Spotlight - Malaysia: May 21, 2024

Anwar Ibrahim’s government feels emboldened by its win in the Kuala Kubu Baharu byelection on May 11. Pakatan Harapan (PH), the leading coalition in the government, and Perikatan Nasional (PN), the opposition coalition, saw only marginal percentage increases in vote share. Only 24,745 voters went to polls, representing a 61 percent voter turnout. The campaign was uneventful and carried the usual allegations of electoral manipulation, including the use of government resources by the ruling coalition’s campaign and promises of constituency funding made by housing and local government minister Nga Kor Ming. Moreover, this byelection was essentially a repeat of the Selangor state elections held in August 2023, with the same political forces present, the same coalitions, and yet a different political context as we are now 18 months in to the Anwar government’s term.

The Anwar government’s victory in the byelection shows a status quo in the potential of both PH and PN coalitions. In a dire economic context, support is no longer shifting but government popularity has not recovered since its plunge last November, when a survey by the Merdeka Center found that 43 percent of respondents expressed dissatisfaction regarding the government’s handling of the economy. This week, a UNICEF report titled “Living on the Edge” found that children in low-cost housing in Kuala Lumpur eat less than three times a day, despite the prime minister’s claims that hardcore poverty has been eradicated in the capital city. As a response, the minister of economy announced that the government will look into UNICEF’s proposal of a minimum wage at RM 2,102 per month. The recent announcement of an historic 13 percent raise in civil servant wages has sparked further criticism from the public and has raised anxieties among Malaysians that government expenditures are not targeting the right segments of society. The Malaysian civil service is also under fire from critics for its lack of efficiency and systemic corruption.

Meanwhile, U.S. pressure continues to mount on Anwar for his support of Hamas and Iran. The U.S. Treasury Department sent a delegation to Malaysia to investigate recent allegations regarding the transshipment of Iranian oil in Malaysian waters, allegations that Anwar has denied

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.