Spotlight - Malaysia: December 5, 2023

The first year of Anwar Ibrahim’s government has been a shaky one, pressured by elections in six states and a ferocious pro-Malay opposition. The Pakatan Harapan (PH)-Barisan Nasional (BN) alliance is a mismatch, and its movements are restricted by a lack of political cohesion, incessant politicking, and the coalition’s insecurities toward the growing discontent of the Malay majority and the disenchantment of non-Malay PH supporters.

Despite ambitious announcements and a RM8.9 million spend in billboards and road signs to promote the government agenda “Malaysia Madani” (Civil Malaysia), the country is stuck. Anwar inherited a complex system of (bad) governance, where democratic institutions are too often at the service of populist and electoral agendas. In a recent report, Malaysia’s auditor general highlighted that federal government mismanagement led to a cumulative loss of RM681.71 million in public funds in 2022.

A year after the 2022 election, the uncertain use of public funds and the promotion and funding of community initiatives that never materialize beyond yet another billboard or grandiose public launch are routine. Malaysian governance is embedded in decades of feudal and patriarchal political practices and the end of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) monopoly did not see the rise of a new political culture, but rather the (re)emergence of a blurry democratic vision with softened authoritarian features. Political insecurities have led the government of “hope” to re-fashion tricks in previous governments’ playbooks by silencing detractors, blocking lawmakers’ allowances to pressure opposition MPs to switch allegiances, removing constitutional protections for the most vulnerable (including stateless persons and orphans), and denying LGBTQI+ rights and forcing “rehabilitation.” These anti-democratic maneuvers are hardly hidden behind the smokescreen of populist moves, including Anwar’s dramatic focus on international conflicts (including Gaza), showy diplomatic visits, and fanciful international economic partnerships.

Almost a year after its nomination, Anwar’s cabinet has not seen any changes, and the prime minister continues to hold the finance portfolio. Anwar, once the torchbearer of Southeast Asian democracy, has three more years to address Malaysia’s political, institutional, societal, and economic challenges before jumping into what will likely be a long-winded campaign to remain in power, by the end of 2027 if the government survives a full term. Now more than ever, it is time for the political star of the 1990s to revive the fading colors of the Reformasi era.

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.