Anwar Ibrahim has waited for decades to take power in Malaysia. If he finally achieves that goal, the 73-year-old politician 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, for six decades the former ruling bloc helmed by Umno oversaw a stable if domineering government with policies aimed at benefiting the country’s dominant racial group. Its downfall in 2018, spearheaded by Anwar and former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, promised an inclusive multiracial “New Malaysia” free from corruption.
Yet the new coalition quickly became beset by policy differences, all the while dealing with constant intrigue over when Mahathir, now 95, would hand over power to Anwar.
The drama came to a head with Mahathir’s resignation in February, prompting a round of horse-trading that propelled Muhyiddin Yassin to the premiership backed by former members of Umno.
This week, Anwar claimed to have a “convincing” majority to unseat Muhyiddin, and vowed to prove the numbers in a meeting with the King 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 Johan Saravanamuttu, an adjunct senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore who researches Malaysian politics.
“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.”
For Anwar, a little pragmatism might be forgiven. He was seen as 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 prison on convictions for abuse of power and sodomy.
Anwar went back to jail again in 2015 on a subsequent 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, Anwar waited patiently for Mahathir to fulfil a pledge to eventually name him prime minister. Mahathir kept pushing back the date, and soon the government unravelled.
On Wednesday, Anwar said he was ready to replace Muhyiddin, who could only command a majority of a few MPs since he took office in March. While the prime minister denounced the push for power, Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said some members of the government’s biggest party were now backing Anwar.
On its face, it would seem odd for Anwar to link up with 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 found guilty of corruption last month and sentenced to 12 years in prison in the first trial over the 1MDB scandal to reach a conclusion.
But Anwar has shown signs of softening his stance in recent years, and made clear in his statement on Wednesday that the majority of MPs backing him were “Malay-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 in a statement.
Anwar has paid a “high price” over the years and now wants to make his mark, said Greg Lopez, a lecturer at Murdoch University Executive Education Centre in Perth and co-editor of “Regime Resilience in Malaysia and Singapore”.
“He wants that opportunity to actually demonstrate that he can do a good job.
“Given the fact he has survived all these decades being hammered left, right and centre, he has the necessary skills to manoeuvre Malaysia – or at least he won’t do any more damage than any of the other prime ministers.”
If Anwar finally takes power, he will inherit an economy that suffered its worst performance in the second quarter since the financial crisis in the 1990s. Muhyiddin has pushed major fiscal stimulus to revive the economy, which along with others around the globe is suffering from unprecedented mobility restrictions and business closures.
Higher debt levels may make it hard for Anwar to do anything too ambitious. The political turmoil adds another layer of uncertainty that could hamper investment and stall longer-term infrastructure projects, according to Chua Hak Bin, senior economist at Maybank Kim Eng Research Pte in Singapore.
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.
At this point for Anwar, any idealism means little if he is not in a position to change
“If he were to become PM, it would mark the culmination of a more than two-decade journey,” said Awang Azman Pawi of Universiti Malaya. “It would also make him the first PM from a multiracial, multi-religious party – a first in Malaysia’s history.”