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Malaysia’s New Government Fraught With Thorny Divisions 

Malaysia's newly appointed Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim waves to his supporters after his news conference in Sungai Long, Selangor, Nov. 24, 2022.
Malaysia's newly appointed Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim waves to his supporters after his news conference in Sungai Long, Selangor, Nov. 24, 2022.

Fundamental tensions over race and corruption inside Malaysia’s disparate new government are likely to test its survival past the first one or two years and will keep its progressive prime minister from pushing long-promised reforms for racial equality, analysts say.

In a first for Malaysia, November 19 national elections ended in a hung parliament, with none of the competing party blocs managing to win a simple majority of the 222 seats up for grabs.

After days of negotiations among the blocs that still failed to pull a majority alliance together, King Al-Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, the country’s constitutional monarch, appointed longtime opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to be the new prime minister and swore him into office Thursday. It marked a remarkable turnaround for a man who had spent nearly 10 years in jail on corruption and sodomy convictions he says were politically motivated.

To finally bring a majority government together, the king also ordered Anwar’s multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan bloc into an awkward alliance with arch-rival Barisan Nasional, which champions privileges for the country’s majority ethnic Malay Muslims. Two smaller blocs representing indigenous Malaysians on the island of Borneo have also pledged their allegiance to the new government since then.

On top of their differences over race-based rights, Pakatan and Barisan also stand on opposite ends of the country’s recent corruption scandals. Former Prime Minister and Barisan Chairman Najib Razak is serving a 12-year jail term for his role in the estimated $4.5 billion looting of state development fund 1MDB. Related corruption cases are dogging several other Barisan officials as well, including current chairman Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. Anwar has made fighting corruption a pillar of his career.

James Chin, a professor at the University of Tasmania who studies Malaysian politics, said whether this government can overcome its divisions and last its five-year mandate will rest very much on the Cabinet Anwar puts together in the coming days and which parties get key posts.

The fact that the alliance was orchestrated by the country’s influential royal families should help see it through a few years at least, he said.

“My take is that this government will be quite stable; at least nothing will happen for the next two or three years,” Chin added. “It is quite clear that he [Anwar] has the support of the royals; this is an important factor in Malay politics.”

With subnational elections expected in six of Malaysia’s 11 states next year, Chin said the blocs making up the new government will not want to “rock the boat,” at least until then.

Adib Zalkapli, of the consultancy BowerGroupAsia, said having Barisan and the Borneo parties in the alliance will also help ease fears that Malay and indigenous interests would be ignored by Pakatan, which draws much of its support from the country’s sizable ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

Malaysia’s Center for Independent Journalism says it counted an increase in the number of discriminatory and hostile online posts about race and religion in the weeks leading up to the election, including a few dozen that seemed to be aimed at inciting violence.

“This is the most representative coalition that you can expect after the general election, so it will lower the tensions, at least for the short term,” Adib said.

Ahmad Martadha Mohamad, a political science professor at Utara Malaysia University, also gives the new government at least a year or so, owing to the king’s powerful endorsement.

Beyond that, though, he said internal contradictions will start to seriously strain and challenge its bonds, with a good chance of collapse before its five years are up.

Ahmad singled out the affirmative action programs for Malaysia’s Bumiputra, a term covering both ethnic Malays and other indigenous groups, at the heart of Barisan’s identity as a potential flashpoint.

“Since the very beginning, they are always fighting for and protecting the interests of the Malays and the Bumiputras. So, having Anwar with a reformist agenda behind his back and also supported by parties like DAP [the Democratic Action Party] who also continuously fight for equality for people, especially minorities, those are sensitive issues,” he said. The Democratic Action Party, whose leaders and voters are mostly ethnic Chinese and Indian, won the most seats of any party in the Pakatan bloc.

“So, I really think that he is facing an uphill task,” Ahmad added “He has to balance out his party’s agenda and also the agendas of other parties in the... government.”

In one of his first statements as prime minister, Anwar appeared to be navigating that tightrope already, promising to uphold Islam as the country’s official religion while calling for “a Malaysia for all Malaysians.”

Chin, however, said Anwar cannot afford to pursue any major changes to the country’s affirmative action programs.

“If the Malay majority thinks that the Malays are marginalized, or they perceive that the Malays are marginalized, especially on the issue of Islam, then politically it will be untenable, so he has to be very, very careful,” he said. “People who think he’s going to make fundamental reforms are kidding themselves.”

Chin said managing the many dozen corruption cases facing Barisan officials will also be “very, very difficult” for the new government. Najib and Ahmad Zahid both deny any wrongdoing in their graft cases, which began during Pakatan’s previous stint in power from 2018 to 2020, and claim they are being politically persecuted.

He said the cases will not go away, but may slow down, with no new charges, at least for a time, to help keep Barisan in the alliance. Anwar is also likely to try appeasing Barisan by giving it a few of his cabinet’s most influential and well-funded portfolios, he added, such as finance or trade and industry.

Ahmad said many are watching to see whether key cabinet posts go to any Barisan officials facing corruption charges. If they do, he said, parties in Anwar’s own Pakatan bloc could come under intense pressure from their supporters to leave the government, threatening its collapse.

“A lot of people will be expecting something different, where the lineup of the first cabinet should be filled with people who are clean,” he said. “His [Anwar’s] government will not be very stable if he includes people who have corruption cases in the lineup.”