Anwar’s First 100 Days: Passing Grade but Stern Tests Ahead
Anwar Ibrahim has managed to even the keel of Malaysia’s new coalition government in its first 100 days. But his fragile coalition government faces sterner tests on the horizon.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has emerged from his first 100 days in greater control of his fragile and hodgepodge government. He has made laudable strides in this period, but has a series of sterner challenges ahead.
One of the most frequent questions I am asked of Malaysia’s new government is, “How long will this government last?”. Such concerns are not unfounded. Malaysia has seen four prime ministers since the watershed 2018 general election that saw the end of Barisan Nasional’s (BN) monopoly over Malaysian politics. Infighting and political intrigue cut short Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s second act in power. Since then, two other prime ministers have come and gone until the general election in November last year.
The election did not yield a clear mandate. Malaysia experienced a hung parliament for the first time. The monarch invited Anwar to form a government after the latter was able to cobble together support from traditional nemesis BN and from the Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah. And although Anwar mustered sufficient numbers of members of parliament, there was always the assumption that this arrangement could, like Mahathir’s last government, fall quickly.
In this context, the key victory from Anwar’s first 100 days is his success in keeping his government together. All indications point towards this administration being able to go the distance in serving a full parliamentary term. This success has been achieved largely due to Anwar’s personal political nous, especially in assuaging key stakeholders supporting his premiership. He moved to quickly secure the support of Sarawak and Sabah with key cabinet appointments — including a historic deputy premiership for Sarawak — as well as devolving further powers to the Bornean state governments in matters of government procurement approvals and committing to more shared power based on the Malaysia Agreement of 1963.
The less savoury source of support has come from the BN coalition, in particular from its biggest constituent member, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Part of UMNO’s condition for supporting Anwar was the selection of its president, Zahid Hamidi, as a deputy prime minister. Zahid still faces multiple charges of corruption in the courts. Anwar has clearly calculated that he is willing to absorb the negative optics of having a tainted Zahid as his deputy in return for the stability it accords his premiership. And while Anwar has made it clear he will not interfere in any court case, Zahid has enjoyed the protection of Anwar’s key lieutenant, Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution. Earlier this week, the minister overruled a decision made by the registrar of political parties that UMNO had violated its own constitution when it passed a motion at its party congress recently to prevent anyone from challenging Zahid’s position as president in the upcoming party polls.
With his government stable for now, Anwar must start looking at other key challenges confronting him. One is having to face a resurgent, almost exclusively Malay Muslim opposition Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition with the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) as the dominant component party. PN made significant gains during the last general election sweeping through not just the traditional northern and eastern Malay-dominated states but extending its parliamentary victories as far as the industrial state of Selangor that sits next to Kuala Lumpur. This, coupled with the fact that some analysts have calculated that Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition only managed to get less than 15 per cent of the Malay votes, sets up a fierce contest for the support from Malaysia’s biggest ethnic community especially in the upcoming set of state-level elections later this year.
Anwar has been mindful of his Malay support deficit and has spent much of his first 100 days creating a narrative that Malay interests are secured under his administration. He has engaged frequently with Malay intellectuals and Muslim scholars. He makes it a point to perform his congregational Friday prayers in different mosques across the country rather than just in the administrative capital, Putrajaya. He has even started wearing the Malay songkok headdress with lounge suit during foreign visits.
But it is not just optics. Anwar has also managed to convince his coalition partner, the ethnically Chinese-dominant Democratic Action Party (DAP), to take a backseat in government and not be as prominent as they were during Mahathir’s last administration. Part of the reason behind the collapse of Mahathir’s government was the success of racial tropes being used by some in UMNO and PAS against DAP, which has been long used as a chauvinistic bogeyman in the Malay community. This seeded the ground for the erosion of Malay political support for Mahathir.
Anwar has also been mindful of the Malay political ground in rolling out a left-of-centre budget as finance minister two weeks ago. He has introduced taxes on luxury items, a more progressive income tax structure, maintained cash transfers and put off reintroducing a consumption tax, for now.
Despite some glimpses of policy detail in the budget, there is still a lack of clarity in what his overarching vision for Malaysia is, especially in the context of global economic disruption and political uncertainty brought about by the emergence of big power contestation, which has been triggered by, among other things, the war in Ukraine.
While these measures are seen as economically necessary, part of the strategy is surely directed at assisting the Malay community that make the bulk of middle and low income earners. So what is next for Anwar? Despite some glimpses of policy detail in the budget, there is still a lack of clarity in what his overarching vision for Malaysia is, especially in the context of global economic disruption and political uncertainty brought about by the emergence of big power contestation, which has been triggered by, among other things, the war in Ukraine.
His cabinet is a mixed bag of experienced hands and political neophytes. Some have proven themselves well in the first 100 days. Many have not stood out, remaining on the margins while trying to master steep learning curves. So, if the first 100 days has been about political stability and not making catastrophic gaffes, Anwar gets a good pass.
But the bar must be set higher for the coming months. Emerging from years of political instability, Malaysia needs to offer a new narrative and re-establish itself as one of ASEAN’s premier investment and trading destinations. In addition, the next test for Anwar will be the set of state-level elections in the middle of this year, which will see whether he has made inroads into gaining support from the crucial Malay electoral ground.
Khairy Jamaluddin is a Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. Previously, he served as Minister at Malaysia’s ministries of Youth and Sports, Science and Technology, and Health. He was also the Coordinating Minister for the Covid-19 Immunisation Programme.