Lunch With Anwar Ibrahim

The former Malaysian deputy prime minister discusses Shakespeare and his six years in prison.

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim at his home after his acquittal in January.

Photo by Kamarul Akhir/AFP/Getty Images.

Anwar Ibrahim is running late, snarled up somewhere in the rolling carnage of Mumbai’s traffic. But as I sit and wait it still seems remarkable that he is here at all. Only two days before, Malaysia’s opposition leader seemed likely to end up in prison for the second time. He had been on trial in Kuala Lumpur for the past 11 months on charges of sodomising a male aide, in a case that both split his homeland and dented its image abroad. Yet on January 9 the Malaysian High Court found in his favour, and so on the evening of his acquittal Anwar, 64, flew to India to speak at a conference about democracy in Asia, organised by Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.

I am waiting for Anwar in a darkened booth inside Peshawri, a Moghul-themed restaurant at the back of a fancy hotel on the edge of city’s airport. A sign outside says diners will “relish the cuisine from the finest Indian restaurant in the world”, while inside the low ceilings, rough wood furniture and carpets on the walls are meant to bring to mind imperial India’s north-west frontier. The effect is undone only slightly by the towering white atrium outside, complete with palm trees and Islamic style windows.

Anwar’s political promise can divide even his admirers. Some are convinced he is what he at first appears to be: a liberal reformer; a talented technocrat who steered his nation through the worst of the 1997 Asian financial crisis; a genuine intellectual, who has spent time at Oxford, Georgetown and Johns Hopkins universities; and perhaps even a man capable of bringing the spirit of the Arab Spring to one of Asia’s largest majority Muslim nations.

Yet, while the record is impressive, doubts remain about whether the man can deliver. Critics point to his early days as an Islamic student radical, or his lengthy spell in the 1990s at the heart of Malaysia’s ruling elite, when he rose to become deputy prime minister to the autocratic Mahathir Mohamad before ultimately breaking with the regime and in 1998 ending up in jail on a separate set of improbable corruption and sodomy charges. Others point to the fractious Malaysian opposition he leads, or grumble that he talks a good game in the west but flirts with Islamists at home.

Anwar turns up roughly half an hour late—just about acceptable by Mumbai standards, but he apologises politely, nonetheless. He has delicate features and is stylishly dressed in an open-necked white shirt and black corduroy jacket, with carefully brushed hair and a neatly trimmed beard. Before his arrival I had checked his Twitter feed (he has 120,000 followers) and at the top of his stream found a picture he had posted of himself engulfed in cameras following the verdict, with a comment saying the image looked “like Hollywood.” I ask him about it, and the events of the past 48 hours.

He seems genuinely surprised to have won. “There was an early breakfast with the family; my children, my son-in-law, daughter-in-law, all were there,” he tells me. “And I said, ‘We pray for the best, we say there is hope,’ but then, realistically … ” He trails off. “I got my medicine, my toiletries ready,” he adds quietly.

As we pause the menus arrive, on large leaf-shaped slabs of wood. The food is cooked in clay ovens, inspired by cuisine from the region around the city of Peshawar, now in Pakistan. In practice this means the choices are heavy on barbecued meats. Anwar picks a peshwari kebab of lamb marinaded in yoghurt and garlic. I decide on tandoori aloo, a roasted potato concoction with raisins and cashews.

We also take a portion of the dal bukhara on the waiter’s recommendation—the menu describes it as a “harmonious blend” of lentils, tomato, ginger and garlic, and it is cooked overnight—while Anwar picks a mango lassi and some pudina paratha.

“The pudina leaf is supposed to be healthy,” he says approvingly, although I’m disappointed to discover later that pudina turns out be nothing more interesting than mint. The choices over, I mull a point of etiquette that has been bothering me for much of the day. When exactly ought one bring up sodomy over lunch? It seems inelegant to dive right in, but then perhaps better to get it over and done with, leaving the pudding for lighter matters.

Thankfully, Anwar spares my indecision and launches straight into the topic, as part of a flurry of details on the trial itself. He talks rapidly about the flaws of the case, the complicity of the government, and a medical report he says showed no “clinical evidence of penetration” on the aide he is alleged to have assaulted. Despite the seriousness of the topic, I am struck by how relaxed he seems. He speaks in an endearingly conspiratorial manner, leaning in to make his points before pulling back and often cracking a wry joke, before giggling a little to himself.

The recent trial also showed this theatrical side, as he tells me of attempts to win over the judge with quotes from Hamlet (“let us once again assail your ears, that are so fortified against our story”), along with references to Nelson Mandela and the 1963-1964 Rivonia trial of much of the African National Congress’ leadership. The Bard turns out to be an Anwar speciality—in 2006 he presented a paper to the World Shakespeare Congress, while a copy of the Complete Works kept him company in jail.

He credits public pressure from allies in America and Turkey for his release, although Britain’s role gets a less positive reception: “David Cameron was completely muted,” he says, crossly. He mentions other friends, including Al Gore and Paul Wolfowitz, whom he first met back in the 1980s and with whom he says he still talks. He speaks of them with such affection he doesn’t seem to be name-dropping; a neat trick.

