Malaysia’s Anwar Feared to be Losing Power to UMNO

UMNO, reduced almost to a rump party, shows how to run things

John Berthelsen, Asia Sentinel

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim appears to be in danger of losing control of his government, which had the potential to be Asia’s most interesting experiment in democracy and reform, to the graft-ridden United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which was routed from power last November and left with only 26 seats in the 222-member parliament after dominating it 65 years.

But Umno has continued to play an outsize role, now wagging the government through the Deputy Prime Minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, 70, a long-time supporter and friend of the 75-year-old Anwar, despite the fact that he has been indicted for corruption. The eventual worst-case scenario could be that both Zahid and former Prime Minister Najib Razak could go free despite massive charges of sleaze.

Just a few weeks are left before crucial July state elections, with scores of local seats up that could substantially damage the political standing of the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition. The state polls have acquired added meaning because of fears of rising Islamic fervor, formerly confined to the backwater east- coast states, could burst out into urban centers because of dissatisfaction with Anwar’s multiracial coalition. Anwar’s government is expected to lose three of the six states which have run their full five-year terms (Malaysia has 13 in total), with the opposition Perikatan Nasional holding the rural eastern Islamic-dominated states of Kelantan, Terengganu, and Kedah. The government should hold Penang and Negri Sembilan but faces a challenge in the moderate urban center Selangor which surrounds Kala Lumpur, which should be Anwar’s base.

The Pakatan Harapan government has struggled almost since it came to power, partly because Anwar didn’t have enough seats to form even a simple majority despite his coalition having won 82 seats, the single largest number, and was forced into a “unity coalition” with Umno that was proposed by Malaysia’s king. But the government also suffers from the naïveté, arrogance, and inexperience of his five-month-old cabinet, not least because it handed over so much of its clout through cabinet appointments to the Umno crowd, starting with Zahid, who is also Umno president and clearly the linchpin that keeps the government in power despite the fact that he faces 43 counts of corruption for allegedly looting his own charity.

From the start, Umno has focused on regaining power, while Anwar has been unflatteringly described as Ibarat kera mendapat bunga — Malay for a monkey with a flower, pulling off a petal at a time – flitting from issue to issue instead of concentrating on the big picture, generating increasing memes and Tik Tok videos making fun of himThe picture is of a squabbling coalition and cabinet, with the ethnic Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party and Umno officials slagging each other off regularly. Most recently, Umno Supreme Council member Nur Jazlan Mohamed openly criticized DAP leader Lim Kit Siang, calling the DAP a liability in the attempt to regain ethnic Malay support for the government coalition that was lost to the Malay nationalist PAS and Perikatan Nasional in the November 2022 elections.

Zahid the architect

It was Zahid who in effect put the coalition together at the start when it appeared about to lose power to the Perikatan Nasional coalition headed by former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yasin, and whose most important component was the rural Islamist party Islam se-Malaysia, which won an unprecedented 46 seats and unsettled the entire political superstructure with concerns over the growing “Green Wave” of Islamic fundamentalism and Malay supremism. He has continued to use his clout to dominate while Anwar has looked preoccupied with diplomatic affairs that have often taken him out of the country. No real economic policy has emerged despite the country’s pressing economic problems and inflation.

Anwar remained strangely muted when, for instance, Azalina Othman Said, a top Umno party member and Anwar’s coalition’s own law minister, intimated that the judge who sat over Najib’s conviction had breached the ‘judge’s code of ethics’ and had a conflict of interest, which legal scholars have dismissed as nonsense.

At the outset during negotiations to form a government, Zahid is said to have only insisted on two portfolios—one for himself as deputy prime minister and rural development minister, the ministry that is crucially important to Umno because of the government-paid resources it can bring to bear rebuild the party’s standing among rural constituents who have traditionally formed the party’s base. Zahid also insisted on securing the law ministry for Azalina, who had previously served as Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department and Special Adviser to former Umno Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob on Law and Human Rights. He got the foreign ministry for two party hacks, Zambry Abdul Kadir, the former chief minister of Perak, who is considered to be far out of his depth, and Mohamad Hasan, a former chief minister of the state of Negri Sembilan, as defense minister, a cipher in charge of one of the country’s most important ministries at a time growing Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

Zahid’s goal from the start has been to keep himself out of jail. He may be succeeding. His trial, supposed to be in January, has been repeatedly postponed. The betting is that he will remain free. The defense last week launched a petition in the high court asking that the charges be dismissed. Observers are waiting to see how it is handled. In the meantime, she hasn’t inspired any confidence, especially after a recent statement construed as in support of a pardon for disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak go back who is currently serving 12 years in prison as one of the architects of the 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal, the biggest financial scandal in Malaysian history.

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