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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A DAY IN THE LIFE

In close-up -- how Anwar Ibrahim spent the last hectic hours of his two months as acting premier of Malaysia

By Roger Mitton / Kuala Lumpur


Go to photo gallery (This story is 15 photographs of Anwar in action -- a large file -- so it will take a long time to load!)

WAS IT A TEST TO SEE IF ANWAR IBRAHIM WAS really able to manage the affairs of the nation? Or was it on-the-job training to prepare him for the kind of challenges he will one day face? Whatever the motive, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad surprised just about everyone when he announced he would be going on a working holiday in May, leaving his deputy in charge for two months. Suddenly Anwar, 49, was deputy prime minister, finance minister, acting prime minister, acting home affairs minister and -- most significant -- acting president of the dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Never had there been such a comprehensive delegation of power for such a length of time. How did the Anwar style measure up against that of his boss?

Asiaweek took a look last week. We accompanied the acting premier right through his final day of activities, from shortly after his breakfast with his family (wife Azizah, 44, and six children -- five girls and one boy -- aged 5 to 17) to a packed agenda of official meetings and then a final, late interview at his home. It was a level of access never previously allowed to the media. And it showed that Anwar is a man in a hurry.

First he sped 140 km south to Ayer Keroh, in Malacca state, for a series of meetings. On the way, the chauffeur took the Mercedes S500 up to 180 km an hour, allowing the convoy to cover a two-hour journey in one hour. After lunch, it was a dash back to Kuala Lumpur for talks in the afternoon with Razali Ismail, the Malaysian who is president of the U.N. General Assembly, more government business, tennis, dinner with the family, a planning meeting with his aides and then, at last, some private time. At home, politics is a subject largely avoided. "That is an understanding we have," says Anwar. "My wife and I confine the relations to family and loving, and don't get into all these disputes -- too many disputes."

Elsewhere, the political establishment is preparing its report cards. How did Malaysia fare under Anwar? Nazri Aziz, a deputy minister in the prime minister's office, puts it this way: "His major achievement is that there were no big scandals, which shows he handled it well." The crisis that hit Asian currencies was a fright he could have done without, however. "I was very, very worried over the weekend," Anwar acknowledges. "But I'm relieved to see the ringgit has regained some strength." Some criticized the government for being too passive, but the view of most was that Anwar did well not to panic and risk the nation's reserves in defense of the currency.

Less sure-footed was his handling of a government announcement in June that universities would be introducing a compulsory course on Islamic Civilization. Non-Muslims saw this as more evidence of creeping Islamization. The acting PM, whose early years were marked by religious activism, tried to calm emotions but was not forceful enough for some. Says opposition MP Lim Guan Eng: "Mahathir would have taken a tougher stand against perceived acts of religious extremism." Though the course was changed to include Asian civilizations, there was a lingering feeling in some circles that Malaysia under Anwar might have a more pro-Islamic face.

And then came yet another problem with the troubled Bakun dam in Sarawak. Anwar publicly acknowledged there was friction between tycoon Ting Pek Khiing's Ekran company, which is handling the project, and the main contractor, the Swiss-Swedish firm of Asea Brown Boveri. Not so, said Ting the next day. Ting must be out of touch, said Anwar.

Early on, the acting PM issued a directive that all new state executive councilors declare their assets to the Anti-Corruption Agency. Several public figures were added to the growing list of those facing corruption charges. Most observers supported Anwar's actions. Even oppositionist Lim said: "Anwar has tried to put the country on the right path against corruption. I applaud him."

What did Mahathir think of his deputy's performance? The country had been in safe hands, he said. As for Anwar's agenda during his absence, Mahathir said he would meet religious leaders to halt any abuses in enforcing Islamic laws, resolve any Bakun dispute and fight corruption without going on a witchhunt. Was he saying these matters needed his urgent attention, and that his deputy had fallen just short? No. That's just his way. Most would agree with Nazri: "What the PM has done is to tell everybody 'I have confidence in this man, and that there is no problem with the succession.' I think Anwar can walk into his shoes easily." Says Anwar: "I've enjoyed it, but it's been a bit hectic."


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