As Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim reaches out to Malays-Muslims, can he be ‘everyone’s PM’?

  • Recent moves seen as placating the Malay majority by Anwar have caused alarm among many non-Muslims in the multicultural country

  • But some observers say the leader is just being pragmatic, while aiming to strike a moderate balance between ethnic groups

Presiding over the ceremony for a young Hindu’s conversion to Islam at a mosque in Klang last month, Anwar Ibrahim struck a nerve among Malaysians concerned the prime minister is increasingly pandering to the country’s Malay-Muslim majority.

At the August 18 event, Anwar assisted a man in uttering the shahada – the Muslim statement of faith – in Arabic, a prerequisite for anyone joining Islam. His presence was unplanned; the mosque asked him to join the ceremony after he had performed Friday prayers during a visit to the families of victims of an air crash.

Still, as a video of the conversion ceremony spread across the internet, the optics jarred with many non-Muslims.

“If I wanted an imam or qadi (sharia judge) as PM, I would have voted for Hadi Awang!” former Malaysian ambassador to South America and Canada Dennis Ignatius said on X, referring to the president of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), who is a Muslim scholar and preacher.

“Day by day [Anwar] disappoints and dismays,” said Ignatius, who is of Indian descent.

Anwar was long associated with a moderate brand of Islam and an inclusive Malaysia.

But far from acting as a bulwark to the march of hardliners marshalled by a monoethnic, Islamist opposition, since forming a unity government in November, he has made decisions that critics say undermine that reputation by appealing to religious zealots whose footprint in the Malay heartlands is widening.

His fledgling administration again lost ground to religious hardliners led by PAS in state elections in early August, despite running a campaign that was criticised for deferring to conservatism and walking away from the reforms that had brought his coalition to power on the back of its multicultural base.

Malaysia’s non-Muslim population – some 44 per cent of its 33.4 million people – is made up primarily of ethnic Chinese, at around 6.7 million, and Indians at around 2 million, alongside other smaller ethnic groups, particularly the Ibans in Sarawak and Kadazan Dusuns in Sabah.

While Islam is enshrined as the state religion under the constitution, that same document also guarantees the freedom of religion for all.

But this settlement – in place since independence in 1957 – is being tested.

In August, the PAS-led Perikatan Nasional coalition won 146 of the 245 seats contested in state elections, even making inroads in the economic powerhouses of Penang and Selangor – with high non-Muslim populations.

In the election run-up, Anwar’s administration did its best to appeal to the Malay majority, experts say.

It cracked down on displays of LGBTQ identity – including banning rainbow Swatch watches, which sullied the image of his administration abroad. Anwar was also frequently pictured in the company of international Islamic preachers in an outward show of piety.
Since the state elections, he has tried what many say is impossible: appealing to the Malay heartlands while insisting on maintaining the country’s multicultural make-up.

In his National Day speech on Wednesday, Anwar touched on the sensitive issues between the country’s numerous diverse communities and pledged to defend everyone’s rights.

“God willing, the unity government will defend the rights of every people on this blessed earth,” he said.

Yet division abounds. Abdul Hadi Awang, who has led PAS since 2002, has repeatedly made unsavoury statements towards non-Muslims, saying they should be grateful to be “given a place” in Malaysia, and accusing them of “ruining the country’s politics and economy” by being the leading cause of corruption.

While campaigning for a by-election on Sunday last week, Abdul Hadi told voters that they would be judged by God based upon who they elected.

“When choosing leaders, it must be Islam that leads,” he said. “Non-Muslims cannot [lead].”

While alarmed by the lurch to the right, some non-Muslims say they understand Anwar’s outreach to conservatives, detecting pragmatism instead of overzealous religiosity in his moves to assuage the Malay majority, who account for two-thirds of voters.

“We all already know Anwar is quite religious, but his policy is more moderate,” said a doctor of Chinese descent in Kuala Lumpur, who only wished to be identified as Leong. “I also understand how he is losing Malay trust, so he is doing it to regain it.”