The meal arrives, the food sparsely presented on earthy yellow plates. Anwar’s features four large chunks of lamb, while mine looks like a clump of crisply cooked sausage rolls dusted with fine greenish powder. I’m a touch disappointed but when I pick one up it crumbles enticingly between my fingers, and, dipped into a spoonful of the thick, brown dal, tastes rich, charcoaly and pleasing.

Anwar seems especially happy with his pudina bread, mentioning again the supposed health benefits. I ask how he managed physically during the trial, mindful that following his release from prison in 2004—the charges were eventually quashed after six years inside—he flew to Germany for surgery, following repeated beatings. He sighs. “It has been hard. Very hard,” he says, admitting that his back may need further work.

For all that, he seems surprisingly free of bitterness: prosecutors in Malaysia might have appealed his acquittal but for now he seems to be revelling in his status as a free man. The harshest words he has to say about his former boss Mahathir, who led Malaysia for more than two decades until 2003, is that he represents the “past face of Asian leaders … of Asian values, condescending to our citizens; where democracy or freedom are seen as essentially western constructs.”

As his thin fingers bring together small parcels of bread, lamb and dal, he tells me there should no longer be any reason to see a contradiction between Islam and democracy. “The vast majority of Muslims are under democratic rule,” he says, “or are opting for democracy, as in Egypt.” The old leaders—be it Mahathir, ousted Arab despots, or, by implication, Najib Razak, Malaysia’s current elected leader—are out of touch with what he describes as a new wave of Muslim democracies.

What sort of leader would he be? Anwar mentions Turkey as an inspiration. It’s an interesting one, given Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also accused of authoritarian leanings and making religious alliances that undermine his country’s secular state. Anwar says the two men have similar hopes for Islamic democracy, and have discussed the wider opportunity presented by the recent Arab uprisings. “I talk about the Malaysian Spring, but our route will be elections,” Anwar says, adding with a flourish, “It’s going to happen very soon!”

Yet, even if you take Anwar’s liberalism at face value, he still has domestic constraints to contend with, not least from his awkward and ideologically inchoate opposition movement, which combines a trio of parties representing liberal, ethnic Chinese and orthodox Islamic views.

He tells me that if he wins power in the election likely to be held this year, his goal will be economic improvement. It is an aim for which he again picks a western intellectual model, in the egalitarian ideas of Harvard philosopher John Rawls. I find it hard to imagine Rawls being a widely agreed upon reference point within his coalition, but it is equally hard to imagine this thoughtful man as much of a closet Islamist either.

Is dealing with his more orthodox Islamic allies easy? Anwar smiles, ruefully. “From time to time they would object to Elton John coming to the country,” he says, “or to Beyoncé for dressing too sexily.” But, beyond that, he says the three opposition parties agree on the need for basic rights and freedoms. His own beliefs help cement the consensus, he says: “If it was some non-Muslim, they’d think that I was a bit wishy-washy and easy, but, no, I’m a Muslim. People ask, ‘Do you believe in the Koran?’ and I can say ‘Yes.’ ”

Pushing a little, I ask whether he would allow hudud, a controversial form of sharia law that involves corporal punishment for certain crimes, to be introduced in Malaysia. He looks pained, and exhales slowly before admitting this is “one of the more difficult issues I have to deal with”. There follows a lengthy exercise in square-circling, in which he refuses to rule out their introduction but says they would need to be in line with other rights and also to have widespread pubic support. “We must reach a consensus, which is not possible in the foreseeable future, but what if you’re given a situation where all Malaysians agree? Who am I to say no?” The explanation has a kind of logic, but it is also unsatisfying.

Anwar has by now finished eating, and is dipping his fingers in a bowl of warm water. I ask him how he found the meal. “Very heavy, but very delicious,” he says, before singling out the lassi for special commendation. Our time is drawing short so we pass on pudding and order coffee, which Anwar has with honey.

I put the question that has been on my mind throughout, namely whether all this quoting of Rawls and Shakespeare is little more than an alluring put-on to gain admirers abroad. For the first time he seems riled. “I quote Shakespeare in Kuala Lumpur and the Koran in the Muslim villages but the message is consistent—and coherent,” he says. The response is his most passionate, and comes with more hand waving than normal.

The problem of his twin world views cuts the other way, he says, with his friendships with foreigners—and in particular Jewish foreigners—used against him by opponents. “For the past 13 years they have accused me of being a Jewish agent or befriending Jews,” he says. “In every village during elections these people put up photographs of me and Paul Wolfowitz.”

But, he continues, speaking of rural voters: “You gel with them if you talk about the Koran as the essence of freedom. ‘You are born free, you are all children of Adam, so why do you insult groups based on difference of race or religion or colour?’ ” Such attitudes are not popular with the orthodox religious establishment but he says the debate is healthy: “Oh, they say, ‘But it’s a different interpretation.’ Well, let the other sheiks counter me!” he concludes, tapping the side of a nearby mineral water bottle for emphasis.

Anwar has a reputation as a fiery public speaker, and, as we prepare to leave, I ask him if he is looking forward to heading back and starting the campaign. He says he is, and I believe him, although I can’t help but feel that he must wish his country didn’t require him to contort this way and that, to try to bring west and east together. As we part I wish him well for the journey ahead, in both senses. I suspect it might be the last time he quotes Shakespeare for some time.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.