Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is intensifying efforts to appeal to Malay Muslim conservatives ahead of key state elections, a lurch to the right that risks alienating his ruling Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) multiracial and mainly liberal support base within his months-old “unity” government.
While the ethno-nationalist opposition bloc accuses the governing coalition of going soft on ethnic Malay rights and upholding Islam, progressives increasingly see Anwar as failing to walk the talk on clean governance and reform as his key political ally, graft-accused deputy premier Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, continues to agitate for the pardon of incarcerated ex-premier Najib Razak.
Zahid, president of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), had been a key target of PH’s anti-corruption messaging on the campaign trail ahead of November’s general election. Though the once-hegemonic party delivered its worst-ever result at the polls, Zahid himself emerged as a kingmaker after agreeing to partner with the party’s decades-old foes in an Anwar-led administration.
UMNO is the governing coalition’s sole ethnic Malay party, but it remains to be seen whether it can muster the support of the key demographic, who account for around 60% of Malaysia’s 33 million people, at state polls expected to be held in August. Having purged detractors, UMNO’s top leadership appears insistent that pardoning Najib for his corruption conviction is the ticket to electoral success.
Chandra Muzaffar, a political analyst and former lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang, disputes the view. “Support for jailed Najib Razak within the populace has been exaggerated by some politicians and a segment of the media,” he told Asia Times. “It is because of Najib’s wrongdoings that UMNO and its Barisan Nasional (BN) partners did so badly in the 2022 polls.”
Najib, who led Malaysia from 2009-18, was convicted in connection with the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) financial scandal in July 2020. After losing power, the British-educated former premier reinvented himself as a populist campaigner who energized UMNO’s grassroots prior to Malaysia’s highest court upholding his 12-year jail sentence last August.
With Najib behind bars and divisive Zahid at the BN coalition’s helm, many frustrated Malay voters backed the Perikatan Nasional (PN) opposition, which widely outperformed in a “green wave” – a reference to the party colors of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), an ultra-conservative Islamist outfit and PN component that won the largest share of seats in parliament.
PAS, in particular, has benefitted electorally from Malay dissatisfaction with PH and UMNO. According to an analysis of polling center results of November’s election by academic Bridget Welsh, PN won the majority of Malay votes in Peninsular Malaysia, estimated at 54%, followed by UMNO at an estimated 32% and PH at an estimated 13%.
While the upcoming state polls will determine the composition of six state assemblies and will not affect the government’s parliamentary standing, it is nonetheless being closely watched and likened to an early referendum on the previously unthinkable pairing of PH and UMNO, a seven-month-old alliance that sits uneasily with the long-rivaled political camps’ grassroots support bases.
Khairy Jamaluddin, an influential former UMNO leader and ex-health minister who was purged in January for demanding that Zahid resign as party president over the party’s dismal electoral showing, wrote in a recent commentary that Anwar’s government should more be worried about a “tsunami of discontent” rather than a “green wave” at the upcoming state polls.
Gainsaying the belief that UMNO can help PH gain Malay support, Khairy wrote that the party has struggled to explain to its members why it is part of a government that includes its “long-time ideological bogeyman,” the Democratic Action Party (DAP), an ethnic Chinese-led multiracial party that UMNO had for decades cast as a threat to Malay rights.
Khairy described UMNO and its graft-accused party president as a “liability” that Anwar had opted to carry in order to form a government, noting that “palpable Malay anger is amplified by the perceived hypocrisy of the present administration, which talks about eradicating corruption and upholding good governance but accommodates a tainted UMNO leadership.”
Part of the “genuine discontent” riling the Malay community is linked to “a clear lack of economic direction,” Khairy argued, pointing to a “cost-of-living crisis” and sustained weakness in the ringgit currency, which experts attribute to domestic political uncertainty, a weaker global trade outlook, sluggish growth in China and monetary policy tightening in advanced economies.
While the ex-UMNO leader noted growing religiosity among Malays, he opined that Anwar’s attempts to avoid being “outflanked” by Islamists would likely not pay off, referring to the government’s plans to table a controversial amendment that will significantly raise the maximum sentencing limits for religious Shariah courts in prosecuting criminal offenses.
The legal changes, long championed by PAS, would allow Islamic courts to hand down sentences of up to 30 years in jail and 100 strokes of a cane, up from current limits of three years and six strokes, in addition to drastically steeper fines. Non-Muslims would, in theory, not be affected by the amendment, which analysts see as a bid to boost the government’s Islamic credibility.
