Anwar Ibrahim Hot After Parliamentary Victory

  • Won parliamentary supermajority, allowing him to pass reforms to raise the standard of living. 
  • Elected due to political instability and multiple political scandals involving the opposition. 
  • Aims to bring stability to the region, especially Myanmar. 
Kuala Lumpur 08 May 2013. PIX Firdaus Latif (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Why is Anwar Ibrahim’s heat level hot? 

Answer: Ibrahim won parliamentary supermajority.

Anwar Ibrahim’s temperature rose after becoming Malaysia’ 10th Prime Minister in November 2022 after his party, Pakatan Harapan, won the largest number of seats (82) in snap elections. To secure a majority, he formed an alliance with the Barisan Nasional party (which allied itself with United Malays National Organisation and holds 30 seats), Gabungan Parti Sarawak (23 seats), and Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (6 seats), creating a supermajority of 148 out of 222 seats as more political groups joined his government.

Winning the election raised his temperature to hot. However, Ibrahim is not blazing, as no single party secured a clear majority, he led a coalition government, which has historically been prone to collapse in Malaysia. To form his cabinet, he had to make concessions to other political parties by offering them key ministerial positions. This resulted in six important positions being granted to members of BN/UMNO.

For example, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has been appointed deputy prime minister. However, this could come at a cost since he has been implicated in several corruption scandals. This is especially delicate since Anwar Ibrahim’s campaign relied on being anti-corruption. Moreover, in an effort to foster harmony within his government, Anwar created a second prime minister position and awarded it to Fadillah Yussof (member of the GPS party). 

Who is changing Ibrahim’s temperature?

Answer: Ibrahim’s party’s ascent to power has been facilitated by political volatility and a lack of trust in other political parties since 2018.

Several factors paved the way for his election such as the persistent political turmoil and widespread disillusionment with the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the party that had been in power for over five decades. Malaysia’s political instability can be traced back to the toppling of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in May 2018.

The loss can be attributed to the 1MDB scandal, which resulted in the incarceration of former Prime Minister Najib Razak. The scandal involved the creation of 1MDB, a government-owned strategic development company by the prime minister and finance minister of Malaysia. However, allegations arose that billions of dollars were misused for personal gain, including the purchase of luxury goods. 

This scandal resulted in the distrust of UMNO’s officials and the 2018 parliamentary win of the multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan coalition. However, the coalition collapsed after a power grab in February 2020, when the Bersatu party left the coalition. They were replaced by the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition government led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. As the COVID-19 pandemic worsened, Muhyiddin’s  government faced persistent infighting with the Parliament, leading to his resignation in August 2021.

This paved the way for Ismail Sabri to become Prime Minister. Ismail Sabri, one of UMNO’s vice presidents, ruled in a shaky alliance with other parties representing the ethnic Malay majority since August 2021. He called for the dissolution of the Parliament in October of 2022. However, Anwar Ibrahim’s coalition won these elections. 

The political instability and corruption scandals were crucial when it came to Anwar winning the elections. Indeed, Malaysian voters rejected UNMO and supported Anwar Ibrahim due to his anti-corruption stance. Anwar’s credibility was reinforced by his imprisonment in 1999 on disputed charges of corruption and sodomy, resulting in a six-year and nine-year prison term respectively. 

Furthermore, political turmoil caused a split in UMNO/Bersatu’s voter base, with some joining the conservative-ethnonationalist Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which emphasizes Islamic values. This led disillusioned voters to seek new options, tired of the same politicians being elected and then losing power. PAS gained 49 seats in the last election, its best performance ever. This division allowed Anwar’s party to emerge with the most seats.

What is driving Ibrahim? 

Answer: Ibrahim wants to improve Malaysia’s economy and ensure regional political stability. 

Anwar Ibrahim is driven by a strong desire to ensure Malaysia’s economic growth and to raise living standards. In fact, this was one of his promises when became Prime Minister. Malaysia’s economy had suffered a 17.1% decline in the second quarter of 2020 as a result of the pandemic. Making it Malaysia’s worst economic performance since the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998. In addition to the decline in GDP, the number of households living below the poverty line rose to 5.6% that year.  

