This article was first published by Malaysiakini on 18 September 2018.

By Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad.

Anwar Ibrahim’s attempt to return to the Dewan Rakyat – and hence into the country’s political life – via a by-election in Port Dickson has predictably engendered much controversy.

There will be, of course, people who will find fault with whatever Anwar does – they have been around since Day 1 of the Reformasi.

Some of them have said, time and time again that Anwar and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) are no longer relevant – or a spent force.

They have also, interestingly, been proven wrong time and time again in this regard.

But democracy is about people disagreeing with one another and moving forward.

There are many who will disagree profoundly with Anwar returning to politics, or the way he is going about it.

These views and the people who hold them – in good faith, we assume – must be respected.

There must be no vilification on either side.

The people who disagree with Anwar’s return have every right to feel that way and do what they need to do to deal with it.

So do those who support him.

I, for one, believe that what Anwar is doing is right.

The “New Malaysia” is supposed to be about reform and putting the best Malaysians in positions of responsibility.

The standard-bearer for reform

It is about finding new ways forward from the funk that our country has found itself in.

Anwar has since 1998 become the standard-bearer for reform, for challenging Malaysia’s unsustainable status quo: whether political, social and economic.

His critics claim that he is “ambitious” and “impatient”.

I would argue however that what is really making them uncomfortable is his refusal to relent in asking difficult questions about where Malaysia should be going as a country, over why certain parties who were clamouring for change and reform under the past government now seem to be dragging their feet.

Anwar has been attacked as a “chameleon”, especially over issues of race, religion and language.

I would argue that what they take as his disingenuousness is actually his understanding of how complex Malaysia’s diversity is, of the difficulties that ordinary Malaysians face in navigating the identity politics of our age.

His attempt to return to Parliament – indeed, to politics in general – has been condemned as disruptive to the reform process.

But Anwar has time and time again said that he will not disrupt the government of Dr Mahathir Mohamad, that he will assume the prime ministership at a time agreeable to both leaders.

It is very strange, therefore, that the motivations as well as the repeated reassurances of both these men have been questioned, time and time again.

Anwar still has a role to play in the frontline of politics, especially in ensuring that the crucial reforms that are needed in the years ahead are pushed through – and wisely.

This process must be done via the people’s representatives in Parliament – and that is why Anwar should be there.

We must not also forget that freeing Anwar, returning him to the political mainstream and ultimately, the premiership, was part of the agreement forged before the last general election by the leadership of Pakatan Harapan.

It was agreed to by all concerned. The credibility of Harapan, of its components, leaders, grassroots and civil society that supported us, will be severely compromised if this agreement is not adhered to.

Promises must be kept

Much of the problems and abuses that we faced in the Old Malaysia stemmed from postponing political changes because they seemed inexpedient or inconvenient to the powerful and wealthy.

We cannot afford a repeat of this.

Things started going wrong for Malaysia when our people were made to believe that politics had to be set aside for the so-called “national interest”.

This was and will always be wrong.

Benjamin Franklin once wrote: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

In the New Malaysia, those who would delay reform and the Harapan transition process, allegedly in the name of the national interest and democracy, are doing a disservice to both.

Again: promises- especially political ones – must be kept.

No one is asking for Anwar to be given a free pass or unfettered power.

Like all political figures – his actions, politics and rhetoric must be scrutinised carefully, without fear or favour.

Moreover, the “transition” to Anwar will also mean the beginning of the transition of power to the post-Reformasi generations of leaders.

Some will ask: but why can’t these leaders take over immediately after Mahathir? The very fact that we had to recall him to lead Harapan highlights that we need more time.

And so the icons of our movement: Mahathir and Anwar, must be allowed to lay the groundwork for us.

They both have a lot left in them and must be allowed their time in the sun.

I repeat: no one is being forced to support Anwar in the Port Dickson by-election.

But I do believe that what he is doing is right for the country.

Anwar’s return to the Dewan Rakyat and to Malaysia’s public life is an idea whose time has come.

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