Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has made four unsuccessful attempts to become prime minister. Photo: CWH
James Chin
James Chin

Why Malaysia’s opposition must sacrifice Anwar Ibrahim to win the next election

  • The formation of Ismail Sabri’s ‘back-door’ government means Anwar has failed to win power for a fourth time, held back once more by a Malay establishment and Islamists threatened by his pluralism and opposition to race-based economic policies
  • Pakatan Harapan are banking on a young generation who see through this and have tired of back-door governments. But by offering voters the same key players as in the 2018 election they will lose those seeking a change from the ‘old politics’
The number one news item coming out of Malaysia in the past week was the formation of a new government under Ismail Sabri Yaakob.
There was much excitement, as you might expect with a new prime minister, but more interesting was that this was Malaysia’s third prime minister in less than four years. Mahathir Mohamad was sworn in on May 10, 2018; Muhyiddin Yassin on March 1, 2020; and Ismail Sabri on August 21, 2021. The Ismail Sabri government, like Muhyiddin’s before it, is deemed a “back-door” government as it was formed using defections rather than the ballot box.
The second biggest news item was that Anwar Ibrahim had lost another chance to be Malaysia’s prime minister. Anwar was the front runner among the contenders to succeed Muhyiddin when Muhyiddin resigned on August 16. Yet within four days, his lead had disappeared and by Friday August 20, Ismail Sabri had emerged as the new front runner with the same MPs who had supported the previous Muhyiddin administration.

Depending on how you count, this was Anwar’s fourth serious attempt at the top job. Each time, he was prevented from taking the top political office by a constellation of political forces. Who are these forces? They basically consist of two groups: the Malay establishment and Islamists.

The Malay establishment consists of those who control the upper levers of the political system. They are the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), senior bureaucrats, heads of the security agencies and armed forces, the royal families and the Malay capitalist class. They don’t trust Anwar because they think Anwar’s close association with the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and other non-Malay groups means he will fundamentally change Malaysia’s preferential policies towards the Malays.

Anwar has previously said the race-based economic policies must be replaced by a needs-based policy. They worry that Anwar will loosen the Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) ideology and many of them, especially the Malay tycoons, will lose access to government contracts worth billions of dollars and other state benefits given out solely based on race.

A shop worker watches a speech by Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob on television in Shah Alam. Photo: AP

The Islamists and other Malay right-wing groups hate Anwar because they think he is “too liberal”- code for accepting that Malaysia is a multiracial and multireligious society. The Islamists are pursuing the establishment of a Malay-Islamic state and they don’t think Anwar will support their vision. The really hardcore Islamists also believe in the sodomy charges alleged by Mahathir, and in the conservative Malay culture, being homosexual is worse than being a murderer. They think deep down, Anwar believes in secularism. Anwar insists that the sodomy charges he was convicted of in 1999 and 2014 were trumped up to keep him out of frontline politics.

Thus Anwar’s bid was undermined on two fronts for Malay voters: the perception that he would weaken Ketuanan Melayu-Islam and that he believes in pluralism.

In most countries, Anwar would be seen as a progressive leader but in Malaysia, after decades of state education that justified Malay political power, the mainstream Malay population believes that Ketuanan Melayu is the natural order of things. They cannot accept a multiracial and multireligious Malaysia. Anwar’s commitment to the multiracial Pakatan Harapan coalition will be used against him.

What’s next for Malaysia as Ismail Sabri becomes new PM?

Pakatan Harapan: heading for a loss?

In the larger context of the opposition, does this mean the Pakatan Harapan coalition will lose again in the next general election?

Although the general election is scheduled for 2023, many expect it to be held next year once the Covid-19 pandemic is under control. The current thinking inside Pakatan Harapan is that the voters are so unhappy with the “back-door governments” that Pakatan Harapan is likely to get a clear majority.
This strategy is predicated on the belief that younger people, including Malays, will come to the realisation that the Ketuanan Melayu ideology upheld by the Malay establishment is self-serving to keep their economic interests and class system. They are betting that ordinary Malays will be so angered by both the Muhyiddin and Ismail Sabri governments that they are willing to support Pakatan Harapan again and try Anwar as prime minister. After all, there appears to be a general consensus that the Muhyiddin government totally mishandled the Covid-19 crisis while Ismail Sabri represents Umno, the party of Najib Razak and the financial scandal at the state investment fund 1MDB. Umno never acknowledged any wrongdoings with 1MDB and Najib today, ironically, remains a key power broker in Umno and is pilling on pressure on Ismail Sabri to intervene in his corruption trials. With Umno back in power, Pakatan Harapan can use the “kleptocracy” label against Umno again for the next general election.

The other strategy adopted by the Pakatan Harapan is the “big tent” approach in which they will try to unite all the opposition groups against Umno and Ismail Sabri. This worked very well in the 2018 general election when everyone came together to depose Najib and Umno from power. Even Mahathir jumped on this bandwagon, riding the “anything but Umno” wave to win the 2018 general election.

The big problem with all these scenarios is that the key players from 2018 will still be the key players in the next general election. Thus in a way, the opposition is asking the electorate to support them to “complete” the 2018 mandate that was stolen by the “back-door” regime change brought by Muhyiddin and Ismail Sabri. Will the electorate take this bait?

The big problem with all these scenarios is that the key players from 2018 will still be the key players in the next general election
Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob waves from a bus. Photo: Bloomberg

If the opposition truly wants to offer the Malaysian electorate a choice, then a radical approach is needed. By this I mean offer them an alternative new leadership to take over Malaysia after the next general election. Offering Anwar and the Pakatan Harapan on one side and Umno on the other is basically offering them the same choice as in 2018. The reality is the Malaysian electorate is tired of old politics and young Malaysians are looking for an alternative.

Anwar and the current Pakatan Harapan leadership must therefore be bold enough to stand aside and skip one or two generations and allow younger leaders in their 40s and early 50s to take over now, to prepare the ground for the next general election. It is clear that Umno and the government side are incapable of any meaningful change and the same 2018 Umno leaders will be the mainstay of the Umno leadership heading to the next general election.

Will Anwar Ibrahim ever lead Malaysia?

Removing Anwar would also mean the Malay establishment could not use Anwar as the bogeyman any more.

Giving up a lifelong political ambition is never easy but Anwar will be 76 next year. The argument that only Anwar can hold the opposition together may be true but also true is that in post-Covid Malaysia, people are looking for change, after two years of restrictions, lockdowns and fear. This is a unique event that can never be repeated. If the opposition insists on keeping Anwar and the present Pakatan Harapan leadership, then I’m afraid Pakatan Harapan will again lose out at election time. That really would be a tragedy for Malaysia.

James Chin is Professor of Asian Studies, University of Tasmania, and Senior Fellow, Jeffrey Cheah Institute, Malaysia