After 30 years of seeking it, Malaysia’s 75-year-old reformist leader Anwar Ibrahim has finally won the prize that twice saw him jailed on what human rights groups called spurious and ugly charges of corruption and sodomy.
The country’s Agong, or king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, named Anwar prime minister on Thursday at 5 pm, ending five days of political paralysis following national elections in which Malay supremacists and Islamists led by former Prime Minister Muhyiddin fared unexpectedly better than anticipated, taking 72 seats in the 222-member parliament. Although the rural Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia emerged as the biggest single party with 49 seats, Anwar’s reputation as a moderate should quell fears of rising religious fervor.
“His Royal Highness reminds all parties that the winners do not win all and the losers do not lose everything,” a palace statement read. The king called on Anwar and his coalition to be humble, and said all opposing parties should ensure a stable government. There is speculation that the sultans tilted toward Anwar out of a rising concern over the emergence of PAS as a suddenly-potent political force.
Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan coalition led the polls with just 82 seats, far short of the 112 needed to lead the 222-member Dewan Rakyat, or parliament, requiring him to turn to the scandal-ridden Barisan Nasional to reach a majority with a unity government. Reportedly the Malaysian Indian Congress and the Malaysian Chinese Association were the motive forces in the Barisan Nasional, bringing along a reluctant United Malays National Organization into the fold.
The resultant coalition is more attractive to the kampong classes, the rural ethnic Malays who have long been loyal to the now-discarded UMNO because of the taint of corruption and who have long distrusted Anwar out of a belief that Pakatan Harapan was too deferential to the ethnic Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party, which makes up a major part of the coalition.
Malaysia’s fraught racial situation seems to have played its usual role in this election, with a surprising bloc going for Muhyiddin’s nationalist coalition out of a fear of losing privileges that have hampered the country’s economy since the implementation of the New Economic policy, an affirmative action program for an ethnic majority. Ethnic Malays and bumiputeras constitute two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people, with about 20 percent of the population ethnic Chinese and another 8 percent Indians.
“I think they face a challenge for them, but you know, with the MIC and the MCA partnered, it is probably a good thing,” said a longtime political analyst in Kuala Lumpur. “The only concern is UMNO. But there is plenty of value about UMNO, they knew how to run the country. It’s a moderate party, except they learned to steal from the treasury.”
The new government faces daunting challenges, not only from the macro side, with the country still emerging from the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis, and with inflation running at 4.5 percent in September, with food inflation increasing at 6.8 percent, down slightly from 7.2 percent in August. Unemployment is a nagging problem, with youth unemployment hitting 11 percent in the first quarter of the year. The currency slumped from MYR229.35 to the US dollar on January 1 to MYR210.26 before recovering sharply in the wake of the election. The stock market leapt to its biggest gains in two years on the king’s announcement that Anwar had been named premier in the interest of stability.
Beyond the macro problems, the country requires a long-overdue complete revamp of its education system, which has been allowed to slide badly because of Malay privilege. English language instruction, once among the best in Southeast Asia, has been allowed to slide because of Malay nationalism. Ethnic Malays are routinely allowed to pass despite not doing adequate work. The country’s best tertiary institution, University of Malaya, ranks no better than 350th in the world and Universiti Technologi Petronas, the second, ranks between 400 and 500. Reportedly, Rafizi Ramli, Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s secretary general and the architect, with Anwar, of the victory, such as it is, is tipped to be education minister.
The bigger problems are structural, with a civil service that in Pakatan Harapan’s previous incarnation from 2018 to 2021 was unenthusiastic at best and out to sabotage the coalition in Umno’s favor at worst, and with a glut of badly performing government-linked companies headed by political cronies hamstringing the economy. With UMNO in the fold, it remains to be seen if the cronies can be cleaned out and the GLCs’ contracts allowed to lapse so that corruption which has slowed production and hampered the economy can be cleaned out.
One of the biggest questions, and one that played a major role in the campaign, is that of the continuing prosecutions of former Prime Minister Najib Razak, now in prison for 12 years on charges of looting a company connected to the collapsed 1Malaysia Development Bhd, which left behind US$5.4 billion in stolen and misused funds and saddled the treasury with billions of indebtedness. Najib faces additional charges connected to the looting of 1MDB itself, and his ally Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the UMNO president, faces dozens of charges involving a charity he set up and allegedly looted.
The election very much revolved around the possibility the two would escape prosecution if the Barisan won. The election was called in the middle of the monsoon season in the hope it would reduce turnout and allow the Barisan’s superior organizational prowess to deliver a win. That didn’t happen. The question is whether, with UMNO in the unity government’s fold, the party would scheme to get them off.
But, said a knowledgeable source, that isn’t going to happen. The negotiations over the establishment of the unity government didn’t feature any mention of the two, largely because the MIC and the MCA played a major role in the negotiations.
Arguably Harapan’s most important task is the one it failed at during its previous 22-month stint after a landslide victory in the 2018 election that ended 60 years of Barisan dominance. That is to prove to the electorate that it can govern efficiently and effectively. Too often, according to business sources, the reformist Harapan government bureaucrats were arrogant and refused to listen to businessmen and other figures outside government trying to advise them. The bloated GLCs remained and continued to hamper the economy when the UMNO-led coalition finally came back to power earlier this year.
The Harapan government at that time was also led by Mathahir Mohamad, the now-98-year-old autocrat who ruled as the fourth and seventh premier, serving from July 1981 to October 2003 and later from May 2018 to March 2020. Mahathir came aboard in 2018 on a promise to stand down within two years in favor of Anwar, a promise he apparently had no intention of keeping. He is widely reported to have stood in the way of many of the reforms the Harapan coalition planned.
In the end, Mahathir was believed to have been heavily involved with Muhyiddin and others, particularly Azmin Ali, the PKR chief minister of Selangor, ostensibly an Anwar ally, in launching what became known as the Sheraton Putsch in March 2020, an audacious plan to bring down the Pakatan Harapan government and install in its place a so-called ketuanan Melayu regime, a coalition of ethnic Malay superiority parties to run the country.
At the last minute, Mahathir backed out and resigned as prime minister, kicking off two years of intense political infighting that played a role in crippling the country’s economy as politicians jockeyed for power during the Covid crisis. Mahathir and Azmin were both defeated in the recent polls, ostensibly bringing an end to the career of one of Southeast Asia’s final strongmen.
“I think we have a chance this time,” a longtime business source said. “The component parties help, they will check Anwar, they will check the Barisan. The only worry is ‘don’t be exuberant. Be moderate.’ Basically, we have a chance this time. But 100 percent, I’m not sure. Anwar is not the best character, but it will work.”