Anwar and Ardern: Profiles of leadership


Sonny Coloma

Two Asia-Pacific leaders, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim of Malaysia and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, provide contrasting profiles of leadership that students of political science would consider noteworthy.

Jacinda Ardern, now 42 years old, became the world’s youngest female head of government in October 2017 when she was sworn in by New Zealand’s Governor General. In April 2022, The Guardian heralded New Zealand’s Covid-19 strategy as “one of the world’s most successful” and pointed out what the world could learn from it.

Anwar Ibrahim, 75 years old, finally became Malaysia’s 10th prime minister when he was tapped by the county’s king to head a unity government. A firebrand student leader, he became one of the youngest elected members of parliament then quickly rose to prominence.  He was jailed twice since 1998 after he had a falling out with his erstwhile mentor, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.  While in jail in 2018, his own party’s coalition with Dr. Mahathir scored an upset victory to end the decades-long dominance of the United Malaysia Organization (UMNO) that both of them once led. But it took Anwar four more years to become Malaysia’s leader.

Jacinda Ardern’s sudden and unexpected resignation beamed the spotlight on her unique story as a contemporary political leader. She said she was resigning because she had “no more in the tank” after five and a half years in office. She announced she was leaving office and called on her party to elect a new leader. She said it was time for her, too, to finally get married with her partner with whom she now has a daughter who was born in the early phase of her premiership.

Ardern’s political journey, though relatively brief when compared to Anwar’s sojourn, is no less remarkable. She was trying to hold back tears when she declared last Jan. 19 in a nationally televised statement: “I believe that leading a country is the most privileged job anyone could ever have, but also one of the more challenging. You cannot, and should not do it unless you have a full tank… I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It is that simple.”

She could learn a few lessons from Anwar’s experience that could well make her an even more effective political leader a few years from now.

As one of UMNO’s rising stars, he was tapped by Mahathir to serve as Minister of Culture, Youth, and Sports; then as Minister of Agriculture; and as Minister of Education; and as Minister of Finance during which he was also named as Deputy Prime Minister. This excerpt from a World Bank document cited in Wikipedia gives a compelling account of his rise to prominence:

“During his tenure as Finance Minister, his impact was immediate; Malaysia enjoyed unprecedented prosperity and economic growth…In the midst of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Anwar, as a deputy prime minister and finance minister, was hailed for guiding Malaysia through the period of instability. Anwar backed free-market principles and highlighted the proximity of business and politics in Malaysia. He advocated greater accountability, refused to offer government bail-outs and instituted widespread spending cuts.

But his ascent to power was cut short when he had a falling out with Dr. Mahathir due to policy differences on how to deal with the impact of the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and 1998. His advocacy of IMF-World Bank prescriptions was thumbed down by Mahathir. In quick order, he was stripped of his Cabinet portfolios, expelled from UMNO, charged with sodomy and insurrection; jailed and sentenced to imprisonment.

He was allowed to return to politics and became leader of the opposition in 2008. In 2014, he was charged anew with sodomy and sidelined from politics as he was sentenced to another jail term. His wife stepped up in his behalf.

According to news accounts, he was able to assemble a majority in the Parliament by coalescing with other parties and political leaders, some of whom had been his adversaries during his confrontation with Dr. Mahathir.

Jacinda Ardern’s path to being New Zealand’s head of government including losing popular elections by slim margins three times and getting into parliament through the party-list route. Like Anwar, she also learned the ropes by heading several government ministries.

Ardern’s allies and admirers observed that she had borne the brunt of intense criticism and vilification. Her successor as prime minister, Chris Hipkins, who served as her chief implementor of Covid-19 containment measures, said she experienced “utterly abhorrent” abuse while running the country.

When she appeared before reporters beside Hipkins, she was smiling and cheerful, saying she was grateful for the opportunity to lead her country through a critical period. Aside from the Covid pandemic, there was a terrorist attack that killed 42 people in a Christchurch mosque and a disruptive strike by truck drivers and motorists in Wellington that mimicked a separate strike in Canada.

She had skillfully built majority support for her Labor Party by exuding empathy and a warm, engaging demeanor. As she takes a sabbatical from active political life, she could, like Anwar reflect on her experience and derive insights and lessons that could serve her in good stead in other fields of endeavor that she would opt to pursue.

Indeed, there are no permanent friends and foes in the political arena where the players are alternately chastened and battered by the proverbial “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

But, as Anwar’s comeback illustrates there is also a payoff for patience and perseverance that is reaped by those who are sustained by optimism and hope.