A Dose of Reality for Malaysia
Will Anwar become the next victim of the ‘messiah effect?’
By: Murray Hunter
With Anwar Ibrahim becoming Malaysia’s 10th prime minister, he now faces an avalanche of expectations. Many see him as a messiah, who come to fix the problems facing the country, one heading into uncertain economic times with rising inflation, a falling ringgit and depressed economic buoyancy fed by a looming world economic slowdown.
Malaysia has been long embroiled in race-based politics and religious bigotry, which has gestated hate within the community. A large section of the population wants to retain their special privileges, while the government must look for new ways to raise revenue without putting undue income stress on the bottom 40 percent of the income-earning population.
On top of that, over the next five years, the term under the country’s parliamentary system, Anwar must hold together a political coalition made up of long-traditional adversaries, with differing ideologies and electoral stakeholders.
The education system is broken, bloated with vested interests, and not creating the type of graduates needed to drive the economy. The heavy emphasis on Islam within education is driving Malaysia towards isolationism. The civil service is a government within itself, often hostile towards the executive, more loyal to its long association with the United Malays National Organization than any reformers, as Pakatan Harapan in its previous incarnation learned to its sorrow.
The media is positioning Anwar as a messiah, who will be able to undertake a ‘quick fix’ to solve all of Malaysia’s problems. This is the messiah effect, which we saw in the United States in 2008 when Barak Obama ran for the presidency. Obama represented the opposite of what then incumbent George Bush represented, and the people voted Obama overwhelmingly.
This was Obama’s great disadvantage. With so many expectations laid upon him, it was almost impossible for him to live up to peoples’ expectations.
This is a grave political danger. So, we must ask, what is Anwar bringing with him to office?
Ever since his student days, Anwar has dealt with expectations. After his sacking as deputy prime minister under Mahathir Mohamed in 1998, the ‘Reformasi’ movement was one of expectation. ‘Reformasi’ became the Malaysian dream of creating a multiracial society based upon fairness equity, and justice. When Anwar was jailed, some equated his career with that of the late Nelson Mandela, the great reformer and Nobel Prize winner of South Africa.
Anwar’s Pakatan Rakyat and later Pakatan Harapan was a coalition of expectation. Many felt that Merdeka had recurred with Pakatan’s surprise win in 2018. However, voters were very quickly disappointed with Pakatan’s performance, with their anger shown in by-elections.
This is the danger for Anwar and his government. There are too many high expectations placed upon him. He has always been a first-class orator and is able to tell audiences what they want to hear. He has long been motivated to become prime minister. He firmly believed this was his destiny.
However, Anwar now has to turn rhetoric, ambition, and his ideas into action. His ability to do this is a great unknown. From what we saw with the Obama administration, it certainly is not an easy thing to do.
Anwar can’t talk about ideas anymore. He must implement them. His style of pragmatic compromise may not work when firm decisions that may be unpopular are required to be made.
The 75-year-old prime minister-elect will be quickly tested when it comes to national reconciliation. Catalyzing any shift from race- and religious-based narratives towards multiculturalism will be his greatest challenge. It is said that the knives are already out, with forces attempting to undo the unwieldy ruling coalition put together at the behest of the Agong, Malaysia’s king.
Education reform will be almost unattainable, with deeply embedded vested interests throughout the system, as will reform be with the civil service. He will have to deal with corruption without breaking apart his own coalition, with bloated government-linked companies headed by UMNO cadres dominating the economy. “The role those state-owned enterprises (SOEs) or, more generally, government-linked companies (GLCs) play in the Malaysia economy is widespread and pervasive,” according to a 2017 Asian Development Bank study. “In terms of countries that have the highest SOE presence among their largest firms, Malaysia ranks fifth highest in the world.”
Other areas where Anwar may fear to tread may include the 2017 disappearance of Raymond Koh Keng Joo, a Christian pastor who was last seen in custody in a black SUV that turned out to be the property of the Royal Malaysia Police’s Special Branch, according to an investigation by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia. There is also the case of Altantuya Shaariibuu, one of the country’s most notorious. The then-28-year-old Mongolian international party girl was proven to have been murdered by two of former Prime Minister Najib Razak, both of whom have said Najib ordered the murder.
The very founding of Anwar’s government coalition has compromised what Pakatan fought against. It fought against political corruption, and now has its old nemesis UMNO as a coalition partner. The question is how much Pakatan will have to compromise on principle to keep political peace, especially with UMNO trying to keep its so-called “court cluster” of indicted politicians out of jail, and to free Najib, the party’s financier and kingmaker, We must hope the public doesn’t become quickly dissatisfied.
