PMX at 100 Days: Anwar Out of the Gate

3-plus months is perhaps not enough time to gauge the performance of his government. Yet, the Anwar administration has hit some positive, negative and iffy notes. Dr Bridget Welsh analyses Anwar Ibrahim’s 1st 100 days as Malaysia’s 10th prime minister.

Dr Bridget Welsh

Malaysia’s 10th Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has reached 100 days in office. But while the milestone serves as a common time frame to mark performance, this arbitrary 3-month plus assessment period can, at best, only provide an early indication of strengths and weaknesses.

Given the conditions any PM would have inherited — limited revenue tied to excessive leakages and a narrow tax base, a deeply politically polarised country, significant bureaucratic resistance to good governance and a less-than-favourable global economic climate — the task of governing was always to be challenging.

Sour and sweet

The opposition Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition’s continuous reliance on racialised rhetoric to divide Malaysians and destabilise the government rather than accept defeat has further compounded difficulties. It, in fact, remains myopically focused on gaining power and the spoils of war.

The recent exposure of alleged corruption during PN’s time in government in scandals such as Jana Wibawa has added bitterness to the sour toxic rhetoric.

For Anwar and his government, coming in without a convincing mandate and relying on a coalition of reluctant frenemies, the initial focus has been on confidence-building. And Malaysians across communities have rallied around this focus on governing rather than politicking. “

However, support among the largest ethnic community, the Malays, remains contested.

My now-complete study of voting in the 15th general election (GE15) at micro granular polling station-level finds that Pakatan Harapan only won an estimated 13% of Malay votes from those who voted in Peninsular Malaysia (up from an estimated 11% in the macro level preliminary study, with the results to be published soon).

Yet, combined with support from Umno, Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) and Warisan, the government holds a majority of support of Malays who voted across Malaysia as a whole, and also, the overwhelming support of non-Malay communities.

Importantly, post-GE surveys show modest gains in support since November; goodwill has grown.

A January 2023 survey from Merdeka Center found that 68% of Malaysians support Anwar as prime minister.In fact, Anwar’s popularity is already higher than Ismail Sabri during his tenure.

What matters, however, is perception and what is believed.”

Despite strong public support for announced measures (that would be envied elsewhere), there continues to be a not-as-sweet-as-hoped “honeymoon” period.

To hold onto power, elite support and Parliament numbers remain crucial. In his Parliament speech, Malaysia’s Agong was blunt in his call for stability and hoped that there would be no change of government during the remainder of his tenure as king.

Crucially, Anwar has managed to consolidate his coalition, to shore up support. And while there are grumblings among those for whom on-board promises have yet to be fulfilled, with informal cooperation among fellow disgruntled quarters mooted, relations between the core coalition partners have improved.

With Anwar looking (very) comfortable in his return visit to Umno’s World Trade Centre headquarters and smiles all around (except for those that they forgot to invite), the shared interests of being in power have started to move towards exercising power.

Umno Budget model

The retabled and revised Budget 2023 has been the biggest test so far, yet is expected to be easily passed in Parliament this month. Debates in Parliament are ongoing.

Anwar’s government has framed it as an expansionary Budget targeting those most in need. This progressive distributive framework aims to differentiate this Budget from those of his predecessors it falls back into the old formula ofdependence on handouts and “goodie delivery”. The Budget arguably overestimates the global economic recovery and inflates spending by including traditional off-Budget items.

Anwar Ibrahim promised many reforms. Will he deliver? Pix by: Norman Goh

There are lots of promises to “reform” but these are just that: promises (for now). There are no meaningful new policies, particularly addressing the social safety net, and the budget doesn’t address needed restructuring of spending, revenue or policy implementation. “

Critical sectors in human capital development — health and education — have only been given modest increases in funding, following old patterns of spending that often fail to reach citizens. Furthermore, it is not clear how the Budget supports growth in an economy that’s still recovering from the Covid-19 crisis.

From inadequately explained billions allocated to GLCs to cutting constituency allocations, the model of the Budget remains Umno-like. It differs from Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s PH 1.0 in that it is not an austerity budget. Yet, it echoes the pattern of the past; with funds being allocated to shore up those in power and undermine political opponents.

Like Mahathir, too, Anwar is focused on trying to win over those who did not vote for him, while ignoring — and (modestly) increasing taxes on — many of those who did. The Budget is used as a tool to gain popularity; not only is it clear that state elections are coming, it is evident that Budgets have become part of government branding, a practice that former prime minister Najib Razak did well.