The administration of Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has passed its first major test since taking office last November. Six of the country’s 13 states went to the polls last weekend in what was widely seen as a referendum on his unity government, which brought Mr Anwar’s reformist, multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan alliance together with their previous sworn enemies, the conservative United Malays National Organisation.
But the result was a six out of 10, rather than a convincing victory, and casts doubt on the unity government’s ability to survive in the long term. That, in turn, means that the political instability that has plagued the country since the Umno-led Barisan Nasional coalition lost power for the first time ever in 2018 may not be at an end. Investors don’t like it. A country that once boasted the world’s longest bull run has instead witnessed global funds withdrawing nearly $12 billion from Malaysia’s stock market over the past five years, according to Bloomberg.
On the surface, the status quo remained. The Perikatan Nasional opposition, dominated by the Islamist PAS alongside the right-wing Malay party Bersatu, retained control of the northern Malay heartlands of Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu, while the unity team held on to the economic powerhouses of Selangor and Penang and the coastal state of Negeri Sembilan.
But the opposition made big gains in Selangor and Penang, whereas Umno was wiped out in Kedah and Terengganu, and overall won only 19 out of 108 seats it contested. The anecdotal evidence so far suggests that while Mr Anwar’s supporters in Pakatan Harapan were prepared to vote for their partners Umno, where Pakatan stood aside, Umno voters were reluctant to switch to Pakatan – and many of them have drifted off to the opposition, which now has unrivalled appeal to the majority Malays, who are all Muslim, per the constitution.
True, Mr Anwar’s side may have won more votes – just. But he and his allies will know they have a big problem on their hands. Over the years, the various permutations of Mr Anwar’s Pakatan coalitions have won only when they were able to contain an all-Malay party that could appeal strongly to the ethnic group that makes up 58 per cent of the population. In 2013, when Pakatan won the popular vote (but not the general election), they had the Islamist PAS. In 2018, when they took power, they had Bersatu.
In last year’s general election, Pakatan did not have an all-Malay party that could attract enough of the Malay vote. Almost completely sowing up the votes of the ethnic Chinese, who constitute 23 per cent of the population, wasn’t enough to win them a majority in parliament. Mr Anwar could form a government only by allying with Umno, a party by then reduced to only 26 MPs in the 222-seat lower house, and parties from Malaysia’s Borneo states. For the unity government to survive, and to win another term in office, Mr Anwar needs Umno to be strong. But the party’s support continues to weaken, while the wider Barisan coalition it still nominally leads now has only four MPs on top of Umno’s 26.
Mr Anwar has been wooing Malay voters. His government announced that owners of rainbow Swatches, associated with the LGBT movement, could face up to three years in jail. Officials told Jakim, the national Islamic development department, to provide greater input into government policymaking. They also cancelled a music festival after one band outraged public morals. But these moves may not sway conservative Malays to his side – PAS and Bersatu are hardline enough to content any religious right-wingers – while these are not the kind of reforms his long-time supporters were hoping for.
“The poll results sting,” wrote the former Pakatan MP Charles Santiago in a statement. “But it’s important we do not pander to the right wing. We need to focus on the economy, creating jobs and business opportunities, bringing down prices, and institutionalised support for single mothers to bring back the Malay voters.” While he insisted that Pakatan needed to “focus on reforms and stay the middle ground”, he also conceded that the coalition “isn’t gaining traction amongst Malay voters. We need to therefore understand their grouses and make every effort to respond to their needs. Or risk losing their support forever”.
I share the view of Mr Santiago, an ethnic Indian who was a member of the mainly Chinese DAP, one of the chief Pakatan parties. And Mr Anwar has long argued that the way to help the Malays is to target the poorest in society, since they make up the vast majority of the hardcore deprived, rather than instituting new race-based schemes.
But the narrative that non-Malays have hoarded all the wealth and are secretly in control of Mr Anwar’s multi-ethnic coalition has strong resonance. Indeed, influential elements in Umno were singing this tune right up until they went into government with Mr Anwar – which is one reason why so many Umno supporters find it hard to vote for Pakatan candidates. They also see that Bersatu is made up mainly of former Umno MPs and ministers, and they have no problem casting their ballots for them.
Mr Anwar’s “Malaysia Madani” (civil Malaysia) slogan and policy framework has not cut through widely – yet. He has cracked down on corruption and abuse of power, taken steps to help those on low and middle incomes and imposed a ceiling on the price of staple foods such as chickens and eggs.
But the weight of expectation was so great – he had been trying to become prime minister for more than two decades – that perhaps a degree of letdown was inevitable. For years, his supporters appeared to feel that once Mr Anwar was in power, and Umno had been humbled, everything would miraculously be wonderful. The reality is that he has taken over after two years of a devastating pandemic, a period of instability that scared off outside business, and is reliant on a party – Umno – that is a shadow of its former glory. Umno’s president, Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi, has promised to regain the people’s confidence, but he is not helped by the court cases hanging over him and the fact that his party’s star campaigner, former prime minister Najib Razak, is in jail.
Mr Anwar’s unity government should survive until the next general election. Any Umno MPs tempted to switch to the opposition to try to bring his administration down are barred from doing so by a recent anti-party-hopping law (although they could force by-elections to change sides). But he will have his work cut out for him. Steering a middle path that satisfies the reformists and progressives who have stood by him for so long, while winning over the support of conservative Malays, will be hard indeed. The irony is that if Umno – the party his coalition brought to its knees – now collapses, it may be near impossible.