Malaysia's Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim (Center R) and his deputy Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (Center L) arrive at the World Trade Centre Kuala Lumpur to watch the state election results in Kuala Lumpur on August 12, 2023. (Photo by Mohd RASFAN / AFP)

On the Horns of Anwar’s Twin Dilemmas


The results of the recent state elections in Malaysia were not unexpected. But the more important thing is Pakatan Harapan’s pursuit of the Malay vote, and what this portends for the coalition going into the next general election.

Malaysia’s recent state elections have ended in a stalemate, at least on the surface. Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition retained the states they administered previously with little help from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), with whom they now partner in the federal government. The opposition Perikatan Nasional (PN) alliance strengthened its grip on states formerly governed by the Islamist Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), one of the component members of PN. But the elections were never about the topline results, which were largely expected. Many analysts had predicted a 3-3 outcome. It is rather in the details that we can discern the trajectory of Malaysian politics over the next four years before the next general election.  

The elections were framed by PN as a referendum on Anwar’s eight-month-old administration. The strategy put PH and BN on the defensive, resulting in a slew of policy announcements being made during the campaign. While these policies have merit, especially the prime minister’s Madani economic narrative, they probably came too late for voters to fully understand and digest them. Instead, voters were once again attracted to PN’s effective use of bite-sized videos on popular social media platforms and the emergence of Kedah Menteri Besar, Sanusi Md Nor, who was in equal measure a lightning rod for attacks from PH-BN and a rallying force for PN supporters.  

Although PH-BN attempted a counter-offensive strategy by highlighting the relative poverty and poor infrastructure in PAS-led states, this probably did more to antagonise voters in these states rather than convince them. This can be seen by the landslide results in the northern states, especially in Terengganu where there was a total wipeout. Of greater concern to PH-BN are the significant inroads PN made into the states of Penang, Negeri Sembilan and, especially, Selangor. In Selangor — the country’s richest and most urbanised state — PN captured 22 seats in the 56-seat assembly and denied PH the two-thirds majority it previously held.  

Despite Anwar’s utmost efforts, however, the most important detail to emerge from the elections is that he lost more ground among Malay voters.

For Anwar, he was desperate to claw back Malay voters after a dismal showing in that demographic during the November 2022 general election. This has led to PN playing up issues of race, religion and royalty (3R) with a clear subtext directed at the prime minister being weak on these issues because he relies on support from non-Malay voters. As a result, Anwar spent the last few months before the state elections burnishing his Malay-Muslim credentials, conferring with Islamic scholars and clerics, criss-crossing the Malay belt states announcing various assistance programmes and even allowing his government to criminalise wearers and sellers of rainbow-coloured watches (a common symbol of the LGBT movement).  

Despite Anwar’s utmost efforts, however, the most important detail to emerge from the elections is that he lost more ground among Malay voters. Dr Ong Kian Ming, also a Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS, has released provisional data showing the opposite of what Anwar hoped for. In Kedah, Malay support for PN increased from 67 per cent at the last general election to 83 per cent in the state election. Crucially, in Selangor, arguably PH’s most important stronghold, Malay support for PN went up from 49 per cent to 73 per cent. Early analysis suggests that these gains for PN have largely come from Malay voters. These voters, who had backed UMNO previously, transferred their support to the opposition coalition instead of either UMNO or PH.  

There are many possible reasons for this. The first is Malay voter rejection of UMNO working with PH which has the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) as one of its component parties. UMNO has long demonised DAP as being anti-Malay and anti-Islam and is now ironically paying an electoral price for working with the party. Second, UMNO’s president and current deputy prime minister, Zahid Hamidi, continues to repel Malay voters who find PH hypocritical for working with the UMNO chief, who is confronting multiple corruption charges. Third, PN excelled at weaving a narrative that combined economic fears with 3R insecurities to tip Malay support their way.  

This brings us to Anwar’s twin dilemmas which will shape Malaysian politics for the next few years. His first dilemma is ideological. Will he stay true to his progressive and reformist platform or will he continue to push back against PN by introducing more conservative policies? His base has reacted to the election results by urging Anwar to stop pandering to the “Malay right” and focus on growing the economy, introducing reforms and championing multiculturalism. But with such a strong rebuke from Malay voters yet again, Anwar could be tempted to play it both ways: continue with ethnocentric overtures and programmes, and at the same time hope the economy improves for ordinary Malaysians.  

His second dilemma is political. UMNO, his coalition partner and strategic vehicle that he hoped could put up a fight against PN in the Malay heartland, has failed miserably. Out of 108 seats that UMNO contested, it won 19, a dismal 17.5 per cent success rate making it one of the biggest losers in these state elections. If UMNO fails to reform by, amongst other things, removing its deeply unpopular president, Anwar faces an important strategic decision. He could stick to the current path and head into the next general elections by working with UMNO and even consider recommending a Royal Pardon for former prime minister Najib Razak who retains considerable support within the party. Alternatively, he could effect a parting of ways with UMNO and adopt other options. He could battle for Malay votes by enhancing Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s appeal to the demographic segment or leverage more on coalition partner Parti Amanah Nasional, which scored a surprise victory in one seat in Kelantan.  

The last option is to reach out to Muhyiddin Yassin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, which is a key party in PN. While this option might as yet be unthinkable, stranger things have happened in Malaysian politics before, most recently PH’s unlikely pairing with UMNO. The horns of these dilemmas will certainly weigh on Malaysia’s prime minister and his government in the next few years.    


Khairy Jamaluddin was 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.