Malaysia opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim freed from prison

Anwar to take time off after pledging ‘complete support’ to new PM Mahathir Mohamad

 Malaysian former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim shakes hand with prison officials before a press conference at his house in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday. Photograph:  Ahmad Yusni/EPA

Malaysian former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim shakes hand with prison officials before a press conference at his house in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday. Photograph: Ahmad Yusni/EPA

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Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s longtime opposition leader, walked free from jail on Wednesday, as the country moved towards a new political era following last week’s remarkable election victory by prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

“Now there is a new dawn for Malaysia, ” he said at his home on Wednesday afternoon. “I must thank the people of Malaysia . . . regardless of race and religion, who stood by the principles of democracy and freedom.”

Mr Mahathir said he was “happy” to see his former nemesis freed, as he pushed ahead with the new government’s reform plans: scrapping the unpopular goods and services tax from June 1st and releasing a previously classified audit of the problems at 1MDB, the graft-tainted state fund.

Mr Anwar pledged his “complete support” to Mr Mahathir. But rather than join the government immediately, he said he would take some time off and give global lectures on Malaysia’s transformation from a “kleptocratic, semi-authoritarian regime to a fully fledged democracy”.

Mr Anwar spent nine of the past 20 years in prison on charges he insists were politically motivated, having been jailed on two occasions – the previous time in 1998 by Mr Mahathir.

Mr Mahathir and Mr Anwar subsequently reconciled in 2016 before combining to oust former prime minister Najib Razak last week, in one of the biggest political shocks that Asia has seen in recent decades.

Since Mr Mahathir was sworn in last Thursday, the 92-year-old has already clashed with some members of Mr Anwar’s People’s Justice party over ministerial appointments.

But Mr Anwar said he trusted the prime minister to pursue their shared reform agenda and had forgiven him for past transgressions.

Handover

Mr Mahathir has said he plans to stay in power for about two years before handing over to Mr Anwar, who was the elder statesman’s protege before he was arrested in 1998 after a bitter political and personal falling out.

Analysts believe Mr Anwar will fight a byelection to return as an MP before joining the government and assuming the job he first thought was within his grasp 20 years ago.

In the intervening period, there are likely to be fresh tensions between two of the most forceful characters in Asian politics, as they try to live up to high public expectations.

Serina Abdul Rahman, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said Mr Anwar would “rely on Mahathir’s experience to put the ship back into shape”.

Although he has only appointed three ministers so far, Mr Mahathir continued to move quickly to implement his election promises.

The finance ministry said on Wednesday that it would set the unpopular goods and sales tax, which Mr Mahathir pledged to abolish, at zero per cent from June 1st.

Mr Mahathir kept the heat on his predecessor, Mr Najib, by releasing the summary of a critical audit report into 1MDB, the fund set up by Mr Najib.

The report by the auditor-general’s office, which was classified in 2016, concluded that corporate governance and internal controls at 1MDB were “less than satisfactory” and that some high-value investments between 2009 and 2016 were made “without detailed discussions and evaluation”.

Mr Najib was not named in the summary and he has consistently denied any wrongdoing. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

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