Anwar Ibrahim’s first 100 days in office
Germany´s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visits Malaysia. He will meet Anwar Ibrahim, the new Prime Minister. Mr. Anwar leads a broad coalition, which includes previous arch-rivals. He spent 25 years in opposition, ten of them in jail due to politically motivated convictions. As Prime Minister, Mr. Anwar has to strike a delicate balance to secure his and his government’s positions. Tricia Yeoh, CEO of Malaysia´s Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, analyses Anwar Ibrahim´s first 100 days in office.
Malaysia´s new “unity government” – Pakatan Harapan (PN, or The Pact of Hope) and Barisan Nasional (BN, The National Front) plus two regional coalitions - came about after no single political coalition won a simple majority. Amongst the first endeavours was to ensure stability, which had been tumultuous given three government administration changes in as many years.
Anwar Ibrahim, the new prime minister, chose to appoint Zahid Hamidi as his deputy, a controversial figure given that he is embroiled in a slate of corruption cases. The appointment was surprising as Anwar and his party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, the National Justice Party) campaigned on good governance and reform. Nevertheless, it was a politically expedient move. Zahid as President of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO, the main party of Barisan Nasional) contributed 30 parliamentary seats to the coalition, without which the new federal government could not even have been formed.
The new Cabinet also featured several other BN figures who had in fact lost their seats in the parliamentary election, including Tengku Zafrul Aziz as Minister of International Trade and Industry and Zambry Abdul Kadir as Minister of Foreign Affairs, both of whom were appointed as Senators. These appointments were considerable compromises that needed to be made by Anwar in order to seal a harmonious deal, especially between PH and BN. In December, a unity government agreement was reached and signed by all coalition members. Shortly after, Anwar successfully won a motion of confidence in Parliament. Securing a majority was crucial for a country beleaguered by political instability; only then would the government have the confidence to move forward.
While the coalition agreement was received well in order to restore political stability, parts of it came under heavy criticism from civil society, in particular a clause in which Members of Parliament from coalition parties are deemed to have resigned their positions should they vote as they wish on any procedural matter in Parliament. This prevents backbenchers, for example, from voting conscionably against government policies they disagree with – a matter of principle where they ought to be able to exercise their individual judgment on policy and legal matters, especially on the occasion they take positions that differ from their political parties.
Good governance and economic agenda – present but shaky?
Expectations on Anwar Ibrahim’s premiership are high. He has been able to win some public confidence based on his initial speeches. For example, in one of his first engagements with his staff, he announced that the government under his leadership would not allow leakages and corruption, specifically that there could no longer be procurement approvals without tenders. He also announced that political appointments to government-linked companies (GLC) would be terminated, but later explained that some MPs might be appointed based on set guidelines on professional capabilities, past performance and compliance with regulatory and governance practices. As such, the initial appointment of an UMNO politician as Chair of a plantations GLC was postponed.
Anwar publicly revealed a slogan termed ‘Malaysia Madani’ in January 2023, a concept to drive and restore Malaysia’s dignity and glory in the global arena. The concept is based on six pillars: sustainability, prosperity, innovation, respect, trust and compassion. Clumsily translated into a Malay-based acronym, which caught some public ridicule, the concept is nevertheless welcome. Anwar called on the unity government’s leadership to practice trust, good values and morals as well as fair and effective governance. Alongside an economic plan based on three strategies to eradicate poverty, restructure and restore the economy, and generate the economy based on the Madani principles. Thus far these general thrusts seem to resonate well.
Third, Anwar made the decision to slash constituency development funds for Members of Parliament by almost 75% on the basis of economic constraints. While it is positive that the government recognises the fragile fiscal situation it is in, this may severely impact parliamentarians’ ability to serve their constituencies. Nevertheless, this may provide the very impetus needed for MPs to advocate for systemic change – they ought not be welfare providers over a long-term period, which is the role of government agencies.
In addition, the government must seriously consider other economic solutions to improve the country’s fiscal balance including by widening its revenue base through new forms of taxation. Most recently, the World Bank’s lead economist in Malaysia emphasised that Malaysia under-collects in personal and consumption taxes and agreed that broadening the tax base was essential to increasing government revenue collection.
While some moves have been positive, one faux pas that marks Anwar’s first 100 days in office is his decision to appoint his eldest daughter, Nurul Izzah, as his senior advisor on economics and finance. Losing her parliamentary seat for the first time since 2008, many saw Nurul Izzah´s appointment as bordering on nepotism with a serious conflict of interest. While qualified for the job, and not drawing a salary for this position, she would have been in a strategic position at the Ministry of Finance to potentially advise on decisions over major contracts, appointments and economic policies. Anwar is also Finance Minister in addition to his Prime Ministerial portfolio, which is also not good practice. The move may have been deemed necessary by Anwar, who needs trusted allies close by his side while navigating a precarious political environment. Nurul Izzah has since resigned her position, and instead will co-chair a secretariat formed by an advisory panel for the ministry. With a clearer and more structured mandate, this reflects better on Anwar’s administration although the misstep could have been avoided altogether from the start.
What Lies Ahead for Anwar and his government
The next few months are crucial for Anwar Ibrahim’s government. First, he will face his first full Parliamentary sitting from 13 February onwards, during which he will need to table a new Budget 2023 and obtain a majority vote to pass the government’s first major policy document.
Second, a lot of attention will be given to how Parliament itself will be handled – the new Speaker of the Lower House is a political stalwart from his very party, PKR – and whether or not unbiased treatment will be provided to all MPs alike. But reform is in demand – and he has already introduced new changes, such as a Prime Minister’s Question and Answer (PMQ) session and Minister’s Question Time (MQT) every Tuesday and Thursday respectively. Apart from the anticipated re-enactment of the Parliamentary Services Act, new Parliamentary Select Committees will also be announced in the upcoming sitting. This will indicate the government’s policy priorities on topics ranging from climate change to governance to institutional reforms.
Third, all eyes will be on the upcoming UMNO party election, which must be held by May. On this note, a recent decision was made to ban contests for the positions of UMNO President and Deputy President. This, alongside separate decisions to sack an aspiring UMNO politician, Khairy Jamaluddin, and to suspend several other MPs deemed as threats for six years, indicate a growing unease within the party. Khairy had publicly pronounced his intention to run for UMNO President and to reform the party. While Anwar’s position seems secure for now, the ‘UMNO purge’ may not resonate well with UMNO grassroots. This may impact the UMNO party election. Given the coalition’s makeup, the future of UMNO has a direct bearing on the future of the government’s stability.
Ultimately, while government policies are being highly scrutinised given high expectations of reform, the future lies in Anwar’s ability to manage varying interests, ideologies and expectations from amongst his coalition partners. Most recently, the unity government formed three new committees on communication strategies, state elections and monitoring of political developments and administration, a sign that the coalition partners are coalescing – for now. The opposition, the PN coalition, however, is equally hard at work. It recently announced the country’s first federal Shadow Cabinet. Another challenge in the long-run: managing the country’s increasing ethno-religious polarisation, especially ahead of six upcoming state elections. These are exciting times for Malaysia as the country goes through political renewal amidst rapidly changing global socioeconomic and geopolitical environments.
* Tricia Yeoh (PhD) is CEO of IDEAS (Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs), an independent public policy think tank in Malaysia.