Malaysia’s Anwar gets to work, promising inclusive government

Southeast Asian country’s new prime minister says he will govern for all as he reaches out across political divides.

Anwar Ibrahim striding into the Prime Minister's office on his first day on the job. He is wearing a traditional outfit and looks purposeful
Anwar Ibrahim arrived for his first day at work on Friday. He has said he will not take a salary [Sadiq Asyrat/Courtesy of Malaysian Ministry of Information]

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Anwar Ibrahim has started work as Malaysia’s prime minister after promising to lead a government inclusive of everyone in the multiethnic, multireligious Southeast Asian nation.

Anwar clocked in at 9am (01:00 GMT) at the prime minister’s office in the country’s administrative capital Putrajaya on Friday, after being sworn into office by the king the day before.

At his first press conference on Thursday night, the 75-year-old veteran politician sketched out his plans for the country.

He said he would not draw a salary and that his government would “guarantee and safeguard the rights of all Malaysians, especially the marginalised and impoverished, regardless of race or religion”.

He also stressed the importance of reform.

“We will never compromise on good governance, the anti-corruption drive, judicial independence and the welfare of ordinary Malaysians,” he said at the late-night event.

Anwar was named prime minister by the king after an inconclusive election last Saturday that left his Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition with the most seats but short of the majority needed to rule. PH will govern the country in coalition with Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), the main party in the state of Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo, and Barisan Nasional (BN), the alliance that dominated Malaysian politics until 2018 when it lost power for the first time amid the multibillion-dollar scandal at state fund 1MDB.

Early in his Thursday night press conference, Anwar took a congratulatory call from Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after sharing a video on social media of him chatting with Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, the first foreign leader to offer their congratulations. Anwar described Indonesia as a “true friend” of Malaysia and said he would focus on strengthening the two countries relationship.

Anwar in a traditonal Malay outfit in black with songkok (black hat) points as microphones from many different networks are pushed up towards him
Anwar fields questions at a packed late-night press conference on Thursday where he sketched out the plans for his administration [Vincent Thian//Pool via Reuters]

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken also offered Anwar and the people of Malaysia his congratulations, noting the record number of votes cast in the election,

“We look forward to deepening our friendship and cooperation based on shared democratic principles and respect for human rights and the rule of law,” Blinken said. “We remain committed to working with Malaysia to advance a free and open, connected, prosperous, secure, and resilient Indo-Pacific region.”

‘Convincing majority’

Anwar’s appointment as prime minister caps a momentous political journey for the man born in the northern state of Penang in 1947. After making a mark as a firebrand student activist, the young Anwar was enticed into the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant party in the then-ruling BN alliance, where he rose rapidly through the ranks.

His shock sacking in 1998 and later imprisonment on charges of corruption and sodomy galvanised Malaysia’s political opposition, fuelled calls for reform – known as ‘reformasi’ – and contributed to a gradual realignment of the country’s politics. Anwar endured a second sodomy trial and conviction before he was pardoned in 2018 and released from prison.

“Only a man like Anwar could embody Malaysia’s contradictions and turn the country to a new page in history,” said James Chai, a visiting fellow in the Malaysia Studies programme at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. “Many would argue he is precisely what the nation needs. The Reformasi generation can breathe a sigh of relief after years of despair.”

Anwar’s PH government is the second for the reformist coalition after its last administration collapsed amid pushback from ethnic Malay conservatives after just 22 months. The country has been in a state of instability ever since with two prime ministers over as many years.

Anwar appears to be keen to draw a line under the political manoeuvring and says a vote of confidence to show the strength of the new coalition will be the first item on the agenda when parliament sits for the first time on December 19.

“We have a truly convincing majority,” he said, adding at a press conference on Friday that it amounted to two-thirds of all the 222 seats in parliament. A majority of that size would give the coalition the power to change the constitution.

Former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin who led the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, who had also tried to form a government following the hung parliament, on Friday congratulated Anwar on his appointment.

In a statement he said PN would play a “check and balance role” in parliament.

The conservative alliance got the second most votes in the election with PAS, Malaysia’s Islamic party, gaining the most seats among its members and emerging as the single largest party in parliament.

Muhyiddin looking serious, flanked by the leaders of other parties in his coalition including PAS's Abdul Hadi Awang
PN leader Muhyiddin Yassin (centre) challenged Anwar to ‘prove’ his majority in a press conference shortly before Anwar was sworn into office. Anwar later said a vote of confidence would be the first item on the agenda when parliament sits next month [Arif Kartono/AFP]

The PN leader had on Thursday urged Anwar to “prove” his majority.

However, Muhyiddin himself did not hold a parliamentary vote after he was appointed prime minister by the king in 2020 when a power struggle within the PH alliance led to its collapse.

Muhyiddin had been part of the PH government, but with other politicians jumped ship. He survived only 17 months in office before he too was brought down by politicking – and replaced by UMNO’s Ismail Sabri Yaakob.

Ismail Sabri held the job for just over a year before calling this November’s election, also under pressure from factions within his party.

Building trust

To ensure his administration’s longevity, analysts said it was crucial Anwar learns the lessons of the first PH government and builds trust.

“A lot will depend on who he appoints to his cabinet and whether they can work together,” Bridget Welsh said. “There are a lot of lessons to be learned from Pakatan Harapan’s first government in terms of trust building, managing expectations and communications. These are things that are going to be the challenge going forward.”

At a press conference on Friday he again stressed that he would reduce the size of the cabinet, which had ballooned to nearly 70 ministers and deputy ministers in recent years. Welsh said it was crucial those appointed had competence and experience given the challenges facing Malaysia, and that it also be reflective of Malaysia’s socioeconomic realities and its youthful population.

The country is mostly ethnic Malay Muslim and Islam is the official religion but there are significant minorities of ethnic Chinese and Indians, as well as Indigenous people.

Anwar in white shirt and black songkok in the prime minister's office signing documents
Anwar has promised to lead a more inclusive government and promised to to address the cost of living on his first day at work [Wazari Wazir/Malaysia’s Ministry of Information via AFP] 

Race and religion have long been sensitive issues in the country and tensions arose during the two-week election campaign, with police this week warning Malaysians about posting “provocative” content.

Jerald Joseph, a Malaysian human rights commissioner until earlier this year and a long-term campaigner for democracy, said he welcomed the potential for Malaysia to open a new chapter, noting that many recent reforms, such as the lowering of the voting age and automatic voter registration, had begun under PH in 2018.

The new prime minister should focus on reforms to parliament, he added, including ensuring the appointment of a neutral speaker and empowering specialist committees.

“Anwar has to prove himself like any other prime minister,” Joseph told Al Jazeera. “He has to make reform work. He has to make governance work.”

Source: Al Jazeera