Anwar Proves Naysayers Wrong, Emerges Stronger After 1 Year As Malaysian PM – Analysis


By Iman Muttaqin Yusof

A year after he took office as Malaysia’s prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim has solidified his power in Parliament and drawn in once-lagging foreign investment, leaving observers to believe that he may last his full term.

Now, this seasoned Malaysian politician needs to use the parliamentary support he’s gained to push through his reform agenda and work towards economically lifting up all citizens in this multi-racial country, while dialing back rhetoric and measures to appease religious conservatives and ethnic majority Malays, analysts said.

Being able to last a whole year in with a coalition government made up of disparate groups is a significant achievement, said James Chin, an Asian Studies professor at the University of Tasmania.

“Anwar has [in his coalition] partners from UMNO, and parties all the way from the Borneo states, Sabah and Sarawak. So, it was not easy to put together a government and make sure it survives for a year,” he told BenarNews.

Chin was referring to the federal coalition government that comprises Anwar’s own racially and religiously diverse Pakatan Harapan coalition, United Malays National Organization – the grand old party that ruled Malaysia continuously for more than 60 years – and state-based political coalitions.

Malaysia has seen years of political instability since the historic 2018 election swept Prime Minister Najib Razak and UMNO from power. Before the November 2022 general election, the Southeast Asian nation of around 34 million people, had seen a revolving door of leaders, with three prime ministers in as many years, from February 2020 until October 2022.

After the Nov. 19, 2022 polls, no single party or bloc had secured a majority of parliamentary seats, although Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan alliance won the most. The king broke the impasse by deciding to appoint Anwar prime minister after he secured the support from his party’s arch-rival, the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional coalition, a party tainted by allegations of deep corruption, and the regional blocs.

Anwar was sworn in on Nov. 24, 2022, with the support of 147 lawmakers in the 222-seat house, which was equivalent to a two-thirds majority.

A month shy of his first year in office, parliamentary support for Anwar crossed the two-third majority mark, when four parliamentarians from the opposition Perikatan Nasional coalition, specifically, the Bersatu party, pledged they would back his government.

The pledges from these four MPs meant that they would support all government policies and initiatives, and, they said, their backing would last until the next general election.

Political analyst Mazlan Ali, of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, said with the four additional seats, Anwar is stronger.

“It has bolstered Anwar’s backing in the lower house to 151 lawmakers,” he told BenarNews.

Mazlan predicted more MPs from Bersatu would switch support to Anwar, further weakening Perikatan Nasional, the opposition bloc led by ex-PM Muhyiddin Yassin.

The analyst believes more MPs may shift their allegiance because, he said, they have lost confidence in their leadership, see the gains that political stability will bring and may also have come to believe in Anwar’s reform agenda.

There has also been disappointment, Mazlan said, that the opposition refused to accept the government’s offer to cooperate so the country could come out stronger after the battering its economy took during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The four MPs who switched their support said as much.

“There were rumors that my party [Bersatu] will take over the government. Every month someone would say there would be a move similar to the Sheraton Move … but it had been almost a year and nothing happened while my people in Labuan [constituency] were suffering,” one of the Bersatu lawmakers, Labuan MP Suhaili Abdul Rahman, told BenarNews.

The Sheraton Move he referred to was a political plot – reportedly hatched at a Sheraton hotel – that led to the fall of the country’s only non-UMNO government, which was the 2018 election winner Pakatan Harapan.

“It is the monsoon season and roofs are flying off. [My constituents] keep complaining, and we need federal allocation for repairs,” Suhaili said.

“People voted for me to help them improve their lives. I have to look for ways to help them.”

Suhaili wanted access to federal development funds.

To access these funds, lawmakers have to formally request it. And an MP seen as friendly to the government has an easier time getting funds quickly, especially during emergencies like floods and other natural disasters, while opposition lawmakers have to jump through hoops to access federal money.

Bersatu alleged that the four lawmakers were bribed by members connected to the Anwar administration, a claim the government hotly denied.

A year of achievements

In just 365 days, Anwar’s government has also made good on implementing reforms that previous administrations had dilly-dallied on for years. His government abolished the mandatory death penalty, decriminalized attempted suicide and has made firmer commitments to alleviate climate change.

Ariff Hussaini, a 28-year-old voter from Selangor state, is impressed.

“He is a long-needed beacon of hope for Malaysia to turn things around and reclaim our competitive edge on the global stage,” Ariff told BenarNews.

“It’s refreshing to see such a hardworking PM to put Malaysia back on the right track,” he said, when he was asked for his assessment of Anwar’s performance so far.

The World Bank, too, may believe things are looking up for Malaysia after years of instability.

