Malaysia on the Edge of Democracy: Will Anwar’s Government Step Forward?
In November 2022, Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the democratic movement Reformasi, finally became prime minister of Malaysia. At 75, Anwar spent 8 years of a 20-year struggle in prison for “sexual offenses”—accusations he claimed to be politically motivated. His party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat, is the only multiracial formation in a highly racialized landscape where all parties are religion- and race- based. Considering the context of the global threats against democratic systems, and the country’s past hijacking of democratic institutions by autocratic political agendas, the Anwar government’s “Malaysia Madani,” or “Civil Malaysia,” seemed timely. However, the political slogan remains misunderstood by many and has failed to gain traction with the Malay masses, who are exhausted by years of economic distress and slow economic growth. While Malaysia has long been waiting to finally achieve its democratic transition, Anwar embodies the hopes of an entire generation of activists. Will his vision finally move Malaysia beyond its illiberal path?
Building on its success in 2018, Pakatan Harapan (PH), Anwar’s coalition, campaigned on its reform agenda and renewed its intention to fight against corruption. However, in his rise to power, Anwar made a seemingly impossible compromise by allying with his former enemies in the scandal-ridden former ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which cast a shadow on the legitimacy of his reform agenda. UMNO’s electoral loss in 2018 landed its president and former prime minister Najib Razak in Kajang Prison in August 2022, where he now serves a 12-year jail sentence for abuse of power and corruption.
The 1MDB case and the lesser-known SCR case, implicated not only top Malaysian leaders but also Hollywood stars and Wall Street financiers. The 1MDB case was a sophisticated and flagrant embezzlement operation centered around Malaysian financier Jho Low, who is likely currently in hiding in China. The case and its international implications had tremendous impact on Malaysian politics. It generated a general feeling of distrust in state institutions and opened a rift between UMNO and its traditional supporters in the Malay majority. Since then, the political landscape has shifted, allowing the emergence of new players like opposition party Bersatu and paving the way for new alliances. The Malay majority is now split between Bersatu, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), and UMNO. Anwar’s now faces a challenge in maintaining his government’s legitimacy, despite the fact that PH supporters are not from the Malay majority; this is where PH’s alliance with UMNO, and even a relatively weaker UMNO than before, is key.
In this complex landscape, and for its own survival, Anwar appointed his longtime friend and Najib’s party successor, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, as deputy prime minister in November last year. This decision elicited controversy, as Zahid was then facing 47 separate charges of criminal breach of trust, corruption, and money laundering related to the embezzlement of $27 million from a charity he funded to fight against poverty. Last week, however, Zahid was cleared of all charges.
Anwar’s alliance with UMNO in the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition represents a Cornelian dilemma that is perceived by his supporters and the international community as the lesser of two evils: the return to power of UMNO in Anwar’s coalition blocked the ascension of another powerful Malay coalition—Perikatan Nasional (PN)—that includes Bersatu and PAS. Others believe that Anwar’s alliance with UMNO has atomized the Reformasi agenda, and that the political maneuver has led to the country’s stagnation.
In a context of constant threats, Anwar is in a precarious position, and democratic reforms have taken a back seat. Between UMNO and a ferocious opposition, a thin majority in parliament, and growing discontent and fear within the Malay majority constituency, Anwar has become a circus acrobat. His fruitless attempts to please the Malay crowds coupled with his efforts to maintain influence within his own circles have led the prime minister down a path of populism and confusion, sparking criticism from both external civil society organizations and within his own ranks.
Malaysia’s elections watchdog Bersih and the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs exposed the many political appointments made from within Anwar’s circle of supporters to manage government-owned companies or to occupy top positions in business conglomerates owned by his campaign funders. Human rights organizations warned against Anwar’s contradictory positions towards LGBTQ+ rights and exposed the Ministry of Home Affairs’ intentions to amend the constitution by removing provisions that protect children against statelessness.
Malaysia’s August 6 state elections confirmed the slim government majority and maintained the existing status quo. The northern states of Kedah, Terengganu, and Kelantan remain in the opposition, while the ruling coalition managed to keep Penang, Negeri Sembilan, and Selangor, though not without losing a few seats. During the campaign, the opposition maintained its strategy of attacking the government on the weakness of its economic policies in racially framed rhetoric. For PN, Malays are economically disadvantaged in spite of decades of economic policies favoring the Malay majority.
Despite several electoral losses, the government maintained its majority and should finally be able to implement its agenda. Looming elections and the need for Anwar to gather Malay conservative votes (in vain) can no longer be used as an excuse to avoid any big political decisions that could antagonize the conservative Malay majority.
During the state elections, cracks started to show in the ruling coalition, with MUDA youth party leader Syed Saddiq deciding that his party would go solo in the polls as a sign of protest against the government’s “false promises.” This move was criticized by PH component parties, especially the Malaysian Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP), which recently has focused on attempts to smooth its relationship with longtime foe UMNO. Though the rival parties are now sharing power, their respective members seem unwilling to revise their decades-old narratives of right-wing chauvinistic racial rhetoric. An alliance of convenience for power is not sufficient to change the hateful language set in stone of both parties.
The danger remains in the ruling party’s strategy to compete with PN’s influence on the Malay majority. Anwar and Keadilan Malay MPs are upping their conservative game. Recent moves—including photo ops of Anwar assisting the conversion to Islam of a Hindu man, recent complaints by the Keadilan wing in Kelantan regarding the lack of separation of men and women at concerts, and an uptick in media censorship—are not only seen as absurd by Keadilan’s traditional supporters, but are also worrying for a party that claims to have an inclusive and democratic agenda. Meanwhile, PN is attempting to temper its extremist discourse by focusing on corruption, the economy, and the contradictions of Anwar’s government.
In this endless political game, hopes for democratic reforms are fading away as the political lines between old friends and new enemies are blurring further. The government’s current policies are the perfect image of the Malaysia Madani concept: they translate poorly both on the ground and in the people’s imagination, and for the past few months have been evasive at best—and condescending at worst. Anwar’s government needs urgently to muscle up its political communication and strategy, implement fundamental reforms, regain legitimacy among Malays while avoiding the caveat of populism, and reconnect with its supports within civil society. Rather than falling deeper into UMNO’s political cracks, Anwar needs to step up to retake ownership and revamp the Reformasi that Malaysians have been voting for.
Sophie Lemière is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.