Why Anwar Ibrahim’s Appointment As Malaysia PM Is A Major Development?

SRINAGAR: On Monday, when the Sultan of Brunei, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah drove the BMW to drive the host Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim to Seri Perdana, Putrajaya, Malaysia’s capital city, it made a huge statement. The ascend of Anwar Ibrahim, 75, Malaysia’s reformist and opposition leader, to the top position after years of detention and character assassination, in a modern Muslim island nation is not an ordinary development.

A May 31, 2018 photograph showing Prime Minister Modi with Anwar Ibrahim and his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the then Deputy PM of Malaysia

On November 25, Malaysia’s King Sultan Abdullah announced Anwar Ibrahim to be the country’s tenth Prime Minister. The king’s decision came after consultations at the political level following the November 19, elections throwing up a hung parliament. A ruling party must have 112 seats.

Fractured Mandate

In the 222-seat parliament, Dewan Rakyat, Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition secured 82 seats and former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Malay-based Perikatan Nasional (PN) bagged 73 seats. Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition – dominated by his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party – emerged with only 30 seats.

The tumultuous election is being seen as historic as UNMO, the party that has dominated the island country’s politics for 60 years finished third. Surviving on, what is being called, Mahathirism, UNMO faced a setback as Mahathir Mohammed and his heir apparent Mukhriz Mahathir lost their seats in the election.

However, what was interesting was the rise of the far-right Islamist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) as the largest party within the PN coalition. The PAS promotes a conservative view of political Islam in its electoral politics and traditionally had its support base in eastern peninsular states, including Kelantan, Kedah and Terengganu. This time the PAS won 49 seats and went beyond its traditional strongholds and won in states such as Penang, which were traditionally considered liberal strongholds. It even unseated Anwar Ibrahim’s daughter, who contested the family’s stronghold of Permatang Puah. The seat has been traditionally held by Anwar Ibrahim’s family over several terms.

However, the hung parliament created its own mess. As none of the parties had the necessary majority to form the government on their own, King Sultan Abdullah, after consulting with the PH and PN, announced Anwar as the Prime Minister. Even though Anwar’s PH secured the maximum votes, it fell short of commanding a majority to form the government. The Malaysian monarch suggested the two principal coalitions, the PH and the PN create a unity government, but the latter stayed. This led BN and Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) to support Anwar. GPS is a regional party with a support base in Sabah province.

Anwar Ibrahim

After the takeover, Anwar Ibrahim is being talked about globally. Before becoming the tenth Prime Minister of the island nation, Anwar had a long track record of being a modern reformer who wanted to have a corruption and bigotry-free Malaysia. For this, he had to be in jail twice, once for a decade, and face humiliation and character assassination.

“This is a national unity government and all are welcome on condition (they) accept the fundamental rules: good governance, no corruption and a Malaysia for all Malaysians,” Anwar said in his pledge at the time of oath-taking, a major reassurance to a country that is racially divided nation, unable to fight corruption and has an economy in a state of mess. “No one should be marginalized under my administration.”

The Member of the Malaysian Parliament, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim called on the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, in New Delhi on January 10, 2019.

Born in August 1947, in Penang, Anwar has been a student activist who founded the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM) in Malay in 1971. Once, he was arrested for leading protests against rural poverty and hunger. Later, he joined UMNO under Mahathir Mohammad, the man who mentored him and eventually attempted to decimate him as well.

The rise was spectacular. Between 1991 and 1998, he was Malaysia’s Finance Minister and was credited for tackling the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Despite being seen as Mahathir’s successor, there were tensions between the two which led to his sacking in 1998 and expulsion from the party. This led Anwar to lead protests against Mahathir and marked the beginning of a better democratic environment in the region. Soon, Anwar was in jail for corruption and sodomy, a crime, even if consensual would get a 20-year imprisonment. While out of jail, Anwar’s reformist party came close to defeating the UMNO in the 2013 election by polling more than 51 per cent of the popular vote. But the barrage of allegations came up again.

He became deputy prime minister in 1993, a position that continued till 1998. Even his wife was the Deputy Prime Minister of Mahathir Mohammad.

In 2004, Anwar Ibrahim’s first conviction was overturned by a court. As he moved out and led the opposition, more allegations of sodomy were made against him. He went to jail again in 2014.

Politics makes strange bedfellows. In 2018, while in jail, he joined Mahathir to oust the Najib Razak government. In response, Mahathir managed to issue a royal pardon to him.

Rights, Israel

His takeover as the top leader of the island nation has been welcomed by human rights groups. “This is a leader who has personally suffered massive politically motivated injustices,” Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch was quoted saying by CNN. He hoped Anwar would “bring reforms to laws and regulations that have been used in the past to criminalize the peaceful exercise of civil and political rights,” pointing to issues like discrimination against transgender and gay communities, the treatment of migrant workers and child marriage and refugee laws.

Even though a devout Muslim, Anwar Ibrahim is a supporter of Israel’s “right to exist” while being an “unapologetic ally of the Palestinian people”. This has led various influential people in Israel to believe that Tel Aviv can have better relations with Kuala Lumpur. “Unlike his predecessor [sic] Mahathir, Malaysia’s new PM Anwar Ibrahim doesn’t call himself a ‘proud anti-semite’; indeed, his foes slur him as an ‘agent’ of Jews and/or Christians,” Esther Solomon, chief editor of the English-language Haaretz recently tweeted. “Israel would love closer ties with Kuala Lumpur. Could this be the opportunity?” In an article on Anwar’s recent appointment, Haaretz said Anwar’s views showed that he was more open to establishing diplomatic ties with Israel. “This was a significant statement from a senior politician in a country whose passports state ‘valid for all countries of the world, except Israel’.”

Foreign Policy

It is expected that Anwar Ibrahim will come with his own foreign policy. He has already stated that his administration will work with every state regardless of whether they are Muslim or non-Muslim. It remains to be seen how the relations would prosper between Delhi and Kuala Lumpur.

The bilateral trade between India and Malaysia has been a key historic relationship. According to United Nations COMTRADE database on international trade, Malaysian imports into India were at US $10.91 billion in 2021, and Indian exports to the island nation were at US $6.7 billion.

Malaysian-Prime-Minister-Mahathir-Meets-Indian-Prime-Minister-Modi-Russia
Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Meets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Russia

Last time in October 2019, when Mahathir Mohammad had raised Kashmir, Anwar Ibrahim suggested that Malaysia should resolve differences with India amicably. Mahathir’s statement impacted the relations between the two countries. There were efforts later – after Mahathir lost power, to mend the fence. With a totally new regime taking over, it remains to be seen how the relations will work out. Malaysia has a huge Indian origin population. More than 150 thousand Indian professionals work in the island nation.

On January 10, 2019, Anwar Ibrahim as leader of the Malaysian opposition had a detailed meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi. Accompanied by two MPs, Anwar had flown to participate in Raisina Dialogue, considered India’s flagship annual geopolitical and geo-strategic conference.

PM Modi has congratulated Anwar for becoming the leader of the island nation. He got the response: “India is an important partner for Malaysia. I’m looking forward to working closely with you to strengthen ties and cooperation in various areas including trade, investment and culture.”

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