There are two dominant politicians in Malaysia. One is Prime Minister Najib Razak, the other is opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
Not long ago they were bosom buddies. Now they trade in vitriol and try to bring each other down.
Their relationship recalls the famous advice that Roman Emperor Septimus Severus gave his two sons, Caracalla and Geta.
Lying on his deathbed, he told them: “Live harmoniously together, look after the troops, and ignore everyone else.”
It worked for a short time, then they squabbled and within a year Caracalla had killed Geta and grabbed the imperial throne for himself.
So it has been with Anwar and Najib.
In 1993, when Anwar ran for the deputy presidency of the dominant United Malays National Organisation, Najib joined him and they formed a Team Wawasan, or Dream Team.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was unhappy about this, but Anwar forged ahead and his Dream Team swept the polls and formed the rump of a future Anwar cabinet.
But Mahathir’s qualms proved valid when, in response to the 1997 financial crisis, Anwar mounted a power play against the PM and tried to take over the top job.
It was a blunder, for Dr M was too smart and too ruthless, and needing to decisively eliminate his uppity deputy, the PM brought sodomy charges against Anwar.
It matters not that the charges were probably true, what matters is that Anwar was jailed and politically nullified for several years.
His former Dream Team buddy, Najib, exploited the vacuum and rose to become deputy PM in 2004, and five years later, took over as PM.
Anwar, however, was not finished. When his sodomy conviction was quashed on appeal, he was released and became a potent opposition leader relentlessly tearing into Najib.
But his capacity to do this was soon curbed when new sodomy charges were brought against him in a case that continues to this day.
Meantime, Najib launched a “progressive package of social and political reforms” to show that he is a far more visionary leader than Anwar, or even Mahathir, could ever claim to be.
Central to this reformist agenda, Najib wants to initiate a global movement of religious moderates “to drown out the extremists”.
As he explained earlier this month: “On one side are the handful of misguided
Muslims acting under the false assumption that their faith justifies conflict and violence.
“On the other are those who allow themselves to believe that all terrorists are Muslims.”
Najib rightly bemoaned that for too long, the world’s moderate majority has capitulated to the extremist minority.
He said that not only must moderate Muslims speak up, but also “moderate Christians, moderate Hindus, moderate Jews and even moderate atheists”.
With this in mind, Najib said he aims to chart “a moderate course for Malaysia, steering us away from the dangerous extreme – social, political and economic, that could cause the nation lasting damage.”
It is a noble goal, but it faces strong opposition, not so much from Anwar’s hobbled forces, but from within Najib’s own party.
There are groups of extreme UMNO chauvinists who bristle at the PM’s plans to reduce the special privileges Malays enjoy over their Chinese and Indian compatriots.
One such group called Perkasa is led by Anwar’s former firebrand colleague, Ibrahim Ali, a motor-mouth racist who epitomises the extremism Najib rails against.
Yet ironically, the Perkasa brigades may help the PM, for he knows that educated Malays are turned off by their fiery words, and they are starting to feel the same way about the sodomy-tainted Anwar.
So Najib may win on both fronts, and many who have never been strong fans are warming to his apparently genuine attempts to reform the hide-bound Malay polity.
Indeed, the current buzz in Kuala Lumpur is that Najib may win back many of the opposition-held seats in the coming election and see his stature rise to Mahathir-like levels.