I'm by no means a "Malaysian expert". Nor do I profess to be one. But the days of empathizing with Anwar over his sacking when he was deputy to the untrustworthy Mahathir Mohamad and his jailing the first time by Mahathir and the second time by Malaysia's famous criminal for embezzlement and political fraud, Najib Razak, is wearing much too thin. Now that Anwar has finally come into his own, as prime minister, he has to exhibit every bit of gumption against his many enemies to railroad his again, and to seize the mantle to show leadership for all "Malaysians" on the basis of equality, fairness and truth. Given the hideous nature of Malaysia's racist politics and big snouts in the economic trough, it'll take some doing. One thing's for sure: five years of his first term is nowhere near enough to wipe the slate clean and start all over again when Malaysia at various times has shown itself to approximating the pariah state with a near-first world infrastructure, much of which, I dare say, is built on ersatz capitalism of cronyism, corruption and double-dealing for an economy that remains built on sand for more than sixty years.
Anwar is by no means Barack Obama who, despite his popularity, was failing in his second term as US president. And failing badly on social and political policies, except for the economy which was rip-roaring, which, by all measures, the asinine Donald Trump ungratefully and childishly inherited. nd Anwar Ibrahim is no Nelson Mandela either. For all of Mandela's popularity, he'd failed, singularly, to bring South Africans together as one people (think of the swamp of ghettoes across that country). The same problems face Anwar: rabid racism and religious bigotry. I'll predict Malaysians will come back with their predictable " ... but Rome wasn't built in a day". Of course. But Malaysia has ah more than six decades to embed or concretize its racism and bigotry across Malay-Muslims, Indians and Chinese in that country. Another sixty years won't fix the problem in the hands of Anwar who, himself a Malay-Muslim, would have to tread on eggshells over the greater Islamization or Talibanization of Malaysia whilst not stepping on the toes of Malaysia's despotic sultans, protectors of Islam.
The regime Anwar now runs isn't owned by him. And it's doubtful if he ever will. The "majority" by which his regime is constructed is worse than wafer-thin and as such politically flimsy. Remember Pakatan Harapan's spectacular implosion after 22 months in "power" from 2018. It was a total disgrace, the whole time immersed in political bloodletting within Harapan. It'll happen again because Anwar survives as premier on a cobbled together but very loose or fluid coalition of parties with diverse party and state interests, most of which are "invested interests". Remember: this is still racist, corrupt, bigoted Malaysia -- not even remotely Singapore (more like Indonesia). Anwar will have to spend a lot of time pacifying these loose coalition members and feeding them with the spoils of state power, much of which, over sixty years, is strongly divested in the business oligarchy of Malaysia Inc, whose back Anwar will be loathed to break if he wants to survive political office in the next five years.
At his age, 75, he doesn't have a long time. The ideas he held for Malaysia when a younger politician, no longer hold. The world has fundamentally changed -- for the worse. And it has changed for the worse in Malaysia too. The other problem is that Malaysia is no longer any kind of "investment darling" of the world's cashed up investors. It faces enormous challenges from across Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Its vital natural resources have been allowed to be plundered by the Malay state since independence and certainly after 1969 by every regime that has been in power. The worst was Mahathir's under the directorship of Mahathir's privatization policies, which, like Najib Razak's Goods and Services Tax, were too premature of a basically immature economy (no matter the idiotic boasts of the ignoramuses that Malaysia is or was or will become a "tiger"/miracle economy. Anwar and his "team", whoever might yet make up his "cabinet", will have to come up with some really bright and new ideas to compete with the likes of Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, Indonesia (under the mostly lame duck Jokowi) and perhaps even the Philippines (if Marcos Jr has his head screwed onto his shoulders right). There's no way in hell Malaysia would aspire and achieve Singapore's commanding heights. That was always a Malaysian pipe-dream and hot air of naive self-grandeur. Who becomes his economic team in his cabinet had better not be those who had occupied the corridors of influence in the Mahathir, Najib, Perikatan Nasional regimes, lest Malaysia truly aspires to become a genuine pariah state.
On foreign policy, it's hardly surprising that Anwar wants to cement ties with China, not just because of market access for Malaysian exports but also for access to Chinese and diasporic Chinese capital, much of which is already looking for new investment homes for the greatest return, at least in the short term given the mainland Chinese is in serious trouble and the crackdown by the crackpot new emperor Xi Jinping on cracking down on elements of domestic Chinese oligarchy who have been gradually withdrawing its support for the Xi regime over the last couple of years.
If Anwar sees ties with China is "pivotal", he can't see Malaysia's ties with the US any less than the same. Even before World War II Malaysia has been dependent on foreign sources to protect its national and territorial sovereignty. And since the start of the Vietnam War, Malaysia -- like the rest of the spineless ASEAN -- has depended on US nuclear protection against an aggressive and expansionist China. That's not to say the US is not as aggressive and expansionist an imperial power but with imperial China still rising, unless its debt-laden economy collapses, its the likes of ASEAN that have kept the US in the old/new Cold War game.
The really big question remains this one: How long was the Anwar wafer-thin coalition last? Not long. Why? It won't be long before the political fangs of Anwar's coalition partners emerge and claw his back -- and front -- to demand more political gains where in matters most -- the economy and its spoils, and the peddling of influence against the backdrop an immoveable racism and corruption.