Anwar, in this and previous conversations, recognized the pitfalls of appearing overly close to the U.S., and while he called on us to lobby for democratic reform, he was unable to offer practical suggestions for making such a U.S. approach effective. Anwar’s comments on Abdullah and Najib are in line with his earlier statements, in particular Anwar’s public attacks on Najib. Khalid Ibrahim failed to impress us in this meeting as PKR’s new secretary general, though we note he has occupied this position for little over one month. Khalid appeared more comfortable speaking of his business management experience with palm oil plantations rather than opposition politics.


Raja Petra Kamarudin







Classified By: Ambassador Christopher J. LaFleur for reasons 1.4 (b and d).



1.  (C) Former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim told the Ambassador during their July 11 discussion that he believed opposition parties could capture some 40 parliament seats or more in the next general election, projecting from results of the April Ijok by-election.  Anwar’s People’s Justice Party (PKR) lost in Ijok due primarily to the ruling National Coalition’s overwhelming advantage of money and state resources, he explained, but PKR nevertheless secured the majority of Chinese votes and almost half of the Malay vote.

The PKR leader decried the unfair electoral playing field, particularly the opposition’s lack of access to the government-controlled media.  He praised the work of U.S. democracy NGOs NDI and IRI, along with NED, and hoped other groups, including the Carter Center, would play a role in encouraging reform.  Anwar urged the U.S. and other countries to lobby Prime Minister Abdullah and other senior leaders over issues like press freedom. 

The Ambassador noted that overt U.S. pressure for certain political changes could be counterproductive, a risk Anwar acknowledged.  Anwar criticized current affirmative action policies for Malays as harming Malaysia’s competitiveness, but did not spell out a way to sell his alternative to Malay constituents. 

The Ambassador briefed Anwar on the state of play with Free Trade Agreement talks.  Anwar described PM Abdullah as a “dear family friend” and well-meaning, but “completely incompetent.”  Nevertheless, Abdullah was preferable to his deputy, Najib Tun Razak, who “cannot be trusted.” 

We assess that the increased opposition gains projected by Anwar are not impossible but remain highly unlikely, and the PKR itself is the weakest of the opposition parties.  Anwar’s chances for a return to high office are obscure, and his most plausible route back to power – being invited back into UMNO – remains closed for now.  End Summary.

Opposition Could Double Parliament Seats

2.  (C) The Ambassador, joined by DCM and polchief, hosted prominent opposition figure and former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim for lunch at the Residence on July 11, the latest in a continuing series of meetings with senior leaders of Malaysian political parties.  PKR President Wan Azizah (Anwar’s wife), PKR Secretary General Khalid Ibrahim, and PKR Treasurer William Leong accompanied Anwar. 

In response to the Ambassador’s query, Anwar stated that opposition parties could win 40 parliament seats in the next general election, and hoped that this figure might reach 60 (currently opposition parties hold 20 out of 219 seats in Parliament; PKR holds only one).  Chinese-majority Penang and Sabah with its turbulent political scene represented the states where PKR hoped to make the most gains. 

Anwar based his 40 seat estimate on projections from ethnic voting patterns in the April by-election in Ijok.  PKR lost that contest against the ruling National Front (BN), but nevertheless attracted some 40 percent of the total vote.  Anwar claimed that in Ijok PKR received 60 percent of the Chinese vote, roughly half of the Malay vote, and 15 percent of the Indian votes cast, and he had used these figures as a basis for his national projection.

Ijok Lost to Money Politics

3.  (C) Anwar and Khalid Ibrahim, who stood as PKR’s candidate in Ijok, ascribed their loss in the by-election to BN and the leading UMNO party’s extensive use of money politics (“one thousand ringgit given to every household”) and state resources.  The government also employed harassing tactics, such as police interfering with and sometimes disallowing campaign speeches. 

PKR’s dismal showing among Indian voters reflected BN’s choice of an ethnic Indian candidate (while Khalid is a Malay) and the inability of PKR to campaign within plantations that are home to many Indians.

Khalid, who is a prominent businessman, former executive of Mahathir’s National Capital Agency, and former CEO of a large state-owned plantation holding company, described the Ijok election as a “rough introduction” to politics.

