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By   Asep Setiawan[*]

I. Introduction

Anwar Ibrahim maybe one of the leading figures in Malaysian politics. His views on the process of development and Islamic issues have become  the references not only for the local leaders but even for some of the top leaders in the region. It is not suprising if he is called an Asian prospective  leader.

Probably is  because his government position  as a Deputy Prime Minister that  gives him the power to express his ideas. The portfolio job as the Minister of Finance also gives him  a chance to evaluate the economic side of Malaysia’s development. Those experiences as well as his activities a long time ago before he became a politician had profound influence on Anwar’s thought.

The article has two objections. Firstly, to explore his outlook on Asian economic recovery as a phenomenon of more holistic event rather than economic progress. Secondly, to  look more precisely how Anwar’s  thought on Islamic ummah’s role in  Asian renaissance.

II. Asia’s reawakening

Anwar Ibrahim states, Asian economic growth is only a dimension for a much deeper, more profound and far-reaching reawakening of the continent which may be called the Asian Renaissance. What is the Asian Renaissance ? According to Anwar, it is the revival of arts and sciences under the influence of classical models on strong moral and religious foundations [1].

In addition, Anwar interprets that Asian Renaissance as a cultural dominated by reflowering of art and literature, architecture and music. Another  interpretation is this concept is related to advancements in science and technology.[2]

It seems  that Anwar considers reawakening in Asian not merely business progress but also cultural and social development. He makes comparative view to distinguish Asian and European Renaissance.

For Anwar, European Renaissance that took place between fourteenth and sixteenth centuries was the cornerstone, the intense assertion of the power of individual to determine his own destiny led to flourishing of secular humanism at the expense of Judeo-Christian religiousity. This judgement lead to interpretation that Anwar sees Asian resurgence  has been influenced by system of belief.

Based on his judgement, it can be argued that Anwar considers moral values as  the core  of changes. Thus,  in viewing Asian progress, Anwar believes Asian Renaissance differs from European because of its foundation in religion and traditions such as Islam, Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity.

Some of criticism toward Anwar stance on this issue was reflected by Ignas Kleden, scholar on philosophy. He argues that secularism was not the character of European Renaissance. He claims that changes in Europe did not exclude religion from the life of people. Ignas indicates religion took another form which incorporate into business and political life. Thus, he rejects Anwar view’s that European Renaissance was departed from religiosity toward secularism and the Asian Renaissance embraces  moral values as the foundation of reawakening.

Anwar’s efforts to involve Asian thinker and philosopher such as Confucius, Jose Rizal, Muhammad Iqbal and  Rabindranath Tagore can be seen as an effort to cultivate Asian values to translate into modern reality. He thinks they would enrich Asian people toward new millennium. He often quotes them as a reason for evaluating the Western thinkers.

On economics, Anwar argues that it cannot be totally separated from social, political, moral and cultural issues. He asserts economic progress must not be achieved at the expense of social justice. Anwar says, financial and industrial policies must take into account the needs of the marginalized and disadvantage groups in our teeming cities as well as in the remote parts of the region.

Anwar’s stance on social justice can be said as basic element of his thought. Prof.  Dr Shamsul Amri Baharudin of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia thinks that the emphasising on social justice is one factor that distinguished from Mahathir Mohamad, mentor of Anwar on politics.  He says that Mahathir emphasises on entrepreneurial and Anwar focus on social justice. Entrepreneurship is supported by business community either from Chinese or Indian even from Malay businessmen.[3]

Yet Anwar treats it carefully because of Mahathir’s presence. In his book, he appreciates Mahathir for  giving him the chance to express his thought. Thus Anwar recognises some of differences with Mahathir, however, he is not willing to exploit it.

III. The need of moderation

As a former Islamic youth organisation activist, Anwar cannot be separated form its identity as an Islamic leader. Many people in Malaysia even in Indonesia still regard him as an example of an Islamic  young leader who is success in politics.

In his book, Anwar believes that major predicament of Muslim is the failure to come to terms with present-day realities. It should be recognised that the causes of general confusion and malaise of the Muslims are rooted in history. Here, Anwar tries to understand the past for evaluating the failure of Ummah today.

After analysing the Islamic history, Anwar concludes that the future of the Muslims will be determined more by careful planning and concrete action than by the beauty of conceptual formulation or the fervour of moral exhortation.

He states, “Muslim intellectuals have been content to abandon the centre stage of worldly action, preferring instead to the comfort of the moral high ground.” His remarks illustrate that he tends to actualise Islamic ideals into concrete action rather than formulating and conceptualising in beautiful words.

In order to implement  these ideals, he agrees with moderate attitude rather than extremes action. He says that “The seed of militancy are everywhere and each community must ensure that they will not germinate and multiply through discontent and alienation. So, participation and social justice is fundamental in Southeast Asia in the of the nation-state.” [4]

It seems that Anwar is against extremism that arises from Muslims when they actualise their ideals. This statement can be traced from Anwar’s experience in Malaysia. He was one of the extreme leaders who often criticised Mahathir. However, after he joint toward larger political activities within UMNO, Anwar slightly changed particularly when he expresses Islamic aspiration.

He praises Indonesian motto “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” (Unity in Diversity) as proper definition which should take account by Muslim community. The challenge to Muslims and the people of other confessions is to effectively articulate their moral vision and intensity faiths the search for common ethical ground, Anwar says.


Anwar resumes his view with following words. As Asia’s reawakening proceeds apace, both East and West should forge symbiosis of cultures and realise the universal community of the human race.

He also concludes that the wave of Islamic revivalism that began with the anti-imperialist struggles of the previous century has gained further momentum in our time among Muslims in Southeast Asia. He asserts, the energy potential must be properly directed so as not to deteriorate or be corrupted into blind fanaticism which could precipitate into violent clashes with other cultures.


Ahmad, Aziz Zariza. Mahathir’s Paradigm Shift. Kuala Lumpur: Firma, 1997.

Ibrahim, Anwar. The Asian Renaissance. Singapore: Times Books International,          1996

Means, Gordon P. Malaysian Politics: The Second Generation. Singapore:   Oxford, University, Press, 1991

Moraris, J. Victor. Anwar Ibrahim: Resolute in Leadership. Kuala Lumpur, Arena     Buku, 1983

Putra, Tunku Adul Rahman. Contemporary Issues in Malaysian Politics.        Malaysia, Pelanduk, 1984

Time, October 6, 1997


[*][*] Drs Asep Setiawan MA, journalis at the Kompas Daily, lecturer at the Department of Politics in The University of Muhammadiyah Jakarta and Department of International Relations in The University of Pasundan. The paper is presented at the regular discussion The University of Muhammadiyah Jakarta.

[1] Anwar Ibrahim, The Asian Renaissance. Singapore, Times Books International, 1996, page 18.

[2] Op.cit. page 18

[3] Author’s interview  with Dr Shamsul, August, 22 1997

[4] Op.cit. page 123

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