Spotlight - Malaysia: March 24, 2023

Anwar Ibrahim became the tenth prime minister of Malaysia in November 2022. His popularity is at an all-time high with an approval rating of 68 percent, according to a recent poll by the Merdeka Center. This number at best nuances or at worst contradicts the November general election results and the 82 seats won by Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH), well short of the 112 seats needed to form a non-coalition majority. Anwar has yet to show the true colors of his government agenda, rebranded as Malaysia Madani. Meanwhile, the leader has his hands full with political controversies, including favoritism toward his coalition allies in the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and investigations against opposition party leaders just a few months away from major state elections. Anwar’s first 100 days in the premiership and the direction the leader is taking are cause for concern. Will Anwar live up to his (many) promises for democracy and freedom?

Anwar’s victory came with heavy compromises. The alliance between Anwar and UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was a surprise to many international observers; however, the friendship of the two leaders has always been an open secret. Both were leading figures of the Islamist organization ABIM in the 1980s. Zahid, now deputy prime minister, currently faces several accounts of abuse of power and corruption, and is barred from leaving the country by court decision despite his recent appeal. Zahid successfully managed to keep his position as UMNO party president by passing a motion of no-contest during recent party elections. While the motion contradicted Malaysian law, the Home Ministry’s use of its discretionary powers to mitigate difficulties for its newfound allies in UMNO’s leadership was criticized by Malaysia’s election watchdog Bersih.

Accusations of nepotism in the Anwar camp have been reinforced by the announcement of the nomination of his eldest daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar as special adviser to the minister of finance—a portfolio that Anwar himself holds alongside the premiership. The decision to appoint Nurul Izzah was made in early January and made public three weeks later. As a way to calm critics and dispel accusations of nepotism, Anwar declared that like him, Nurul Izzah would not take a salary. However, public backlash eventually resulted in Nurul Izzah stepping down as special advisor and pushed father-daughter collaboration toward another format. Other appointments of individuals in Anwar’s close circles have been highly criticized, including the appointment of his former political secretary as chairperson for one of the largest Malaysian conglomerates and the appointment of several UMNO leaders to top positions in government-linked companies.

Investigations against the opposition continue as former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin has been charged with money laundering, alongside several other leaders of his party. Daim Zainuddin, formerly minister of finance from 1984 to 1991 under the Mahathir Mohamad government, is also being investigated on a separate set of accusations. Daim was reappointed minister of finance in 1998 following the dismissal of Anwar by Mahathir; the relationship between Daim and Anwar has been sour for decades.

Finally, former law minister and UMNO leader Nazri Aziz has called for Mahathir to be investigated under Malaysia’s Sedition Act for having attempted to organize a political demonstration against the government. The demonstration twice failed to obtain a permit and had to be canceled. Ironically, Mahathir—who recently joined a new political entity after having announced his final retirement last November after his party failed to secure any seats during the general election—has characterized Anwar’s rule as a dictatorship. Former premier Najib Razak, currently serving a 12-year sentence for abuse of power, defended Anwar on social media against Mahathir’s criticism, nicknaming the latter “Mr. ISA” in reference to the now-repealed and draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) that allowed for unlimited detention without trial and was used by Mahathir during Operation Lalang in 1987 and against the Reformasi movement in 1998. Current prime minister Anwar Ibrahim and deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi were among the detainees arrested in 1998. Political theater, plots, and drama seem to be the most defining characteristics of Anwar’s Madani, while democratic governance remains a 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.