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Lim Jin Li

Lim Jin Li is a student at the London School of Economics and a contributor to asia!. He is also an occasional poet who has published in Clare, the journal of the LSE student union.

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Anwar the intellectual
March 22, 2010
Special to asia!

Malaysia’s opposition leader was philosophical rather than fiery in his speech at the LSE – but no less impressive.

The LSE, or the London School of Economics and Political Science, has played host to many a public personality hoping to make some point or another in some public address in the hallowed halls of this institution. What usually separates the wheat from the chaff is the size of the crowd that actually turns up, and when Anwar Ibrahim came to town, the crowd followed.

Professor John Sidel of the LSE, introducing Anwar to the audience, commented that he ‘requires virtually no introduction.’ I have heard such phrases in public events many times before, but in this case, I suspect Prof Sidel was spot on. Standing in line, waiting for admission into the theatre hall, my ears caught some familiar accents and phrases as my eyes surveyed a growing crowd of Chinese, Malay and Indian students. It seemed as if Malaysian students from all over the UK had descended on the LSE for one afternoon, and judging from the anticipatory chatter in the audience as we waited for the speaker to arrive, they had come for one man – and oh, how they cheered for him.

I, a Singaporean student, came to listen to Anwar because I was among other things, curious about the man. He certainly has a well-deserved reputation as a powerful public speaker (this is a good example) and I was secretly hoping to witness a fiery diatribe at his would-be political enemies.


Anwar Ibrahim at London School of Economics

Photo source:


What we all got instead, was Anwar the intellectual. His speech, entitled ‘Religion and Pluralism in a Divided World’, on the dangers of the imposition of religious exclusivity on ethnically diverse societies was, to be fair, nothing new in terms of public rhetoric – he has said as much in the Dewan Rakyat. What was quite surprising was the structure of his argument. He peppered his speech with references to and quotations from philosophers, theologians, poets, jurists ranging from the 13th century Muslim philosopher Jalâluddîn al-Rûmî to T.S. Eliot, all laced with humorous anecdotes and jibes at political contemporaries, friend and foe alike (Karpal Singh and Al Gore drew many laughs).

Unsurprisingly consistent in returning his analysis to a critique of politicized Islam and racialised politics in contemporary Malaysia, Anwar presented a case for moderate Islam, highlighting not only the universality of certain religious imperatives like justice, but also the necessity of mutual respect and tolerance of what he termed ‘the freedom of conscience.’ When presented with a series of (certainly) challenging questions, he continued in the same vein as his speech – reasoning and arguing with tact, poise and acerbic wit.

We of course should not get carried away just because of an impressive speech. History is rife with the cautionary tales of the power of demagoguery and rhetoric. Yet, History, as the late Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. would have it, suggests that the ‘the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.’ (Strength to Love, 1963) Anwar certainly is no stranger to ‘challenge and controversy’, and whether he speaks as Anwar the fiery scourge of the Barisan Nasional in the Dewan or as Anwar the moderate Muslim intellectual at the LSE – he is, chiefly, Anwar who speaks so as to take a stand. Certainly some will agree, and just as certainly, some will disagree with that stand – what’s conclusive is that Anwar makes no apologies.

“I was eight years Finance Minister, not one inch of government land did I take - not one share of the government - including bumiputera shares, and not one contract I give to myself to my wife or my family, and that Alhamdulillah, thank God I am proud to repeat and reiterate!”



*Click here for a full audio podcast recording of Anwar Ibrahim’s speech at the LSE and the subsequent Question and Answer session. And here for Anwar's Twitter feed.

For further reading on Anwar Ibrahim’s ideological perspectives – Anwar Ibrahim, 1996, ‘The Asian Renaissance’ (Times Books International, Singapore)




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