Spotlight - Malaysia: February 16, 2023

Fresh out of the polls, Malaysian prime minister Anwar Ibrahim has made no exception to the rule set by former prime ministers in going after his political opponents after elections. Accusations of corruption against opposition party Bersatu are flying. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency (MACC) has opened an investigation and Bersatu’s party account has been frozen.

The freezing of opposition party accounts is an old trick, one that was used by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) against its opponents in the past and by Pakatan Harapan (PH) in 2018 against UMNO for its links to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. The timing is highly sensitive as Malaysia will hold six state polls in the next few months. Without access to its funds, the opposition will not be able to run its campaign. Opposition leaders have denounced the prime minister’s move, accusing him of disabling them for fear of losing the coming polls.

Other controversies have already emerged in the coalition government. UMNO’s internal opposition forces, labelled as “traitors,” have been purged by party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. This includes the sacking of Khairy Jamaluddin, former health minister and son-in-law of former prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and the suspension of Hishammuddin Hussein, cousin of Najib Razak and son of Hussein Onn, Malaysia’s sixth and third prime ministers, respectively. While Khairy has reinvented himself into a radio host, Hishammuddin remains in a political limbo.

Anwar has also recently announced a cut on development funds allocated to members of parliament (MPs). These funds are used by MPs to alleviate some of the burden felt by their constituents in absence of better state services and support. This decision has been perceived as a politicization of the allocation, echoing previous UMNO governments. The government has yet to table its 2023 budget, which may allow it to finally start governing and hopefully move beyond the democratic mirage.

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.