Observers also interpreted a string of police raids last month in which rainbow-themed “Pride” watches were confiscated from stores of Swiss watchmaker Swatch as a stunt aimed at placating grassroots UMNO supporters and countering opposition sentiments that an Anwar-led government would be permissive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) causes.
“Sometimes, these politicians will say that if Anwar becomes prime minister, Islam will be ruined, secularism and communism will gain a foothold, and LGBT will be recognized,” the premier said in a television interview earlier this year. Cognizant of the need to counter continued allegations of his homosexuality owing to past sodomy charges he denies, Anwar called such views “a delusion.”
While reforms have been enacted since Anwar came to office, including rules for more transparent state procurement contracts, repeal of the mandatory death penalty and decriminalization of suicide, PH supporters appear underwhelmed by the pace of promised liberal change, uneasy with a shift to more conservative policies and wary of UMNO’s efforts to secure Najib’s release.
Having exhausted his legal appeal options, Najib now hopes for a royal pardon by Malaysia’s constitutional monarch. While the king has ultimate discretion on pardons, he is advised by a Pardons Board on which Anwar now sits and wields clear influence. Matters are further complicated by the fact the jailed ex-premier still has several outstanding corruption-related charges against him that have yet to go to trial.
“Any positive developments on Najib could be a liability to the unity government’s viability, especially on PH’s credibility, at future elections,” said Hafidzi Razali, associate director at the BowerGroupAsia risk consultancy. “The Najib factor alone is not sufficient to revive UMNO’s fate” at the state polls, he added, “especially with Malays having a formidable option in PN.”
Kartini Aboo Talib Khalid, a professor at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, agrees that releasing Najib will not change the minds of most Muslim voters backing PN. “The sentiment is not about Najib but Anwar Ibrahim’s weaknesses,” she said, remarking that the premier “is running kaput out of new ideas to manage Malaysia and regain the voters’ trust.”
Anwar should “re-engage with the public and develop a better, tangible idea to improve the skyrocketing cost of living,” Kartini suggested, adding that his administration should also allow reforms of long-standing racial affirmative action policies “to be debated within the Malaysian mold, [being] a diverse society that lives within the frame of host and settler communities.”
Analysts expect PN to retain control of rural conservative Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu, with all three state governments currently led by PAS. PN remains bullish on its prospects, and some believe it could build on its general election momentum by making inroads into the highly industrialized Selangor, Penang and Negeri Sembilan, three states controlled by Anwar’s PH.
A favorable result for the opposition bloc, particularly one in which PN captures one or more PH-led state governments, could put enormous pressure on Anwar and potentially lead some components of the ruling coalition to question its long-term electoral viability. Most analysts, however, are not convinced that the results will be enough to destabilize the Anwar-led government.
“I am doubtful if Malay support for PN will increase dramatically, and for that reason, I do not see the election results threatening the stability of the Anwar government,” said veteran analyst and scholar Muzaffar. “If UMNO performs badly in the forthcoming state elections, it would be largely because it continues to be led by leaders tainted by the smear of corruption.”
Muzaffar added that the PH government “cannot run away from the fact that it is faced with a strong Malay opposition while its own standing has been somewhat compromised through its association with certain UMNO leaders, on the one hand, and the DAP, on the other, which is still perceived as a party that lacks empathy with the Malay identity and history of the land.”
There is a possibility of diminished Malay enthusiasm for PH which PN is well-positioned to capitalize on, said Hafidzi of BowerGroupAsia. “What’s missing now is an alternative-to-moderate agenda for non-Malays. If there’s a party or coalition that could tap on a potential dissatisfaction among non-Malays, PH should be worried,” the seasoned analyst opined.
Amrita Malhi, a development policy adviser and honorary senior lecturer at Flinders University and the Australian National University, said amid tough economic conditions there are “serious questions around whether the state will find a new formula for balancing growth, cohesion, and social restructuring like it last managed in the 1990s, and which has gradually fallen apart since.”
While the government has been “working on a few quiet budget reforms that should help free up federal money to lay the foundations for economic and social repair… the big question is whether national elites, including those in the federal parliament, will hold their nerve for performing this quiet repair work if the state elections seemingly go against Anwar,” said Malhi.
“If they can’t manage that, then the [political] disruptions of the last few years will likely continue.”
Disclaimer: Najib looms large over Anwar’s first electoral test - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view