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Where to Go From Heir?
Reported by John Colmey/Kuala Lumpur and Ravi Velloor/Singapore
(Cover Story of Time Asia, Sept 14, 1998, Vol. 152, No. 10)

Long slated for greatness, Anwar Ibrahim learns the pitfalls of being Mahathir Mohamad's No. 2

The last men to challenge malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad learned a hard lesson. Former Finance Minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and former Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam failed in their 1987 bid to assume leadership of the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and were banished to the political wilderness. "The worst job in politics is No. 2," a worn Razaleigh told TIME in 1996, "because you can't survive if you stay there."

When Anwar Ibrahim learned that lesson last week, many expressed surprise the day had not come sooner. From the moment Anwar maneuvered himself into the No. 2 slot in UMNO in 1993--against the wishes of Mahathir--Kuala Lumpur's coffeehouses have buzzed with rumors of the younger man's imminent demise. The one-time student radical seemed altogether too bright, too ambitious, too obviously ready for the top slot to endure for long under his domineering boss. Ironically, however, those very qualities may have helped protect his position while Mahathir needed to groom a fit heir--and they will aid any political comeback he mounts now that the "Old Man" has decided to postpone retirement.

Anwar's friends claim he has always been marked for great things. As a child growing up near the small town of Cherok Tok Kun--the son of a hospital porter who later became an MP and a mother who would become the first woman elected to a town council in Malaysia--he was a voracious reader, plowing through his mother's collection of Malay and Indonesian novels, and memorizing the Koran by age 9. At Malay College in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, and later at Kuala Lumpur's University of Malaya, he acquired a taste for Western philosophy and literature. But he made his early name in a more parochial cause--campaigning for road signs to be written in Malay instead of English. Shortly before he graduated he founded the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement, or Abim, which grew into one of the most powerful student unions in the country.

A year before that, in 1970, Anwar had made a pilgrimage to meet the physician-author and political exile who had taken up the call for Malay chauvinism in his banned tract, The Malay Dilemma. Mahathir Mohamad used Anwar's network as a platform to stage his return to government. But in 1974, when the student leader was arrested during pro-tests over rumors of starvation among children at a northern rubber plantation, Mahathir (who had by then become Deputy Prime Minister) could not intervene. Anwar spent 22 months in jail under the Internal Security Act and emerged a free agent in the tense politics of the times. In 1982 Mahathir, by then No. 1, lured him into UMNO, where Anwar supported the PM against Razaleigh and Musa. After his ascent in 1993, Anwar maintained that he looked upon Mahathir as a "father," to whom loyalty was demanded. At the same time, however, he began to stake out territory for the future. In essays and interviews, he touted himself as a post-postcolonial leader--a man freed of the ego and insecurities of the first generation of nationalist giants; a diplomat comfortable in boardrooms and multilateral conferences; a citizen committed to political, judicial and press freedoms; a Muslim ready to fight for the tolerance of all faiths. Even Mahathir seemed at least to tolerate his deputy's independence, knowing that a pure sycophant would not make a credible replacement.

The Old Man even turned over the reins of power to Anwar for two months last year--a remarkable gesture of trust even between a pair as closely bound as the two ex-radicals. Years of talk about how the duo complemented each other--how they shared common, humble histories--made the decision somewhat less strange. "Mahathir sees a kindred spirit in Anwar," longtime political commentator Chandra Muzaffar said at the time. But the No. 2 walked a thin line between convincing his boss he was enough like him to inherit his mantle, yet not so similar that he aspired to the powers Mahathir had accumulated. "Sometimes," says a top UMNO scholar who knows both men, "the people most like you are the most dangerous to you."

Ousted, Anwar is now more vulnerable than ever. A year ago Musa warned, "My so-called enemies are nothing compared to Anwar's." But Anwar may have developed enough of an independent power base to turn exile into an advantage. "Quitting would have been like giving up your political career, but a sacking gives you the opportunity to play the underdog," says Bruce Gale, director of Political and Economic Risk Consultancy in Singapore. Anwar still commands support among the lower ranks in UMNO and across Malaysia's hundreds of Muslim organizations, which is unlikely to fade unless charges of sexual misconduct stick. Governments from the Middle East to Washington (where he received a hefty 19-gun salute during a visit to the White House earlier this year) still favor his political and economic visions for Malaysia. And if nothing else, he can look to Mahathir, who was himself expelled from UMNO in 1969, for an example of how to survive outside the system. "Nobody is gone forever in Malay politics," says political scientist Hussin Mutalib. This former No. 2 may yet come out on top.