher learning to further their studies.
And while in government (need we be reminded that it was the BN administration?), Anwar was a strong advocate of "sebutan baku" or the standard designation (pronunciation) of the Malay language.
Also during his stint in the cabinet, especially as education minister, Anwar was seen pushing for the "Malay agenda".
Mahathir's coup in wooing Anwar to Umno in 1982 gave the party the Islamic image it needed to disrupt and thwart archrival PAS' onslaught to win the Malay heartland.
When he was sacked by Mahathir in 1998, the Reformasi movement which Anwar triggered was supported predominantly by the Malays.
Based on such "Malayness", one would see Anwar as a Malay leader or rather a leader of the Malays.
But not so apparently. Not in the eyes of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
In a recent interview with Malay daily Sinar Harian, the former prime minister was quoted as saying the Malay community cannot accept Anwar's leadership because of his "liberal political ideology".
I can't help but recall when Anwar was in the Mahathir administration, the Islamization policy of the BN government was credited to Anwar. Matter of fact till today, Malays dubbed as "liberals" blame Anwar for "starting the rot" whenever Muslim zealots within our midst go a notch or two up in trying to impose their "Taliban" views on society.
Ironic isn't it that Anwar himself is now labeled liberal by the Malays who themselves are seen as liberals. And sadly, of late, liberalism is such a dirty word for many Malay Muslims.
When Anwar first started in politics he was identified with Malay nationalism and Islamic policies. He is now the only Malay leader heading a multiracial party, PKR, and in the words of Mahathir, "is talking about multiculturalism and liberalism".
Thus, according to Mahathir, Anwar lacks Malay support and the former premier goes on to claim that as far as numbers in the Parliament are concerned, only the leader of a Malay party can obtain the crucial support of Malay MPs.
Mahathir was, of course referring to the support needed by a leader to become prime minister.
To political analyst Dr Oh Ei Sun, in a recent interview with Sin Chew Daily, Mahathir "was actually stating the obvious, that Anwar heading a multiracial party and therefore is not acceptable as prime minister in the Malaysian socio-polity, at least at this point in time. But many mistakenly read that as Mahathir expressing his personal racist preference."
As Azlan Zainal, CEO at research outfit Ilham Center reminds us that in Malaysia's democratic system, a prime minister can be determined by majority support of Members of Parliament, unlike the republic system where presidential elections are decided directly by the people.
If I may add, the Malaysian prime ministerial post has always been awarded to the leader of the party with the most number of seats in the Parliament and in the past that party has always been Umno. Therefore for years, we have had Umno presidents as our prime ministers.
"If we want to rate it fairly, anybody can be elected prime minister if he commands majority support in the House even though the support for his party is minority," says Azlan.
However, there is an unwritten "law" that the prime minister must be a Malay Muslim.
Anyway, as for Anwar being labeled a "liberal" who is heading a non Malay-based party even though it is dominated by the Malays, Azlan says, "It is just a perception drummed up with much success by Umno/BN over a long period of time to thwart the opposition back then."
(Mohsin Abdullah is a veteran journalist and now a freelancer who writes about this, that and everything else.)