Anwar Ibrahim’s Crack at Power in Malaysia


Photo source: Lowly Institute

By Naveed Qazi, Globe Upfront

The new prime minister of Malaysia has been touted by some sections of the Malaysian and Western press as having the potential to usher Malaysia into a new direction. They believe that his election also gives a crucial chance for the nation to heal the social and political fabric, but the reality is that most of the notable leaders in Malaysia have not been clean slates. Even long-time serving prime minister, Najib Razak was indicted in 2022 for a twelve-year prison sentence for abuse of power, and money laundering related to 1MDB state fund. A US attorney general once described the embezzlement of billions of dollars from 1MDB as ‘kleptocracy at its worst.’

Starting as a fiery student activist, and then becoming an establishment insider, Anwar was the man who took the country out of the Asian financial crises. He was perceived as a national leader since 1997 but was sacked by his nemesis turned mentor, Mahathir Mohammed a year later, for committing sodomy and corruptness, which he rebuffed as a political conspiracy. Ei Sun Oh from Singapore’s Institute of International Affairs compares his political struggle with that of Nelson Mandela. Even Amnesty International called Anwar a ‘prisoner of conscience.’

After the conviction was overturned, he returned to politics in 2004, as an opposition leader. But, his future ambitions were dented by the second sentence for sodomy in 2015. After that, he ran from prison, in the 2018 election, re-joining Mahathir in a victorious new coalition. Eventually, a royal pardon let him resume political life after a nail-biting wait.

From 1998 and 2018, Anwar’s popularity saw a steady decline, and the resurgent Umno, his ex-political party led by Razak, largely benefited from this. To some extent, it does speak of political survival but his moral compass also speaks of certain notoriety.

To up his local sentiment among the masses, he pledged to fight the rising cost of living, by saying that he will take no salary, but it all went in vain when he named the BN leader Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, as deputy prime minister, who faced graft charges. The hung parliament had made matters more complicated, as the king stepped in to choose the leader of the parliament who could form a cabinet.

What is even more concerning is the rise of the fundamentalist Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) that won most seats in the 2022 election. Its ideology is fanatical to the extent that voting for other parties means going to hell, and political outsiders, including Malaysian Chinese, are viewed as infidels. In its strongholds of Kelantan and Terengganu, meat from cows, goats, and chickens slaughtered by Muslims who are not from their brethren is considered haram, thus creating an exclusionary ‘us and them mentality’ for the cause of implementing divine Shariah. Many of the PAS-linked private Quran memorisation schools are set up by Malaysian students who returned home from the Middle East, in particular those from Jordan and Egypt. In urban centres, many Malay Muslims have become more religious, and many of them sign up for these schools, which are ubiquitous in urban areas, operating out of rented space in commercial buildings in city centres. Certain Muslim clerics believe that PAS has become intolerant under the leadership of current president Hadi, describing him as ‘harsh’ and ‘dangerous’, after being ‘accommodating’ before. These developments will create more fissures in Anwar’s rule, as rising fundamentalism will become a dangerous quandary for a multi-racial and multi-ethnic Malaysia.

When it comes to Anwar’s cabinet, striking a balance between a representation of Malaysia’s indigenous Malays and its ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities will be crucial, otherwise, he could find himself in further unsettling political trends. In foreign policy, he will most likely continue to foster equal ties with China, the US, Europe and neighbours, which was an essence of the previous incumbent Najib Razak.
Anwar, unlike PAS leaders, is a strong proponent of mixing modern democracy with Islam, despite being a beneficiary of classical Western education. Enrolled at the University of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, he continued his advocacy for ethnic Malays, by creating several influential student organisations. It was during this time when he believed that Islam with modernism could be an emancipator for existing political and social problems, something that was common among many global Muslims, in the post-colonial period. That’s why he also built connections with Muslims living abroad.

As some PH leaders, called the Alliance of Hope, resigned in 2020, Mahathir did not leave office as per his stated plan, which was to restate Anwar, by pardoning him and giving him a chance for re-election. Till 2022, PH remained in the opposition and eventually returned to power with Anwar as their leader. This scenario also reflects the love-hate relationship between Anwar and Mahathir at large.

The story of Anwar Ibrahim’s success has even resonated with the Indonesians and the Filipinos, as they have reasons to be conscious about what’s happening in Malaysia, despite their domestic issues of economic mismanagement and political despotism.

However, the most challenging thing to endure for Anwar would be that his cabinet will consist of his former foes. That’s why making policies could become harder for him.



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