BN Advantage Less Pronounced in Nationwide Election

4.  (C) UMNO’s huge advantage in resources and party machinery would be less of a factor in the national election, Anwar noted, as UMNO could not afford to finance hundreds of campaigns at the same level of the Ijok poll.  Also, BN did not have the capacity to direct government officials, particularly the police, to interfere with opposition campaigns simultaneously across the nation, but instead would need to focus such tactics on a few high-priority electoral districts.  He claimed many lower level officials and police were sympathetic to him, and would not take prejudicial action against the opposition without specific direction from senior officials. 

Anwar observed that in practice the government restricted PKR’s activities more than those of the Islamist opposition party PAS.  Anwar offered no predictions of the election’s timing, while Wan Azizah said PM Abdullah might be waiting until after presentation of the budget in Parliament on September 7.

Anwar Encourages Democracy NGOs, Foreign Election Groups

5.  (C) Anwar praised the democracy strengthening activities undertaken by U.S. NGOs the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, along with funding provided by the National Endowment for Democracy, while noting that such support remained very small relative to funds for neighboring Indonesia. 

The U.S. NGO support for the establishment of “election watch” and “media watch” bodies was very important.  Anwar said he continued to encourage the involvement of the Carter Center and European NGOs, along with bodies from Indonesia and Turkey, in some sort of democracy monitoring activities. At the very least, the foreign group’s presence and attention would lead to better understanding of Malaysia’s political reality and democratic shortcomings, Anwar offered. 

However, when asked how monitors would obtain the requisite visas, Anwar acknowledged that the government would never accept international election monitors.  Anwar also agreed that too-public U.S. lobbying for better treatment of the opposition could be counterproductive in Malaysia’s highly nationalistic environment, one in which politicians could easily whip up public indignation by branding the opposition – as Anwar himself had been – as doing US bidding.  On the other hand, Anwar and the Ambassador agreed, on-going, low-key U.S. democracy programming was making an important contribution to Malaysia’s political future.

Seeks U.S. Lobbying on Press Freedom

6.  (C) The Ambassador queried Anwar on the effect of the media on opposition prospects.  Anwar noted, only half in jest, that former PM Mahathir’s use the media to attack political opponents was preferable to PM Abdullah’s orders to the government-controlled press to ignore the opposition, particularly Anwar himself. 

Anwar continued to address occasional large rallies, and put his views out through the internet press, but he admitted that lack of access to the mainstream media constituted a severe handicap.  During the Ijok election, he noted that he faced a barrage of press attacks on his character, including repeated airing of footage of a jig he performed on a campaign stage with commentary describing this as unbecoming of a Muslim (and juxtaposed with footage of President Bush at an African dance performance to imply that Anwar is in America’s pocket).

Anwar urged the U.S. to lobby Prime Minister Abdullah and other senior leaders in a discreet manner to encourage press freedom, among other democratic reforms.

Criticism of Economic Management and NEP

7.  (C) The PKR leaders criticized Malaysia’s economic management and doubted the country’s growth could keep pace with other Asian economies.  Anwar explained his rejection of the government’s long-standing Malay affirmative action programs, referred to as the New Economic Policy (NEP), which he said left Malaysia at a comparative disadvantage in seeking foreign direct investment, generated racial tension and only benefited Malay elites.  Instead, he favored a needs-based approach that would better assist disadvantaged Malays and others, but he did not outline a convincing strategy for selling his views to the Malay voters. 

Khalid Ibrahim, who previously played a key role in implementing NEP objectives, appeared less enthusiastic about opposing Malay affirmative action and somewhat confused as to Anwar’s own approach.

Ambassador Briefs on FTA

8.  (C) The Ambassador briefed Anwar on the status of the Free Trade Agreement talks, noting the essential point of reaching a good agreement that would attract U.S. congressional support regardless of fast track trade promotion authority.  Anwar and Khalid expressed disappointment that Malaysia failed to reach an agreement with the U.S., while South Korea had succeeded. 

Anwar Prefers Incompetent Abdullah Over Corrupt Najib

9.  (C) Anwar made a point of describing Prime Minister Abdullah as a “dear family friend” and a well-intentioned politician.  Abdullah, however, was “completely incompetent,” and had left the government without leadership, an opinion enthusiastically endorsed by Wan Azizah.   Nevertheless, Abdullah was preferable to his deputy, Najib Tun Razak, who “cannot be trusted” and was thoroughly corrupt.  Anwar expressed dismay at the huge pay-off Najib reportedly received as part of Malaysia’s purchase of French submarines.

