July 6, 2012
The Growing Weariness of a Political Marathoner
by Terence Netto@www.malaysiakini.com
COMMENT: Is Anwar Ibrahim’s intimation that he may retire from the exertions of leading the Opposition in Malaysia should it fail to obtain a mandate at the general election a sympathy-winning ploy to galvanise support or frank admission that though his spirit may be willing the flesh is increasingly wan?
The other day he let drop to an interviewer from the Financial Times of London that he may “go back to teaching” if the Opposition Pakatan Rakyat does not gain a mandate at GE13.
That sounds suspiciously like the ploy beloved of Lim Kit Siang who at the approach of a general election following one in which the DAP had done poorly, would say that it was going to be his last for he is thinking of retiring whereupon the DAP would do better.
Of course, this tactic drew sardonic asides from Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Prime Minister for much of the time during which the then Opposition Leader Lim deployed this ruse.
Anwar had taught at the prestigious Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington, DC, for about two years after his release from jail in August 2004 and his back surgery and recuperation in Munich, Germany.
He returned to Malaysia early 2007 to begin campaigning for the 12-GE whose results – and consequent grueling demands on him – have set off a chain of events whose culmination would be if Pakatan secures a lease on Putrajaya in the coming polls.
Signs of excessive wear
Anwar, 65 next month, has not before appeared as worn and weary as he has in the last several months. The unremitting demands of leading the movement for political change in Malaysia that his 1998 sacking from government and UMNO and subsequent jailing on what is now widely regarded as trumped-up corruption and sodomy charges have worked its attrition on his reserves of energy and endurance.
The constant travel, here and abroad, the hand pumping, the brutal schedule of nine to 12 speeches most Fridays through to Sundays, the regular party meetings, the frequent court appearances on charges ranging from reprobate sex to risqué hand signals, are taking its toll.
The noticeably limp handshake, the constraints on locomotion caused by lingering back pain, the increasingly ashen-faced exterior, and the diminishment in the range of his vocals on the stump caused, no doubt, by the demands of a taxing speaking schedule – are all evident signs of excessive wear.
When this is compounded by the sandpapering quality of recurrent legal trammels placed his way by Attorney-General Abdul Gani Patail, immersion in an academic idyll must seem like refreshing balm for battered spirits.
One is reminded of what Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos intimated to jailed rival Benigno Aquino during a tete-a-tete while exploring terms for the latter’s exile to the United States: “Sometimes I envy you – in jail you can be with your Plato, while here I have to talk to all these jokers.”
Sequestration in academia, even one, as was the case with Aquino with barred windows, can sometimes seem preferable to being borne along by those endless billows that are the lot of Southeast Asian politicians (Anwar and Aung San Suu Kyi come to mind) striving to weld a mélange of forces to dislodge long established authoritarian and corrupt regimes.
Turned to stone
Though it’s true that as Shakespeare, whose entire works Anwar read in six years in jail (1998-2004), said, “The labour we delight in physics pain,” and despite the large crowds he draws being an elixir to a populist politician like him, Anwar has wearied. “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart,” mused the poet WB Yeats.
Something of what Yeats felt about the effects on the Irish psyche of prolonged suffering under British rule is perhaps discernible in Anwar these days – the foisting of a deep, no-affect carapace on him that’s running on auto rather than is willed.
This has rendered him wan more than witless though the latter effect is detectable in the wilting of his humour on the hustings, hitherto a captivating aspect of his oratorical mien.
Where once his jokes on the stump were delivered with brio, they are now uttered without the élan that is vital for connecting with his audience.
These are losses due to the fatigue of a marathoner but this is of course restorable through rest.
But what would not be curable would be if he has lost the popular leader’s supreme qualifications which are that of being able to mingle easily with followers and adversaries, to rise and fall to the level of their intelligences, to discuss and argue without rancor, to dwell on the same themes in different forms, and to get animated without end in the face of the same goal.
When these strengths have waned, he can retreat to the academic or, even, memoir-penning redoubts. Until then there are reform promises to keep and miles to go before these can safely be said to have been fulfilled.