Kishore Mahbubani, a distinguished fellow from the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, noted that growth estimates for Malaysia for this year and the next from the global financial institution made it “one of the strongest economies in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).”

“Anwar has also recently announced some ambitious reforms, including new progressive taxes and subsidy cuts to target the poor more effectively. This is a vast improvement from UMNO’s corrupt rule,” Mahbubani wrote Nov. 2 on Project Syndicate, a website that carries expert commentaries.

The World Bank projected Malaysia would grow 3.9% this year and 4.3% next year.

Azmi Hassan, a Malaysia politics analyst, said those projections reflected the country’s seeming political stability.

“Previous prime ministers faced internal turmoil, affecting governance and investor confidence. Anwar Ibrahim’s global recognition, passionate communication, and confident leadership make him an effective salesman for Malaysia,” Azmi, a senior fellow at the Nusantara Academy for Strategic Research, told BenarNews.

“His articulate discussions with CEOs, such as in San Francisco recently, showcase his capability to attract foreign direct investment. With figures like [Tesla founder] Elon Musk, Anwar achieves FDI by projecting Malaysia as stable under his leadership,” he said, referring to the maker of electric vehicles.

Tesla this year established its Southeast Asian headquarters in Malaysia’s Selangor state, complete with a service hub and experience center. 

As business publication Fortune wrote in August: “Malaysia has achieved what many of its peers have failed to do: successfully enticing Elon Musk’s Tesla to establish a presence in the country.”

Malay malaise

But despite these successes, Anwar has not been able to raise his popularity among the majority ethnic Malays, who comprise 70% of the population, and distrust his party and multireligious and multiethnic coalition based on the perception that they don’t look out for Malay-Muslim interests.

Anwar’s approval rating among ethnic Malays was at 24%, according to a July survey by pollster Ilham Center in six Malay-majority states. The opposition Perikatan bloc secured a landslide win in August polls in three of these states, thanks to its component Islamist party PAS which, critics said, amplified religious rhetoric in its campaign.

Perikatan chairman Muhyiddin said the results were “a clear indication that the people wanted change.”

While the results did not impact the federal government, analysts noted that Anwar needed to raise up the economically weaker Malay majority for broader support.

Results of a survey released Wednesday, two days before Anwar’s one-year anniversary as PM, showed that his popularity was at its lowest in October compared with when he was elected.

His ratings fell mainly over economic concerns, especially among the Malays and the Indian community, said the poll by the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, which surveyed 1,220 respondents from Oct. 4 to Oct. 24.

Syaza Shukri, of the International Islamic University of Malaysia, said it was imperative for Anwar to increase support among Malays.

“Otherwise the opposition will continue to play up the narrative that this government lacks legitimacy because they lack the support of the majority race,” Syaza told BenarNews.

But observers also caution that the way to garner Malay Muslim support is not through religious appeasement – as some have accused Anwar of doing – although the leader had railed against such policies during his election campaign.

Critics note that he has expanded the role of the federal agency overseeing Islamic affairs, supported restrictions on non-Muslims using the term “Allah” for God, cracked down on literature perceived as provocative, banned LGBTQ-themed watches and publicly opposed gay rights.

‘Pandering to religious conservatives’

The prime minister’s initial commitment to moderation seems to have been sacrificed at the altar of vote gathering, critics say.

Bridget Welsh, of the University of Nottingham Malaysia, said Anwar’s recent unwavering support for the Palestinian group Hamas – after its attack on Israel on Oct. 7 killed 1,400 people – was one such example. 

“Anwar’s position on Hamas appears to be pandering to religious conservatives, shows a lack of nuance in foreign policy,” she told BenarNews.

Anwar’s call for a ceasefire by Israel in its occupied territory of Gaza is one shared by many people in the world, though, as the relentless aerial and ground strikes have killed more than 13,000 Palestinians, wrecked hospitals and crippled civic infrastructure, plunging the enclave into a dire humanitarian crisis, according to U.N. officials.

Welsh also said there were serious concerns that Anwar had broken promises to review and cancel laws that curb free speech and stifle dissent. Instead, critics have noted that he was using some of the same laws to curtail criticism of his administration or appease conservative elements, they said.

But now that he has solidified his position, some are optimistic Anwar will make good on his promises.

“The government has more legitimacy now,” said Syaza Shukri of the International Islamic University of Malaysia.

“It would make it easier for it to pass bills in the Parliament.”

Minderjeet Kaur in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.


BenarNews’ mission is to provide readers with accurate news and information that reflects the complex and ever-changing world around them. With homepages in Bengali, Thai, Bahasa Malaysia, Bahasa Indonesia and English, BenarNews brings timely news to its diverse audience. Copyright BenarNews. Used with the permission of BenarNews

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