January 2023

The high price of power

Nicholas Nugent  assesses the complex backdrop to Malaysia’s recent election, and the equally complicated results

Malaysia’s November general election was an unpredictable affair, not least because the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18 increased the size of the electorate by at least a quarter. The election produced Malaysia’s first ever hung parliament, with no party or coalition of parties gaining an overall majority in the 222-seat legislative assembly.

The election was historic for other reasons too, most notably the failure of veteran politician and two-time prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamed, to be elected – although perhaps the real wonder was that, at the age of 97, he still wanted to sit in parliament or become prime minister again.

Another headline outcome was that the party that ruled the country for 61 years, UMNO (the United Malays National Organisation), achieved its worst ever election result. With no party gaining an overall majority, it fell to Malaysia’s Yang Di-Pertuan Agong, or king, to play the leading role in forming a new government – another first for Malaysia.

In Malaysia’s system of monarchy, the hereditary rulers, or sultans, of nine of the country’s 13 constituent states take turns to be the head of the nation, whose role it is to invite an election victor to form a government. Four states do not have sultans.

So the current king, Sultan Abdullah of Pahang, had to choose between the rival blocs jockeying for power. Chief candidates were Muhyiddin Yassin, who leads the Perikatan Nasional (PN), and former UMNO deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, now leading  Pakatan Harapan (PH), or Alliance of Hope.

Pakatan Harapan leader and new PM Anwar Ibrahim
LONGING FOR LEADERSHIP: Anwar Ibrahim has wanted the top job for as long as most Malaysians can remember

Mr Anwar competed against Dr Mahathir for the leadership of UMNO in the 1980s and 90s, which caused them to fall out with each other. In 1999 Anwar was convicted and jailed on false charges of corruption and sodomy, was later pardoned, only to be arraigned again on similar charges in 2014. He subsequently cleared his name and returned to frontline politics.

Another veteran UMNO leader, Najib Razak, who became prime minister in 2009, was implicated in the loss of $4.5 billion from the state sovereign fund 1MDB. This led Dr Mahathir and Mr Anwar to return to the political fold in a successful bid to oust Mr Najib and UMNO from power. Both in turn became leader of the newly formed Pakatan Harapan, with Dr Mahathir winning another term as prime minister. Mr Najib began a 12-year prison sentence last August after being convicted on several fraud charges.

UMNO’s poor performance in November’s election showed how badly the party has been  damaged by what Dr Mahathir has called ‘the 1MDB kleptocracy scandal’. Many of the missing funds have never been recovered.

Such is the complex background to Malaysia’s fifteenth general election, and its outcome is almost as confused. Anwar’s party won 82 seats to Yassin’s 73 and UMNO’s 32. The king’s insistence on a ‘unity’ government ruled out PN leader Yassin, who was unwilling to work with rivals. The task went instead to the PH leader, 75-year old Anwar Ibrahim, who has wanted the top job for as long as most Malaysians can remember. The role of the king was crucial in shaping the new government.

The role of the king was crucial in shaping the new government

For Mr Anwar the price of winning power at last was that he had to take in his nemesis, UMNO, as a partner in government to achieve a parliamentary majority, though it was  initially unclear how many UMNO MPs backed the decision to join the new government. Some were said to be planning to oust the party’s controversial leader.

Mr Anwar’s ‘unity’ government also depends for support on the regional parties of the eastern states of Sarawak and Sabah. Party leaders joining the coalition signed a memorandum of understanding promising to support the new prime minister.

According to commentator Jalil Rasheed of the Tony Blair Foundation for Global Change, in forming a unity government ‘Malaysia has taken a step towards political maturity, but the bigger battle is to come: to convince its supporters they can work together’. 

Dependence on UMNO will limit Mr Anwar’s ability to implement pledges he made during the election campaign to clean up political and corporate corruption. It will also curb his efforts to give a fairer role in economic affairs to the country’s sizeable Chinese and smaller Indian communities, who have felt like ‘second-class’ Malaysians to the Islamic Malay majority and other ‘bumiputera’, or ‘sons of the soil’.

Race-based politics and economics have characterised Malaysian political life since independence in 1957, especially under Dr Mahathir’s leadership. After Mr Anwar brought minority figures into his government, some members of the largely Malay opposition in parliament accused him of forming ‘a Chinese government’, which one blogger described as ‘a recipe for ethnic unrest’.

Race-based politics and economics have characterised Malaysian political life since independence in 1957

If Mr Anwar tries to advance this economic ‘broadening’ by rebalancing control of industry between the races, he will be confronting not only the opposition Perikatan Nasional alliance – which is dominated by the fiercely Islamic PAS party, committed to introducing Islamic law nationally – but also UMNO members of his ruling coalition.
He will find it hard to end years of official bias in favour of Malays, who constitute around 57 per cent of the population. Attempting to do so could cause his government to fall.
Mr Anwar has chosen to hold the finance portfolio himself in a bid to tackle a cost-of-living crisis which has affected Malaysia badly. To balance the books, he is expected to reduce generous subsidies on fuel or increase taxes, which will not be popular.
Foreign policy will also test the new administration. Mr Anwar may follow the previous government’s line towards the military junta in Myanmar, a neighbour and fellow ASEAN member, in moving to recognise the country’s ‘underground’ government-in-waiting, known by the acronym NUG. Significantly, the United Nations has reaffirmed its rejection of the junta’s claim to Myanmar’s UN seat, though it has stopped short of offering it to an NUG representative.

veteran politician and two-time prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed
Veteran politician and two-time prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed failed to get elected

The new government needs to decide how much aid to accept from China for road and railway construction in the predominately Muslim East Coast region under its Belt and Road Initiative – a controversial topic, given the awkward imbalance between Muslim Malays and the country’s Chinese community. Also, it will need to take a stand on China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, where it has claimed and occupied a number of small island groups, much to the consternation of ASEAN members. 

Anwar’s PH-led government has passed its first test, winning a vote of confidence in parliament. Its next challenge is to gain support for his proposed reforms. If successful, it could herald the most significant changes to the way the country – and especially the economy – are run.

But it will not be plain sailing, as Malaysians are already questioning whether his unity government has the strength to push through such reforms.

Nicholas Nugent has reported on Malaysia since Dr Mahathir first came to power in the early 1980s