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Anwar’s Mixed Record in Malaysia

Eighteen months after he came to power – and at least 24 years after he began his campaign to become prime minister – the Unity coalition government of Anwar Ibrahim, at age 75, is struggling to find enthusiasm from voters in a by-election this weekend which it won previously by a very comfortable margin.

The by-election in the country’s wealthiest state, Selangor, is a result of the death of the incumbent legislator from Anwar’s coalition partner the ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party. His urban, moderate ethnic Malay-oriented party has an overwhelming majority. A loss in the by-election wouldn’t cause a shift in power but it will be a referendum on Anwar and his government, analysts say. His party is also bracing itself for another by-election in his own home state of Penang where a legislator is critically ill.

Nationally, and in the bigger picture, Anwar can count on some unlikely successes economically. He has lured Elon Musk away from Indonesia, with Anwar announcing Musk has agreed to collaborate with the government with facilities involving SpaceX, the satellite internet service Starlink, and electric vehicles near Kuala Lumpur, and invest in a local charging network. He is aggressively piling up additional foreign direct investment pledges, reaching RM926. 3 billion (US$195.28 billion) at the end of 2023 against RM914. 9 billion year-on-year.

The country is described as a major beneficiary of the Covid-triggered breakup of China’s supply chains. It has ratified the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which furthers its integration into the global economy. The World Bank forecasts Gross Domestic Product growth at a relatively respectable 4.3 percent in 2024 and 4.5 percent in 2025 supported by rising private consumption and business activity and with inflation between 2.0 percent and 3.5 percent although there have been few major legislative initiatives by the government on the economy or pressing social problems.

Anwar is said to be proud of a judiciary appointed on merit rather than political loyalty and a civil service that is being returned to political neutrality although the judiciary’s image has improved under the current Chief Justice Tengku Maimun, who has appointed and promoted jurists of integrity. She was appointed by Mahathir Mohamad in 2019 when he was prime minister.

But balanced against this are some disturbing issues well at odds with the three decades Anwar has enjoyed in international capitals as a reformer and defender of free expression, religious freedom, and a free press. The country has fallen a nearly unprecedented 35 places in the Reporters Sans Frontières international ranking on press freedom, from 73rd of 180 countries to 107th amid widespread complaints that Ahmad Fahmi Mohamed Fadzil, a former actor and writer serving as the Minister of Communications, is strangling free expression, with arrests of bloggers and shuttering of publications.

Promises to do away with laws such as the Official Secrets Act (OSA), the Sedition Act, the Communications and Multimedia Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act, and increasingly other areas of the Penal Code, have disappeared, stifling speech on politically and socially sensitive matters.

A year ago, Anwar shocked those who regard him as committed to secular government by saying the role of the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) should be expanded in the country’s national development policy framework. If anything, the religious divide has been allowed to widen between dominant ethnic Malays and the country’s minorities, particularly the Chinese, who make up 20.8 percent of the population mostly without the prime minister speaking up to defend pluralism.

Malaysia’s education system, which in an impartial analysis in 2019 was found to have failed “in imparting competence in basic skills such as reading, mathematics and science to the average student and promoting academic excellence in talented students,” in a complete reversal of what his forces expected, has turned increasingly toward Islamization, with Hadith teachings incorporated into the national school curriculum instead at a time when extensive reforms are needed to cope with a technocratic, globalized world, critics say. Anwar has proposed expanding the scope and power of Sharia courts as well. 

But what concerns many is the way the scandal-scarred United Malays National Organization is dominating politics despite coming into Anwar’s Unity government holding only 26 of 222 seats in the Dewan Rakyat, or parliament, the weakest period in its 75-year history. Today the critics say, UMNO appears to be virtually running the country, with the party’s leader, Abdul Zahid Hamidi, magically freed from indictment last September on when he was actually standing trial on 43 charges of corruption and bribery, who was actually standing trial when he was elevated by Anwar to the deputy premiership. Prosecutors in September last year requested that all charges be discharged in a motion “not amounting to an acquittal” although they theoretically can be restarted at some point charges under the law.

Zahid celebrates the end of his trial. Photo from Bernama

Consider these events in UMNO’s favor. Despite what his supporters say is Anwar’s pride in an independent judiciary appointed on merit rather than political loyalty, former Prime Minister Najib, the party’s leader, kingmaker, and moneybags has had his 12-year sentence for corruption in the country’s biggest financial scandal reduced to six years and his fines cut to RM50 million (US$10.6 million) from RM210 million. UMNO officials are fighting to have him released on house arrest, claiming that Sultan Abdullah, the former king, signed a purported “supplementary decree” which allows him to serve his sentence under house arrest.

Najib faces trial on several other counts of corruption in connection with the failed 1Malaysia Development Bhd start-backed investment fund, but critics are asking when those trials will move forward, eight years after 1MDB’s 2016 collapse with US$5.4 billion missing.

The charges against the former “court cluster” of top UMNO officials accused of corruption, including Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor, Abdul Azeez Abdul Rahim, secretary-general Ahmad Maslan, and Bung Moktar Radin seem to have disappeared into an indeterminate future. Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor was found guilty of corruption in September of 2022, fined MYR$303 million, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. But 21 months later, she remains free on appeal and there is no indication when the appellate courts will take up her petition.

The architect of UMNO’s resurgence is the 71-year-old Zahid, a Perak native who was raised by a Chinese stepfather and who speaks fluent Chinese, who has used UMNO’s position in a shaky coalition – its ability to pull it down by leaving– as a fulcrum to get what he wanted. He also out-politicked significant opposition in UMNO to manage to waive any near-term election for the party’s top two positions, generating rank-and-file outrage. That ensures that Zahid has another two years as party president.

Zahid secured the defense ministry portfolio for the party, first for Mohamad Hasan, then later for Mohamed Khaled Nordin, formerly the non-executive chairman of Boustead Holdings, a scandal-enwrapped conglomerate that has been at the center of cost overruns and contracts for non-existent ships for decades. Malaysia’s defense contracts have been a long-time source of massive corruption and a wellspring of funds for UMNO in the purchase of tanks, aircraft, patrol boats – some produced, or not, by Boustead – and submarines, another notorious scandal in the 1990s that netted tens of millions of dollars for UMNO coffers.

Zahid himself took the Ministry of Rural and Regional Development, which is responsible for rural, regional, and community development as well as administration of programs for Bumiputeras, the Orang Asli, rubber industry smallholders, land consolidation and rehabilitation, one of the biggest ministries in the government, with a huge budget. Thus UMNO ended up in two of the country’s most important ministries, with the ability to direct projects to ensure voter loyalty to UMNO.

The ethnic Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party, which holds the biggest single number of seats – 40 – in the Dewan Rakyat, has been sidelined but does not dare protest lest they kick off trouble before what analysts called a “green wave” exemplified by the sudden rise of PAS and by Bersatu’s theft of UMNO party wheelhorses, reflecting the growing Islamization of segments of the electorate. PAS’s success puts pressure on the government and contributes to the growing marginalization of minorities.

Overall, Anwar’s critics say, despite the spots of success, he is what they anticipated before his elevation – fiery orator, idealist, but distracted from the job of actually governing. UMNO during its decades of dominance did one thing. It learned how to lead, and, with its continued ability to obstruct policy perceived as contrary to its interests, to advance its own via ketuanan Melayu, or Malay nationalism, and opportunist Islamist policies, it is both staying alive and probably waiting to pounce. This weekend’s elections will begin to tell the tale.

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