February 21, 2015
In Sungei Buloh, Anwar reacquaints with the Bard
by Terence Netto@www.malaysiakini.com (02-20-15)
A reform-questing politician striving against great odds must allow the worst of what he has to face pass through his soul, as if he is grinding sausage. With Anwar Ibrahim, now in his third spell of incarceration in a near 50-year political career, the buffer against the shriveling effects of the grind is reading.
A peripatetic life on the hustings and at endless meetings the last eight years could not have afforded him much time for this solitary pursuit, save perhaps in cars and planes – provided he was not trying to catch up on sleep – that transported him to the events of a hectic and harried schedule.
But now, behind bars for five years on a sodomy conviction so shaky his adversaries have to go on a road show to make it stick, prison time can seem providential in reacquainting himself with the states that singer-songwriter Paul Simon limned in The Sound of Silence – that signature ode to angst.
Initially, Anwar wasn’t allowed reading material during his second spell in prison (1998- 2004, the first was in 1974, under the ISA). However, after letters of appeal from world leaders, including then United States President Bill Clinton, the philistine disposition of his jailers altered.
Reprieved, Anwar rifled through the Shakespearean corpus several times, a familiarity notable enough to draw an invitation from the organisers to present a paper, Shakespeare in Prison, at a conference on the Bard in Australia shortly after he was released and while undergoing a spell in decompression in the grooves of academia, at Georgetown University in the US and at Cambridge in England.
After the two-year sojourn in academia, his return to the hurly-burly of the political round in 2007 and to the rigours of incessant stumping for his party, Parti KeADILan Rakyat (PKR), and the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat – not to mention his recurrent legal tangles – meant that there was not only very little time for leisurely reading, there was also no space for a contemplated project.
This was a book of vignettes mined from his encounters with world leaders, ranging from Indira Gandhi to Nelson Mandela. The hypothetical project – the provisional title was Glimpses from a Political Life – would almost certainly have been finished had Anwar not been incommoded by the contretemps with Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, his aide who turned out to be his accuser in his second trial for sodomy.
Anwar’s current reading-fueled spell in prison is not likely to be filled with lamentation for the loss of what Pope Gregory, who left the monastery for the Papacy, described as “borne onward by the disturbance of those endless billows”.
As Anwar’s Jesuit friends in Georgetown University would readily agree, a spell of immersion in the contemplative life – enforced by prison or self-willed matters little – is good preparation for a return plunge into political activism.
Analysts have predicted the end of Anwar’s career because at age 67, he cannot, they say, be expected to resurge after a five-year jail term and another five years, from the date of his release, of a ban from politics that convicted felons have to endure in Malaysia. This means a possible 10-year removal from the political fray from which a younger person can be expected to return but not, analysts say, a 67-year-old like Anwar.
But in political history, the wilderness of prison or of exile has been one of those romantic stretches from which the most triumphant of returns have been accomplished. For an inkling of the entelechy that drives his life, Anwar’s aides reveal that the next book from his home library he has requested is Robert Blake’s acclaimed 1966 biography of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), the outsider who became Prime Minister of Britain.
Disraeli, a writer who aspired – and successfully made – the transition to the activism of the political arena, is owner of that luminous phrase, “the top of the greasy pole.” That was how he described his arrival at the post of PM of Britain.
Anwar’s climb up the “greasy pole” in his own country has stalled, now that he is in the Sungai Buloh Prison. But it is not certain that this halt is terminal.
TERENCE NETTO has been a journalist for more than four decades. A sobering discovery has been that those who protest the loudest tend to replicate the faults they revile in others.