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One Month In, Malaysia Off to a Shaky Start
Frightened of the Islamists, majority wants this government to work
Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s shaky new ruling coalition government will have been in power for a month today but, according to political analysts in Kuala Lumpur, looks likely to stay there at least in the medium term despite its minority status because, in the words of one observer, “everybody’s scared shitless of PAS and Muhyiddin.”
Muhyiddin is Muhyiddin Yassin, the powerful 75-year-old leader of the Malay nationalist minority Perikatan Nasional coalition, who staged an unsuccessful last-ditch fight to form a government. Perikatan holds 74 of the 222 parliamentary seats. The biggest bloc within Perikatan, however, is the 50 held by the rural Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, whose leader Abdul Hadi Awang has fought for decades to implement sixth-century Shariah religious law in the moderate Muslim country and whose international affiliates are the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East.
Outside the deeply rural north and east of the country, which appears caught in time, the modern, moderate urban areas want nothing to do with Shariah law. And, given the concern over the encroachment of Islam, internationally the west behind the scenes is pushing for this government to work. PAS is also handicapped by very real reports of deep corruption in its ranks at the same time it pushes for archaic sexual and civil laws.
“There are no real sound policies in the new government yet,” said a longtime political analyst. “There is a lot of rhetoric and political trash-talking. They’re mostly inexperienced and don’t know what to do. But there are a lot of people trying to make sure this bloody government works. They are willing to close one eye to see them succeed.”
Most of the new governing coalition’s pretensions toward reform have been tarnished with the arrival as deputy premier of Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the United Malays National Organization president who faces 45 counts of criminal breach of trust, abuse of power, and money laundering involving US$25.7 million in funds looted from Yayasan Akalbudi, a charity he established, in a high court next month. Also in UMNO, partner to Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan coalition, is the ”court cluster” of indicted UMNO politicians left over from the party’s pre-2018 days in power.
By all accounts, however, it was the 69-year-old Zahid who put the coalition together that saved Anwar’s government. It was Zahid who was responsible for engineering the unity government, which includes the east Malaysian Gabungan Parti Sarawak, with 23 parliamentary seats. Also although he had a well-deserved reputation as a Malay nationalist, he stunned UMNO by saying in a campaign speech that race and religion as party planks are now obsolete, and that the policies of inclusiveness and unity are now more relevant than ever before.
“It’s going to be very interesting,” said the longtime analyst. “You can imagine him going to court in January as deputy prime minister complete with motorcycle outriders and flashing red lights and stopping the traffic and Special Branch as protection, then he goes in the courtroom door to face criminal charges.”
As far as anybody knows, Anwar has made no deals to help Zahid evade the criminal charges, which would be difficult in any case given the new generation of judges appointed during the reform government’s 20 months in power that ended with its February 2020 downfall. “Anwar won’t do anything to help him,” the source continued. “But he isn’t going to do anything to help the prosecution either.”
After a few bizarre policy announcements including advocating free sanitary napkins for the country’s 350,000 poor women, and lower ticket prices for football games, the government is having trouble getting untracked although it is likely to beat a parliamentary vote of no confidence. It did announce one major step, the immediate dismissal of all political appointments in the country’s bloated government-linked company sector, which by one account totals 300 highly paid directors, which puts 300 disaffected and unemployed individuals on the street with little to do but scheme against the government.
Arguably one of the new government’s biggest priorities is to reform the country’s education system, which has descended into deep mediocrity on a combination of political loyalty and emphasis on religion over scholastics. Mohamed Khaled Nordin, the minister of higher education, offers little promise for reform. The former UMNO chief minister of Johor, he also chaired Boustead Holdings from 2020 to his resignation in 2021. Boustead is a government-linked company that has participated in major defense ministry boondoggles.
Nor does Fahdilina Sidek, appointed the minister of education, the most crucial education post, inspire confidence. She is the former chief of the women’s branch of Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, who formerly specialized in Islamic family law and child welfare and seems unlikely to reform the system toward secular education. She also had her own Sharia law firm, Tetuan Fadhlina Siddiq & Associates.
Anwar has appointed himself finance minister, as Najib Razak did before him, although he has no formal training in economics, having graduated from the University of Malaya with a degree in Malay studies. So far he has announced no serious policy measures. He is considered nonetheless an acolyte of the so-called Washington Consensus, oriented toward the principles of the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and the World Bank. Early indications are that he will be a symbolic leader, but not heard much.
The economy is more likely to be in the hands of economics minister Rafizi Ramli, a chartered accountant and secretary general of Anwar’s PKR who played a major role in exposing UMNO scandals. As such, Rafizi is the man to watch in this administration. This will be a make-or-break for him. If he performs well in the portfolio, he could have a great political career. His style may not go down well with the civil service. We have to wait and see how much of a reformer he will be, and if he works in tandem with his prime minister.
For human rights organizations, the Minister of Home Affairs Saifuddin Nasution Ismail has already thrown up red flags. Saifuddin is an Anwar loyalist from the reformasi days, and is also close to Zahid. He has refused to back away from the repressive “fake news” legislation passed in the waning days of the Barisan Nasional. Saifuddin has been described as Anwar’s and Zahid’s gatekeeper. Although he lost his Kulim-Bandar Baru seat in the recent election, he was brought back as a senator due to his importance to Anwar.
One clear bright spot – although a target of PAS inflammatory rhetoric because he is Chinese – is Anthony Loke Siew Fook, the secretary general of the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party, who has taken over the transportation portfolio and has already begun to engage with the industry.
The civil service is a serious worry, having been eroded for decades by both the so-called Ketuanan Melayu and religious influence. An independent civil service has long been shot through with UMNO loyalists. During the reform coalition’s previous 20 months in power from June 2018 to February 2020, the civil service played a major role in seeking to thwart Pakatan Harapan reforms.
“In the past, the civil service would work to get things done regardless of the politics,” a Malay businessman said. “Now the worry is that there is a corrupt civil service. The coalition has got to clean up the civil service or it is hopeless.”
The Pakatan Harapan coalition’s last stint in government may have taught it something, including that its ministers were largely arrogant and uninformed, and that the civil service was in thrall to UMNO. It is hoped that their lessons have been learned. UMNO, despite its deep corruption, is back in the government as a minority partner. The one thing about the party, as one observer said, is that they knew how to run things. They may be able to impart some lessons to their senior partner in Pakatan Harapan, which also needs to hold them in check.
With reporting from longtime contributor Murray Hunter