The unravelling of the Anwar myth

Years in the making, months in the disappointment


Seven months ago, Anwar Ibrahim became Malaysia’s prime minister amid a burst of messianic approbation. The 75-year-old Anwar was arguably a symbol of hope for a generation, widely expected in international capitals including Washington, DC to bring about Malaysia’s desperately needed reform, turn the tide on creeping Islamization, reinstall egalitarian multiculturalism, rid the nation of cronyism and kleptocracy, and end corruption.

Little of that has taken place, tarnishing the prime minister’s image both domestically and internationally and dismaying his international allies. Many of the laws used against him and his allies during his years in the political wilderness remain in place. The Home Minister, Saifuddin Nasution, shocked followers at the onset by announcing that the Printing Presses and Publications Act is still needed. The Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012, known as SOSMA, which replaced the colonial-era Internal Security Act allowing for detention without habeas corpus, remains in place, as do the Sedition Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Communications and Multimedia Act and other draconian laws which admittedly are rarely used but haven’t been repealed.

That and a host of other issues may cost the government in six state elections due this month which will play a major role in determining the direction of the country. There is rising concern that Malay-Muslim voters will constitute a green wave to the nationalist Perikatan Nasional coalition, whose leading component is Parti Islam se-Malaysia.

Struggle to the top

Anwar has arguably been on a quest to become prime minister for over 30 years. Soon after Mahathir Mohamed became prime minister in 1981, he recruited the youthful Anwar as a galvanic student activist and co-founder of the Islamic youth movement ABIM, to provide “Islamic credentials” to his government.

Anwar’s abrupt sacking from office in 1998, his two stints in prison under two prime ministers over the next 20 years, made him a martyr, celebrated as an International Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International over what a wide range of international human rights organizations deemed to be trumped-up charges. His 1998 sacking gave birth to the ‘reformasi’ movement, later forming into a fully fledged opposition coalition, which finally took power in 2018, while he was still serving a jail term.

The crux of Anwar’s political troubles stems from the 2022 general election, when his Pakatan Harapan coalition didn’t win enough seats in its own right to form a government. With the Malay nationalist Muhyiddin Yassin and Perikatan Nasional – with the rural Islam se-Malaysia its biggest component – looked like being able to form a government with the scandal-scarred United Malays National Organization, which had dominated politics since the country’s independence.

However, UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who faced 47 charges of corruption, switched allegiance, enabling Anwar to become prime minister and form what has become known as the unity government in a devil’s bargain. Anwar had finally fulfilled his deep ambition to become prime minister although at the price of tying his reform movement an indelibly venal UMNO, whose looting of the country treasury grew to new levels in the decade to 2018, when it was driven from power for the first time. UMNO’s leader and kingmaker, former Prime Minister Najib Razak, is serving 12 years in prison for his part in the biggest financial scandal in the country’s history and faces yet more charges.

Seven months into his prime ministership, is Anwar living up to the mythology? There is much concern over whether the criminal charges against Hamidi will be dropped after state elections due this month. Rumors coming out of the attorney general’s chambers indicate the charges could be withdrawn. His ongoing trial has already been inexplicably delayed for months. If that were to occur, it would make a total mockery of reform, and might even bring down the government.

Seven months at the helm

Inaction over the economy is so far the biggest weakness of the government. “Even having a plan that didn’t work would give people some confidence, over not having any plan at all,” one source told Asia Sentinel.

The Covid-19 pandemic, as elsewhere, left many behind as poor and vulnerable groups, including smaller firms, continued to struggle to regain their footing, according to the World Bank. They have been hard hit by increases in food and energy prices, admittedly triggered by geopolitical developments.

But the government has shied away from the hard decisions to right the fiscal ship, straying away from the political third rail of a goods and services tax or other revenue-raising measures.

That hasn’t stopped his acolytes from portraying him as a success. They point to the signing of 19 MOUs in China, pledging RM170 billion (US$36.4 billion) in investment to Malaysia, was talked up through the media as an unprecedented success story. However, when journalists and economists examined the MOUs closely, they found unanswered questions about the integrity of the companies that signed in front of Anwar. Any number of leaders has left China boasting of investment promises, only to have them vanish. With the Chinese economy flagging, those promises are looking shaky.

Corruption campaign a mirage?

A major concern is his lackadaisical approach to what had been his lodestar —cleaning up corruption. The arrest of Muhyiddin Yassin on charges of abuse of power and money laundering over the dispersal of Covid-19 funds was publicly played up before the arrest and arraignment. Since then, there have been few other major arrests. There is much conjecture about whether the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) has been politicized and weaponized against Anwar’s political opponents.

The reform government’s major announcement so far is the launching of “Malaysia Madani,” a slogan (“Civil Malaysia”) meant to encapsulate the essence of the unity government. But there has been no in-depth explanation about how Madani would be integrated into policymaking, or in fact what it is. The 2023 budget was hailed as a Madani budget. However, it appeared the Madani name was just cut and pasted onto the budget at the last minute, rather than signaling any new direction in policy.

Anwar was also criticized for his ‘secret’ appointment of his daughter Nurul Izzah, as his economic adviser. This met with wide social media criticism after the news broke some 3 weeks after her appointment.

Lack of policies but full of agenda

With the economy experiencing a drop of exports, a depreciating ringgit, negative capital outflow, a sluggish stock market, rising incidence of poverty, and rising cost of living, the government still does not have a policy toolbox to tackle these problems. This highlights the general policy vacuum, ironically with Anwar himself as finance minister. There have been no major announcements in either the health or education areas, while any legal reform is basically on hold.

According to Mariam Mokhtar, Anwar has returned to his Islamization agenda started in the 1980s, while he was deputy prime minister. In May, raids on stores which carried rainbow coloured Swatches reached international news syndicates. Then in June, Anwar announced the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) would play a major role in economic and development policy, even though the organization had no economists on staff. This also made international news, as it was seen as a radical move away from traditional policy making. Ulama (religious scholars) will now be responsible for creating the economic development framework for Malaysia.

There is a possibility that Anwar’s comments regarding JAKIM may have been ‘off-the-cuff’ remarks, aimed at winning Malay support in the coming state elections. However, if this initiative is rolled out, it would be impossible to reverse it. Both Muslims and non-Muslins in Malaysia have been highly critical of JAKIM, which itself has not been exempt from allegations of corruption in its responsibility for halal certification.

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