Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has reaffirmed the need for reforms, saying Malaysia must change or it will not survive.
“When it comes to governance, I think it is my duty to undertake and effect change because the country is somewhat destroyed. Unless there is a clear political commitment and resolve to change, I do not believe Malaysia will survive,” he said in an in-depth interview with Al Jazeera’s 101 East programme, stressing he was committed to transitioning Malaysia from race-based to needs-based affirmative action policies.
Anwar, now 75, became prime minister after elections in November 2022, capping a turbulent rise to the top of Malaysian politics.
A firebrand youth leader, he rapidly climbed the political ladder to become second-in-command to then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in the 1990s. Sacked and accused of sodomy and corruption in the midst of the Asian Financial Crisis, Anwar was eventually jailed twice on charges widely considered to be politically motivated, fuelling a campaign for reform that has lasted more than 20 years.
Malaysia is a multi-ethnic country, but affirmative action policies that benefit the majority made up of Muslim Malays and Indigenous peoples have been in place since the 1970s. Such policies give preferential treatment to these ethnic groups in areas from jobs to education and housing and were introduced as part of a social engineering programme following racial riots between the Malays and ethnic Chinese in May 1969.
While the policies were supposed to be temporary, they have remained in place ever since, creating deepening resentment among the country’s minority Chinese and Indian communities and leading many to leave the country in search of better opportunities elsewhere.
And with relatively high-income inequality in Malaysia, it has also attracted questions about whether the policies have reached those who need them most.
For Anwar, a needs-based approach “would help the Malays more than the race-based policies, because the race-based policies have been proven to be used by the few elites and their cronies to benefit themselves”.
An uneasy alliance
But whether he can push through such reforms is another question.
Anwar is breaking new ground as Malaysia’s first prime minister from a multiracial party, in a country that has traditionally been ruled by Malay and other race-based parties. Malays make up just over half the population and are Muslim by law.
It is also fragile ground because his Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition did not win enough seats to form a government on its own.
His rise to power was only made possible through an alliance with smaller parties, including Malaysia’s former ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (National Front), which is led by the Malay-only United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
Barisan Nasional was the architect of Malaysia’s race-based affirmative action policies and perpetuated them during its decades-long rule, while UMNO has long cast itself as the nation’s defender of Malay rights.
Anwar, however, brushes off concerns about differing goals within his alliance.
“What is important is the coalition is based on certain core principles: good governance, a strong stance against corruption [and] abuse of power, and economic policies that could cater [to] the common man and woman,” he said.
Issues of race and religion are chronic fault lines in Malaysia.
Anwar’s main opponent is Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance), a coalition of conservative Malay-Muslim parties. It has already attacked Anwar over issues such as his government’s recent decision to withdraw its appeal against a court ruling allowing non-Muslims to use the word Allah, the Malay and Arabic word for God, with opposition leader Hamzah Zainudin criticising Anwar as “reckless”.
With six state elections scheduled to take place by August, the debate around race and religion is expected to become even more heated.
“God willing, I think we will win big in the coming election[s]. The people are still with us, and they don’t believe that this current government can manage … Maybe they are just waiting for us to take over,” Hamzah, the opposition leader, told 101 East.
Anwar is unperturbed. He says his government is “very stable”.
“What else do you expect the opposition to do? Some are very jittery because of my strong stance against corruption and abuse of power. There is always this rumour about people swinging sides, changing sides. It doesn’t bother me. I think they misread it if they think that I’m a bit rattled. No.”
The prime minister claimed some of the most corrupt forces comprising the political elites in the country are “ganging up with the billions at their disposal” to unseat him.
“But now that I’m in power, I’m not sitting idle. I will fight them if they want to solicit support by buying people, by bribing people and to protect their turf,” he said.
Under Anwar’s administration, an anti-corruption drive has already ensnared powerful opposition figures such as former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who is on trial for money laundering and abuse of power.
Muhyiddin is accused of using his position to receive $51m in bribes into his party’s bank account. He rejects the allegation, saying the money was for projects to help the public and the economy.
Muhyiddin’s coalition narrowly lost to Anwar’s in the 2022 election, and he has claimed he is seen as a threat to Anwar and has become “a victim of selective political prosecution”. The prime minister denies interfering in the corruption probe.
Anwar’s own deputy, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, is also facing multiple corruption charges that were laid four years ago during Pakatan Harapan’s previous brief stint in power. Given Anwar’s well-known stance against corruption, his selection of Zahid as deputy prime minister was controversial.
According to analyst Tricia Yeoh, as UMNO president, Zahid’s role in the new government was seen as a “necessary political compromise” given the party’s crucial position as kingmaker in Anwar’s current alliance.
“If not for having Zahid as a deputy prime minister, the entire equation would have fallen apart anyway. The government wouldn’t have been formed. There would have been no Anwar Ibrahim as prime minister to speak of,” Yeoh said.
Anwar’s role in the case of another former prime minister, Najib Abdul Razak, has also been scrutinised.
Najib was sentenced in 2020 to 12 years in prison for his role in the multibillion-dollar 1MDB scandal and is now seeking a royal pardon. As de facto federal territories minister, Anwar is a member of the Pardons Board that will review Najib’s application. This has raised questions over his neutrality given that Najib belongs to coalition partner UMNO.
“When you seek a pardon, it does not mean that you consider yourself innocent. There is the process, and I respect the process. Anyone – any prisoner, any convict – has the right to appeal to the king and seek pardon. Why deny Najib’s right? Let the process go,” Anwar said.
“There’s no conflict. I will look at the process. I have read the appeal by UMNO and my response is they have every right to appeal. I shouldn’t prejudge the case.”
The question remains whether policies that are fair for all can be achieved in a country where the “special status” of Malays and Indigenous groups is protected in the constitution. For Anwar, there is no contradiction.
“This system, you accept it as a reality. What is forbidden is, of course, to use that to discriminate and undermine the rest … This administration, we made it very clear. We protect the sanctity of our belief, our religion. But we are Malaysians,” he said.
“It is up to us in the present government to prove a case that the future for this country is based on a multiracial agenda.”
Watch the 101 East episode, The Road Ahead: Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim: aje.io/anwar
The full-length 101 East interview with Anwar Ibrahim will be released next week.