COMMENT Is Anwar Ibrahim an irresponsible rider of the zeitgeist, or is he a leader who has a feel for the law of unintended consequences and has manned himself nobly to face the formidable challenges of the path of bold reform he elected upon 14 years ago that is now poised for execution?

In other words, is he an opportunist thumping the tub with minimal concern for consequences, or is he a visionary leader with a matchless ability to convey high flown speculation in the accents of the street, a place now reverberating with the democratic spirit of the times leveraging on which would afford him the spotlight-grabbing presence of a global leader?

In sum, is he charlatan or statesman?

NONETo be sure, the double-sidedness of this question that dogs Anwar has been the common lot of many a pivotal politician in eras past, with allies and adversaries, contemporaries and successors, journalists and historians, puzzled by what they see as enigmatic, contradictory, and even, hypocritical, strains to their character.

Today, by accepting the invitation to be the fifth speaker in the series called Royal Selangor Club Presidential Luncheon Talks, Anwar has chosen to saunter into a situation where he may well be subjected to sharp and unceremonious questioning from a sellout crowd on the penumbras to his political personality.

The 350 seats to the luncheon were taken up within three days of the posters publicising the event going up at the prestigious club.

In contrast, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, the first invitee to the series that begun last January, had 184 takers; Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, the second invitee, had 148 takers; Musa Hitam, the third speaker, had 190; and Lim Guan Eng, the fifth, drew 275 diners.

Lim's draw was the most creditable of the series until Anwar's because dining rates for his talk were raised from RM50 for club members and RM70 for guests to RM80 and RM100 respectively - a marked increase that, apparently, did not have a diminishing effect on attendance.

The raised rates have been retained for Anwar's talk which at its draw of 350 diners is a smash because he had asked for a Sept 6 date, but was told by the club that they needed more time to publicise the event.

In the event, the club did not need the extra time to herald the talk. It could have been held at Anwar's requested early date. Seats were sold out within 72 hours of the posters going up - and that was in the first week of September.

Tough questions expected

However, a brimming house is no guarantee of likeability for what the speaker is going to say and there could be a number of pesky questioners eager to have a go at Anwar who ought not to avail himself of the protection the talk's moderator offered Najib when he faced a question about his willingness to accept the results of the 13th general election.

The moderator interposed in the question-and-answer session to absolve Najib of the need to reply although the question was perfectly in order because it was on a subject that speaker had threaded in his postprandial remarks.

The protocol on these occasions is that invited speakers should not be asked questions on matters they had not raised in their speech.

lingam tape inquiry day 4 170108 mahathirOf course, nobody would expect Anwar to affect the Dr Mahathir Mohamad stance that the latter made famous at the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Lingam video controversy in January 2008.

That General Custer-like stand saw Mahathir claim that he was prepared to answer any questions within or outside the terms of reference of the inquiry, a typically pre-emptive position taken by the former prime minister to rock circling detractors back on their heels.

But that bombast fell flat when Mahathir trotted out the excuse of a not sufficiently retentive memory at the inquiry when he was pegged on lacunae in his conduct and that of his aides.

Anwar, an exponent of transparency and accountability in government, cannot rely on comparable subterfuge for his salvation before an audience that is likely to temper admiration with a healthy dose of skepticism.

The reference here to Mahathir is not without relevance, for it was at the Royal Selangor Club where Mahathir was first introduced to Anwar in 1971.

It remains to be seen if Anwar would make that first encounter the subject of his talk today; it is a fit subject for dilation.

First impressions can be deceptive or they can be spot-on for a lifetime.

By dwelling at length on his first impressions on Mahathir, Anwar can show what has learned over four intervening decades on the nature of fleeting and immediate impressions.

That way he would tell a lot on the moral thrust and empirical substance of his perceptual and analytical ability, which is important because Anwar would, if it comes to that, be Malaysia's first PM of an avowedly intellectual bent.

TERENCE NETTO has been a journalist for close on four decades. He likes the occupation because it puts him in contact with the eminent without being under the necessity to admire them. It is the ideal occupation for a temperament that finds power fascinating and its exercise abhorrent.