Is This Asia's Chris Christie's Moment?

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Malaysia's Anwar Ibrahim probably never expected to share this rare indignity with Paris Hilton: being unceremoniously turned away at the airport inTokyo.

A past cocaine conviction prompted Japanese authorities to bar the slinky blonde scion of the Hilton hotel dynasty in September 2010. Immigration officials here have the right to restrict entry for convicted felons, particularly those involved in drug cases -- something a few international soccer stars also learned the hard way in 2002, when Japan hosted the World Cup.

But Anwar's rejection at Narita International Airport early Sunday morning surprised many -- particularly the Malaysian opposition leader. He'd been to Japan on at least three separate occasions since a trumped-up 1999 sodomy case (later overturned) and corruption charges landed him in jail and derailed his prime-ministerial ambitions.

So is this Asia'sChris Christie moment, when an act of petty political retribution has bigger consequences? Anwar was quick to accuse Malaysian authorities of influencing the Japanese decision. The embarrassing experience, he said, "leaves me with the impression that hidden hands may be at work here."

Malaysian media speculate that those hands could belong to Foreign Minister Anifah Aman. Anifah's boss Prime Minister Najib Razak, these local reports suggest, feels so insecure in his position that he's looking for any excuse to undercut the opposition leader. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is looking for allies against China anywhere he can find them. Perhaps someday, the Jersey-esque emails will surface:

Najib staffer: "Time for some immigration problems in Narita."

Abe staffer: "Got it."

Of course, if any of this were true, it would represent a shocking abuse of power. And you have to ask why Paul McCartney, busted for drugs in Japan in 1980, can get into Tokyo and Anwar can't. Or perhaps this is simply a Paris Hilton moment, when Anwar's past catches up with him. Even the latter scenario has broader implications for his status as Malaysia's most dogged political fighter.

I'm a longtime Anwar fan and met him for the first time in Washington, D.C. in September 1995. But it's time for him to step aside and pass the mantle to someone else if he ever hopes to unseat the ruling United Malays National Organization. Anwar has always claimed that his sodomy conviction was ginned up by political enemies, perhaps including Mahathir Mohamad, who was prime minister when Anwar was arrested.

Unfair as it sounds, Anwar's time has passed. In 1998, as Mahathir's deputy and finance minister, he shocked the Kuala Lumpur establishment by breaking away and trying to replace his boss. Soon afterward, the Anwar-sleeps-with-men whisper campaign became a sordid international spectacle. Television images of a mattress supposedly stained with Anwar's semen carried into court were transmitted around the globe. In 2008, when Anwar was unsuccessfully tried again, the talk in Asia was about "CSI Malaysia" -- real-life crime scene investigations featuring sex, DNA samples, cover-ups and a tabloid-ready cast of characters.

I worry that Anwar has too much baggage at this point to win the top job. UMNO is the world's longest continuously ruling party and it feels embattled. In an effort to circle the wagons, the party has expanded race-based economic policies that favor ethic-majority Malays, engaged in aggressive gerrymandering in rural areas, shut down news operations that investigate graft (or write about allegedly fancy trips that Najib's wife takes), and played the God card by trying to limit the use of "Allah" to Muslims.

UMNO is determined to stay in power at any cost. Up against such huge odds, Anwar did a remarkable job chipping away at the ruling party's stranglehold, coming closer than ever in last May's elections. But the opposition People's Justice Party must be about more than giving Anwar his due. It must devise clear differences from UMNO -- 180-degree turns, in some cases, such as ending the affirmative-action policies that marginalize ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities and turn off foreign executives.

As long as Anwar remains in charge, though, the party's platform will continue to be based more on emotion and revenge than ideas. It's time for him to pass the torch to someone else: His 33-year daughter, parliament member Nurul Izzah, is often mentioned. True, her dad is only 66, but it isn't the years, it's the mileage that's the issue. As long as Malaysia's opposition remains an Anwar vendetta, it will have no more luck breaking through than he had at Narita airport.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Willie Pesek at wpesek@bloomberg.net