Drama shows 'new Malaysia' is more about power than policy

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail arriving for a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail arriving for a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KUALA LUMPUR • Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has waited for decades to take power in Malaysia. If he finally achieves that goal, the 73-year-old opposition leader will need to figure out how to implement policies he has long advocated in an increasingly fractious Parliament.

While Malaysia has always been beset by coalition politics, the former ruling bloc helmed by Umno oversaw for six decades a stable if domineering government with policies aimed at benefiting the Malays, the country's main racial group.

Its downfall in 2018, spearheaded by Mr Anwar and former premier Mahathir Mohamad, promised an inclusive multiracial "New Malaysia" free from corruption.

Yet the new coalition quickly became beset by policy differences, while dealing with constant intrigue over when Tun Dr Mahathir, 95, would hand over power to Mr Anwar. The drama came to a head with Dr Mahathir's resignation in February, prompting a round of horse-trading that propelled Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin to the premiership.

This week, Mr Anwar claimed to have a "convincing" majority to unseat Mr Muhyiddin, and vowed to prove the numbers in a meeting with Malaysia's monarch that has yet to be scheduled.

It is still unclear whether that will lead to another change in leadership or a fresh election. But one thing is certain: The political landscape is far from settled.

"It's the most fluid period in Malaysian politics ever - the party allegiances have become very, very shaky," said Dr Johan Saravanamuttu, an adjunct senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. "It's just to be in power. Whether the whole idea of reform politics is the direction being taken is not entirely clear to me. Idealism is out of the window."

ROYAL PARDON

For Mr Anwar, a little pragmatism might be forgiven. He was seen as Dr Mahathir's successor in the 1990s before he was fired in the wake of the Asian financial crisis, after which he spent six years in jail for abuse of power and sodomy.

Mr Anwar went back to jail again in 2015 on another sodomy charge, only to be released after the 2018 election thanks to a royal pardon.

As leader of a key party in the previous Pakatan Harapan government, Mr Anwar waited patiently for Dr Mahathir to fulfil a pledge to eventually name him prime minister. But Dr Mahathir kept pushing back the date, and soon the government unravelled.

On Wednesday, Mr Anwar said he was ready to replace Mr Muhyiddin, who took office in March. While Mr Muhyiddin denounced the push for power, Umno leader Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said some members of the government's biggest party were now backing Mr Anwar.

On the surface, it would seem odd for Mr Anwar to link up with members of Umno given he previously called for the end of affirmative action policies it championed.

He has also blasted the party for corruption related to former prime minister Najib Razak, who was in July sentenced to 12 years in prison over the 1MDB scandal.

FAIR REPRESENTATION

But Mr Anwar has shown signs of softening his stance in recent years, and made clear in his statement on Wednesday that the majority of lawmakers backing him were "Malay and Muslim". He promised "fair representation" for all races.

"We are committed to uphold the principles of the Constitution that recognises the position of Islam, the sovereignty of the Malay rulers, and uphold the position of the Malay language as the official language and the special position of the Malays and Bumiputera as well as give assurance to defend the rights of all races," he said.

FINANCIAL CRISIS

If Mr Anwar finally takes power, he will inherit an economy that had suffered its worst performance in the second quarter since the financial crisis in the 1990s.

Mr Muhyiddin has pushed major fiscal stimulus to revive the economy hard hit by Covid-19. Higher debt levels may make it hard for Mr Anwar to do anything too ambitious.

Mr Anwar's statement on Wednesday emphasised the need for a stable government to see Malaysia through the pandemic. It was largely focused on bread-and-butter issues, rather than lofty calls for reform.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2020, with the headline 'Drama shows 'new Malaysia' is more about power than policy'. Print Edition | Subscribe