Anwar Ibrahim leads Malaysia’s largest parliamentary bloc, Pakatan Harapan, with 41 per cent of seats. Photo: AP
Wong Chin-Huat
Wong Chin-Huat

Does Malaysia’s opposition need a new leader or a new direction?

  • Calls for change ignore the opposition’s structural problems, which are more significant than one man. A new leader without new direction would bring false hope
  • Anwar Ibrahim can be a bridge to a better future. If he is unwilling, he should be removed, but a change will be pointless if his replacement cannot address the old problems
Exactly 23 years ago in 1998, Malaysian politics entered a new age when Anwar Ibrahim, who was then deputy prime minister, was sacked by Mahathir Mohamad and subsequently imprisoned.

Anwar, charismatic and with Islamic and intellectual credibility, transformed Malay politics in two ways. First, his persecution propelled a wave of anger and defiance among younger and less privileged Malays against the dominant United Malays National Organisation (Umno). Second, he established the multi-ethnic People’s Justice Party (PKR), which by 2008 became the country’s largest opposition group.

However, 23 years later, Anwar leads the largest parliamentary bloc, Pakatan Harapan, consisting of PKR and three other parties. It holds 41 per cent of seats but Anwar is no closer to becoming prime minister.

Malaysia has since installed four prime ministers – including three since 2018 – while Anwar waits in the wings. He was twice jailed on trumped up charges related to sodomy, first by Mahathir and later by Najib Razak, who was at the centre of the 1MDB scandal, which caused Umno to lose power.
In 2018, Anwar made peace with Mahathir, who took over the Pakatan Harapan leadership and became prime minister a second time, ousting the Umno-led Barisan Nasional coalition in a historic result. Mahathir however refused to honour his promise to pass the baton to Anwar after two years.
Instead, after a series of twists, Mahathir’s deputy Muhyiddin Yassin took their Bersatu party – a splinter from Umno – out of Pakatan Harapan and claimed the top job by leading a fragile coalition including Umno, the Islamist opposition PAS, the Sarawak regional bloc GPS and other minor parties.
Muhyiddin last month lost his majority when a group of Umno parliamentarians withdrew their support. However, Umno and Bersatu quickly closed ranks to prevent a takeover by Anwar. Now, Umno once more holds the reins of government with Ismail Sabri Yaakob as the new prime minister.
Since then, Anwar has been urged to step down as opposition leader by his enemies and opposition supporters alike, who have offered a range of arguments.
Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob announces his new cabinet. Photo: EPA

Some critics claim that had Anwar stepped aside, another leader, such as Shafie Apdal, who has Mahathir’s backing, could have won enough crossover support to become prime minister.

Further, the critics claim, Anwar is simply too liberal to be accepted by Malay-Muslim nationalists, and at 76 will be too old to appeal to younger voters when the next election is held, by September 2023 at the latest.

These criticisms ignore the opposition’s structural problems, which are more significant than one man. A new, younger leader without new direction would bring false hope.

The opposition’s problems begin with its obsession with the numbers game. For decades, the Barisan Nasional government successfully enticed dozens of opposition lawmakers at both federal and state levels to cross over.

When the Pakatan Harapan coalition lost power last year after the defection of MPs allied to Muhyiddin and Anwar’s deputy, Mohamed Azmin Ali, its disgruntled leaders and supporters sought to restore “the people’s mandate” earned in 2018, making futile attempts to entice reverse crossover from the government’s bench.

They fear defeat in the next election without the benefits of incumbency.

How the Mahathir-Anwar relationship shaped Malaysia’s politics

But why should Umno back Anwar as prime minister over one of their own? Likewise, what’s the real benefit for Sarawak MPs to make Shafie from neighbouring Sabah the first premier from East Malaysia?

The opposition has displayed wishful thinking misrepresented as realism. Pakatan Harapan failed to contend seriously with the government on policy even as Muhyiddin’s leadership deteriorated during the pandemic.

Despite counting former ministers in its ranks, Pakatan Harapan has resisted calls to form a shadow cabinet. Its pursuit of power, without offering a clear alternative, has made the opposition appear self-serving and disconnected.

The opposition has also struggled to establish a coalition of voters that will deliver sustained, broad-based support to transform Malaysia.

Since 1998, the opposition’s base has contained moderate Muslims, ethnic minorities and liberals united by their rejection of the authoritarianism and corruption represented by Umno and Barisan Nasional.

They have however been unable to agree on fundamental questions, encompassing issues such as Malaysia’s pro-Malay affirmative action and Islamisation. Disagreement over these questions led partly to PAS and later Bersatu leaving the “big tent”.

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Pakatan Harapan in 2018 produced a comprehensive manifesto promoting inclusive ideas such as the elimination of racial discrimination and academic recognition of a Chinese community schools’ standardised examination, which appealed to its ethnic minority base but was overlooked by its Malay-Muslim supporters.

Soon after Pakatan Harapan’s victory in 2018, these issues were used by Umno and PAS to attack the coalition, especially Bersatu and PKR for selling out Malay-Muslims, exploiting the fault lines that would ultimately lead to Pakatan Harapan’s split.

To expand its base and deter lawmakers from defecting, Pakatan Harapan must be an alliance of voters, not just between politicians. It will require the different constituencies to negotiate compromises. This can be facilitated by a manifesto, provided it is not a flashy document but a process of coalition-building relying on smart policy ideas to reduce ethno-religious jealousies.

Anwar Ibrahim and Mahathir Mohamad in 2018, a few months after they led Pakatan Harapan to a historic election victory. Photo: AP

The third challenge for the opposition is in its internal power structure. Coalitions in Malaysia are largely based on interpersonal relationships and deals between politicians, with little formalised inter-party rules. In Mahathir’s cabinet, his Bersatu party had the third most parliamentary seats but was disproportionately influential. Similarly, Azmin’s PKR faction was privileged over Anwar’s. Similar conflicts also occurred in Muhyiddin’s government, contributing to its downfall.

Pakatan Harapan leaders have disingenuously cited tensions over ministerial allocation to justify their refusal to form a shadow cabinet. Their assumption is that if these tensions can be ignored until the coalition wins power, those tensions will be mitigated by power itself.

If Pakatan Harapan continues to seek power without offering a policy alternative, it should expect disappointment at the next election. It could be even worse if a messy leadership battle breaks out before then.

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Instead, the opposition should take a new direction and abandon its obsession with short-term gains and politics driven by personalities.

It must unite its diverse bases of support by presenting a manifesto that not only sounds impressive but can also be implemented. It should stop talking about the lost mandate of 2018 and instead form a shadow cabinet to hold the government accountable and develop a new generation of leaders.

Anwar can be a bridge to a better future. If he becomes a roadblock, he should be removed, but a change will be pointless if his replacement cannot address the old problems.