More than just a promise, improving Malaysia’s economy and living standards are key to increasing Anwar’s approval rate. According to Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, in February, Anwar held an approval rate of 68% which is lower than his last two predecessors in their first two months of office. Increasing Anwar’s popularity is key right now as it would ensure political stability and increasing his and his party’s popularity is key as there are upcoming state elections. Even though these elections will not affect the composition of the Parliament, it could have negative consequences for Ibrahim, especially if the ethno-nationalist opposition bloc performs well.

In order to improve the living standards, Anwar has presented an expansionary 2023 budget of RM388.1 billion (US$87.50 billion), which is the largest in Malaysia’s history. The budget includes an increased development allocation of RM97 billion, up from RM71.6 billion last year. In addition to these measures, middle-income households earning between 35,000 and 100,000 ringgit annually will also benefit from a 2% tax reduction. This budget will primarily focus on poverty eradication programs, education, and rural facilities to improve the standard of living for Malaysians. 

Apart from this, Anwar seeks to guarantee stability in the ASEAN region. On February 29, during his visit with Philippine’s President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, Anwar expressed his concerns about the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, which has led to over 200,000 refugees seeking asylum in Malaysia since the coup in 2021. Anwar questioned the relevance of ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus and proposed taking further action. While ASEAN traditionally follows non-interference, he highlighted that the Myanmar crisis has regional implications, impacting the security and welfare of Malaysia and neighboring countries.

In addition to ensuring stability in Myanmar, Anwar has pledged to support a peaceful resolution to the insurgency in southern Thailand. This is a crucial step for Anwar as it will not only bring peace to the Thai region but also enhance Malaysia’s security. The conflict stems from various groups seeking autonomy for the predominantly Muslim and ethnically Malay provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, Pattani, and parts of Songkhla that border Malaysia.

Anwar has taken concrete steps to support the peace process, including appointing Zulkifli Zainal Abidin, a former head of Malaysia’s armed forces, as a facilitator. He has also stated that Malaysia is ready to provide assistance to help find a peaceful solution to the conflict. By taking these measures, Anwar hopes to bring lasting peace and security to the region while strengthening Malaysia’s ties with Thailand.

What does this mean for you? 

Answer: Ibrahim’s election could help bring stability to the region and keep the PAS at bay. 

The election of Anwar means a review of the “five-point consensus” which was adopted by ASEAN last year. This is a plan which included the following point: ​an immediate end to violence in the country. However, since then the members of the organization have failed to achieve this. Ending the conflict is essential as 12,000 people have been killed since February 2021 and 200,000 have taken refuge in Malaysia. Anwar’s efforts to take a more active role in regional affairs may prove to be critical in addressing the ongoing crisis in Myanmar.

Finally, Ibrahim is invested in maintaining stability in the South China Sea. During discussions with the Filipino president, Anwar signed several bilateral agreements and addressed pressing regional and international issues. Among the topics discussed was the ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which have long been a source of tension in the region. In addressing the South China Sea disputes, Anwar suggested a multilateral approach at the ASEAN level. He emphasized the importance of cooperation among member countries and proposed high level discussions within ASEAN to establish a unified position on the issue.

The Malaysian Prime Minister also stood his ground when he visited China to discuss bilateral ties between the two nations, raising concerns regarding the offshore activities of Malaysian state petrochemical firm, Petronas, within the Southeast Asian nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea. This particular matter has been a source of tensions between the two countries. Anwar conveyed to President Xi that Petronas would continue its operations, considering the area as part of Malaysia’s territory.

However, Ibrahim expressed openness to discussions and negotiations should China believe they have rights to the area. It is important for Anwar not to alienate China as they are a major trading partner. In fact, during that same meeting they signed USD 38.6 billion worth of investment commitments by Chinese firms in various sectors.

Roxane de Bergevin

Research & Analysis Member