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Anwar Ibrahim’s first year: A scorecard of political leadership and reform in Malaysia

Opinion: Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s tenure is marked by the challenge of balancing reform ambitions with political pragmatism in Malaysia’s complex landscape



by Simone Galimberti

A difficult compromise between attempts to project the image of a responsible, reforms-oriented government and the need of day-to-day political expediency indispensable for self-survival.

This could be the perfect line that summarizes one year in power of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim of Malaysia.

There is little doubt that Mr Anwar is willing to pursue widespread change that could drive the country towards becoming a major economy, one of the major goals he is determined to achieve.

On the other hand, the national political scenario and the coalition of parties that keeps him in power do not enable a swift execution of its wide-ranging vision, especially in the realm of democratic change.

From lack in action in reforming draconian legislations like the Sedition Law and the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act known as Sosma to an obvious disinterest in changing the widely corrupted foreign laborers’ immigration system to the non-implementation of bold institutional reforms that would strengthen the country’s democracy, the glass is decidedly half empty for Anwar’s administration.

This is not surprising considering the fact that the National Unity government Anwar is leading is a compromise itself.

Supported by his traditional alliance Pakatan Harapan, a much weaker UMNO and an increasingly more daring and demanding bloc from Sarawak and Sabah, Anwar has his eyes on far and promising horizons to set in motion a long-term vision.

Yet his work is greatly hampered and bogged down by a forced navigation by sight.

When he recently said that changes cannot be rushed, it was a sort of admission of the challenging environment he is facing.

The only domain of policymaking where Anwar can show some results is the economy.

In this domain, his National Unity government is trying to sell an image of a deal-maker capable of attracting big money investments.

For example, Tesla, over the summer, announced the choice of Malaysia as its Asia Pacific headquarters.

Similarly, during his visit to San Francisco for the APEC Summit, Anwar had tried to woe tech entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley to the idea that investing in the country was the smartest and safest bet to have a solid foot in the Asia Pacific.

This predisposition and intent of bringing home the resources and know-how to transition the country towards a prosperous future is certainly appreciated.

Also, in the 2024 Budget, tabled in October, the Prime Minster announced that the era of easily accessible subsidies was officially over or, better, about to be.

Getting rid of them, which, according to Anwar, only further enriches those already abusing the system, can be easier said than done.

This is a political minefield that might end up further resenting the vast majority of ethnic Malays who have already started to put their trust in the opposition front known as Perikatan Nasional, a coalition composed by ex-UMNO members which formed the Bersatu and Islamic PAS.

On this front, the recent state elections, held in August, were generally (and conveniently) portrayed as confirming the status quo with the coalition underpinning the National Unity Government remaining in power in Selangor, Penang and Negeri Sembilan.

At the same time, the opposition won landslides in Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah, where they were already in power.

A more honest reading of the elections instead offers instead a starkly different reality: a dismal performance for Anwar and his government as the opposition made significant gains even in Selangor, the most prized state in the ballot and a PH stronghold.

Reviewing his first year in power, Anwar called for not only a gradual implementation of reforms but also.

In a clear save face and contradicting himself, he publicly stated that, from now on, the pace of change would pick up.

There is no other way around, after all.

The safest way for him to continue to stay in power and at the same time take the wind out of the opposition’s sails, is to fully implement his economic agenda and much more.

One of his key accomplishments, at least on the paper, is launching a new strategic vision expressed through the Madani concept that aims to establish a more prosperous, industrialized but fairer and more sustainable society.

Aligned with it and itself, a tool to implement this vision is the recently launched New Industrial Master Plan.

The endorsement received by Tesla will certainly help encourage other cutting-edge multinationals to consider Malaysia as their Asian Pacific launchpads.

The fact that, recently, while asserting the primacy of the Malay language, Anwar’s government announced plans to boost the quality of the English language, must be seen within the attempt to transform the national economy and attract new investments.

Yet the government will have to be extremely cautious at reforming the contentious public, state-owned enterprises, locally known as “government-linked companies”.

These are the fulcrum of a vast patronage system that rewards ethnic Malays known as Bumiputera or the native inhabitants of the peninsula.

Touching them together with reforming the subsidy system, carry considerable risks, further jeopardizing the support of ethnic Malays.

At the same time, when Anwar was appointed Prime Minister after more than two decades of waiting, the expectations were high also for political and institutional reforms.

Some timid steps have already been taken, but they only go so far.

That’s why it is imperative for the National Government’s long-term survival to considerably expand the work in this area, leveraging whatever remains of its declining political capital.

The possibility of establishing a wide-ranging and powerful Law Commission could offer the template to build momentum and enhance a bolder process of political shake-up.

To start with, it is unthinkable (and impractical) to do away with the Sedition Law completely.

Yet the way it was used against Kedah Chief Minister Muhammad Sanusi during the state elections campaign was not only suspicious but, overall, also detrimental to Anwar’s reformist image.

Climbing down on the exploitation of the three most sensitive and explosive issues in the Country, the so-called 3Rs (race, religion, royalty) cannot be seen as an excuse to defend his and his coalition staying in power.

The same can be said for the Sosma.

Enacted in 2012 with the aim of repealing the even more draconian 1960 Internal Security Act, the legislation is still too far-ranging and not aligned to the democratic standards Anwar professes to adhere to.

Indeed, a law that allows for 28 days of detention without trial and that can be renovated indefinitely, even if it provides space for legal recourse, is still a frightening cudgel that can be easily manipulated for political purposes.

Will Anwar and his allies be ready for these game-changing reforms?

While the most moderate and enlightened elements of his coalitions, still a minority, might be willing to push the envelope to bring about these intended changes, it is questionable to assume if there is a real political will to act on them.

Apparently, there is more certainty in the plan to reform the office of the Attorney General, which, till now, has operated as both the Government’s chief legal advisor and as Public Prosecutor.

Ultimately, an even higher goal that, if achieved, would boost Anwar’s image internationally would be to get rid of the death penalty for good.

This could be held as politically more feasible as the country has already crossed the Rubicon with the end of mandatory death sentencing.

Making Malaysia the preferred destination for investments in the new economy, especially one based on green energy and high tech, can offer Anwar and his partners in the government some breathing space.

If such investments will materialize with real spillover effects, something that should not be taken for granted, voters might get around to the idea that only undertaking radical economic reforms is the way forward to ensure the viability of the country’s aspirations to become a major economy.

Yet, even an industrialized and future-oriented Malaysia that confidently can join the OECD club and, potentially, the G20 needs broader improvements in areas that are harder to achieve, especially in terms of mastering the capacity to build the indispensable consensus around them.

Anwar is aware that he needs to swiftly shift the gears for him to stay in power till the next election slated in 2027.

He has a real chance to be remembered in the books of history as a real reformer rather than just someone who preached well but failed to act where boldness was required.

The author writes about regional integration, democracy and human rights in the South East Asia. The opinion expressed is only personal.

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Now that Malaysia people are going to pay rm5 for their train ride to Johore and sg people 5 big ones ……S$5/-, it is really dumb for us to join in the build of the HSR.

The Government should stop using our tax revenue to throw at the HSR.

Singapore needs to take a Long View (5 years to build) 30 years perhaps, when invited to participate in the HSR again. With Anwar’s vocal and strong support for the Palestinians and silence on Hamas, joining hands with him on the train line maybe a bad idea. We should work towards allowing our MRT line to terminate in Johore Bahru and shares the same line with the HSR so that passengers can embark and disembark from Singapore’s MRT onto the Malaysian-owned and managed HSR. Even then, Malaysia needs to be appraised that they cannot pull the plug out from Singapore’s… Read more »

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