Malaysia: The Realities And Challenges Ahead For The Anwar Government – Analysis

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Sixteen months into government, the Anwar Ibrahim administration faces many challenges. Most of these problems are of its own making. UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has been a double edge sword, where much of the government’s woes have been caused through UMNO internal infighting. 

The ‘unity government’ needs to win the Malay heartlands if it is to be guaranteed of returning to government after the next general election. However, nothing Anwar has done has assisted in enlisting the Malay electorate. This has also alienated Pakatan Harapan’s traditional support base, who may become very apathetic towards voting in the next general election. 

The decline of multiculturalism

UMNO youth leader Muhammad Akmal Saleh has exploited the KK Super Mart “Allah” socks issue to the point of inflaming hate and retribution by ultra-Malay groups. Last week, it looked like race relations fell to a dangerous point. Too much more of bickering over such issues could ignite a flashpoint, if incidents got out of control.  

From the perspective of some after the event, the whole episode became a show of how a Chinese business could be bullied by Malay authorities. This comes with a further loss of respect in the government by the non-Malay community. 

The implicit go ahead the Allah sock protesters received has cemented a line of division that will be hard to repair. In addition, the unfairness of the government was highlighted by the contrary approach taken towards opposition politicians. Kedah Menteri Besar Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor was very quickly charged over alleged seditious comments he made during the state election campaign last August.

Likewise, some of the glimpses the public saw of Palestinian Solidarity Week in Malaysian schools reinforces the perception that Malays are being nurtured to “hate”. Many parents are rejecting the government school system, preferring to send their children to Chinese schools. According to the Ministry of Education enrolments of Malay children in Chinese schools has risen from 9.5 percent in 2010 to 15.33 percent in 2020.  

The bottom-line is that multi-culturalism continues to slide under Anwar’s administration.

The economy and cost of living

The economy and cost of living are pressing issues for the government. Anwar as finance minister is continuing the high rate of spending that his predecessors were. There is no Covid-19 emergency anymore.  Consequently, national public debt is reaching RM 1.6 trillion, which is 64 percent of GDP. Without any signs of constraint, either by reducing spending or drastically increasing revenue, there is risk the international ratings agencies may downgrade Malaysia current rating. 

With a general slide in exports over the last year, the economic outlook for 2024 may have to be downgraded. Productive direct foreign investment is required to generate more exports and provide stimulation to domestic economic activity. 

There is a lack of confidence in the Ringgit, which has sunk as low as RM 4.80 to the USD earlier this month. The low Ringgit has become a ‘bellwether’ of public confidence. Any prolonged sinking of the Ringgit will hurt Anwar’s administration, especially when holding the position of finance minister in the cabinet. 

Coupled to the poor performance of the Ringgit is the continued pressure of the cost of living from the rising costs of imported items. This is especially reflected in rising food prices. Anwar’s claims that there is no longer any hardcore poverty in Kuala Lumpur, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan are counterproductive to the quest of seeking greater popularity. Many families are suffering from an erosion of their incomes through inflation and falling salaries. People can see that Anwar’s comments don’t reflect what they are experiencing in the community. 

The two-tier legal system

The ‘unity government’ was very quick to lay corruption and money laundering charges against Bersatu leader and former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, but has failed to act upon corruption going on within its own government. Many criticize the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) for being a revolving door. Many people are interviewed, but they walk out without any charges being laid. 

The discharge not amounting to an acquittal (DNAA) over charges of corruption and money laundering, and the commutation of former prime minister Najib Razak’s prison sentence has given the public the perception that the legal system has become much more biased under the Anwar administration. 

Rightly or wrongly, there is much gossip around that Zahid and Najib’s treatment by the court and Parole Board was the price paid by Anwar for UMNO support to form the ‘unity government’. 

Reforms (or lack of them)

The expectation of reforms has been the cornerstone of non-Malay support for the government. At first Anwar supporters were giving excuses, such as this is not a reform government and give Anwar some time. However, with the Sedition Act being strengthened to look more like Thailand’s draconian Lese-Majeste laws, and proposed citizenship changes to the constitution are disappointing NGOs. Many traditional supporters are becoming even more dissatisfied with the government.

With the new position of the YDPA or king as the honorary Commissioner-in-chief of the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM), there has been a shift in the balance of power towards the monarchy and away from representative democracy. This follows on from the Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) now reporting to the rulers, rather than the minister for religious affairs. 

The question is whether Pakatan Harapan’s non-Malay support base will even bother to turn out and vote next general election. With no viable alternatives to Pakatan, there is a risk many will become apathetic and stay home. 

Censorship

Malaysia has become perhaps the most heavily censored country in the region at present. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) is blocking critics of the government without any recourse. The government last year announced that any discussion of the 3Rs (Race, Religion, and Royalty) are forbidden. Malaysian news portals are in the position of practising self-censorship. This is stifling any criticism of the government. 

The ball is in play now

UMNO is on the offensive now, threatening and destabilizing the government. Turning an administration with a super-majority in parliament into a fragile government. Most of the disrepute around the government has been centred around issues connected to UMNO. Are these antics all coincidental, or is there a bigger scheme behind them? Anwar is bearing the full brunt. 

Anwar has been promoted heavily over the last 16 months, and this is becoming the weakness. The reforms that Pakatan Harapan (and even UMNO) promised before the election, have all been abandoned. 

At a student meeting with Anwar, a participant questioned the quota system, and was told by Anwar “You will suffer more if this country is run by PAS and Bersatu”. However, many voters are beginning to now feel otherwise. 

Instead of being the great reformer some people had taken tear gas for, Anwar is perceived by some as being a true Machiavellian politician, acting primarily in the interests of maintaining power.

The coming byelection for the Kuala Kubu Baharu state seat in Penang should be a safe seat for Pakatan. However, now many will focus upon the byelection as a litmus test of Pakatan popularity. The key is the paradox non-Malays now face. Will they be able to abandon their past support for Pakatan, in favour of putting Hamzah Zainudin in the PM’s chair?

Murray Hunter

Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 30 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, and researcher. As an entrepreneur he was involved in numerous start-ups, developing a lot of patented technology, where one of his enterprises was listed in 1992 as the 5th fastest going company on the BRW/Price Waterhouse Fast100 list in Australia. Murray is now an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, spending a lot of time consulting to Asian governments on community development and village biotechnology, both at the strategic level and “on the ground”. He is also a visiting professor at a number of universities and regular speaker at conferences and workshops in the region. Murray is the author of a number of books, numerous research and conceptual papers in referred journals, and commentator on the issues of entrepreneurship, development, and politics in a number of magazines and online news sites around the world. Murray takes a trans-disciplinary view of issues and events, trying to relate this to the enrichment and empowerment of people in the region.

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