The PKR leaders referred to the on-going murder trial of Najib advisor Razak Baginda and two policemen as symbolic of the government’s lack of integrity and disarray.


10.  (C) The increased opposition gains projected by Anwar for the next election are not unimaginable but remain highly unlikely.  Even Anwar’s high estimate of sixty opposition seats in Parliament would fall short of the key one-third – needed to block any constitutional changes that might be proposed by the UMNO-led coalition – which has always been viewed here as the minimum that the ruling coalition must secure to sustain its grip on power.  It is, in any case, highly unlikely that Abdullah would be so visibly gearing up for early elections if such loses were likely.  Among opposition parties, Anwar’s PKR appears to have the worst prospects with its already limited machinery weakened by a spate of defections following its party congress in June.

Moreover, at this moment UMNO appears to be focusing more on Anwar and PKR than on the other opposition elements, with PM son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin calling for voters to “bury” PKR in the polls.  Malaysia’s mainstream media, although arguably less constrained under Abdullah than it was under Mahathir, remains subject to government direction, and the general inability of opposition voices to reach the public through the press is a longstanding obstacle only partially alleviated by increasing public access to the – so far – largely un-censored internet.

11.  (C) Anwar, in this and previous conversations, recognized the pitfalls of appearing overly close to the U.S., and while he called on us to lobby for democratic reform, he was unable to offer practical suggestions for making such a U.S. approach effective.  Anwar’s comments on Abdullah and Najib are in line with his earlier statements, in particular Anwar’s public attacks on Najib.  Khalid Ibrahim failed to impress us in this meeting as PKR’s new secretary general, though we note he has occupied this position for little over one month.  Khalid appeared more comfortable speaking of his business management experience with palm oil plantations rather than opposition politics.

12.  (C) Anwar remains one of the most charismatic figures – some would argue the only charismatic figure – in Malaysian politics. Although his ban from political activity (based on his past conviction for misuse of his government position) does not expire until April, 2008, he appears to have shaped for himself a role as the de facto leader of his party which the government appears willing to tolerate.

13.  (C) However, Anwar’s chances for a return to high office – which virtually everyone here assumes to be his ultimate objective – remain obscure.  He is unlikely to even get the chance to gain a parliamentary seat as most expect Abdullah to call elections well before Anwar’s political ban expires next year.  (Should this be the case, Anwar’s backup plan probably entails arranging the resignation of an elected PKR MP after April 2008, forcing a by-election in which Anwar then could run.  This possibility may contribute to the UMNO drive to prevent PKR from gaining any seats.) 

The current disquiet among the Chinese community with the Malay chauvinism expressed by many UMNO leaders could cut into the ruling coalition’s totals in that election, but disgruntled Chinese are more likely to turn toward the Chinese opposition party DAP than to Anwar, whom many still remember as a quite chauvinistic Malay leader in his own right when he was in UMNO.  In any event, while few expect the ruling coalition to do as well in the next election as it did in 2004, no objective observer here anticipates the ruling coalition losing control of the parliament.

14.  (C) Anwar’s most plausible route back to power remains the one he used to get there in the first place – being invited back into UMNO.  When Abdullah was under attack from Mahathir last year, some perceived a chance of a split between Abdullah and his only obvious successor, Deputy PM Najib, that would lead to one or the other bringing back Anwar, who is thought to retain residual support in the party grass roots.  However, Mahathir’s apparent health problems and Najib’s oft-rumored connection to the Mongolian murder case currently in the courts have effectively eliminated any near-term challenge to Abdullah’s pursuit of a second five-year term. 

Anwar therefore appears to be concentrating his attacks on Najib in hopes he can help bring about the DPM’s fall and open up fissures in UMNO middle ranks that will give him other opportunities.  The fact that some UMNO leaders recently proposed a new party regulation, which would deny party membership to former PKR members, suggests that Najib’s supporters still see Anwar as a threat that cannot be written off.

LAFLEUR  (July 2007)