Realising the Malaysian dream: A tale of rulers, revival and reformasi

Anwar chairing a special meeting on cost of living issues, ' Majlis Tindakan Sara Hidup Negara 2022' in Putrajaya. – Photo courtesy of the Prime Minister Office

CAN you find a scenario where a monarch is faced with political upheaval whilst balancing a constitutional duty as a neutral arbiter, respecting the will of the people and finding a way to push a divided country forward? Sounds familiar?

Note that this isn't a plotline from the hit Netflix series The Crown (although at this point, Netflix might consider making a Malaysian spinoff) but a reality that Malaysia was faced with after their recent general election which led to a hung parliament – the first of its kind in the country’s history.

This resulted in coalitions engaging in a tug of war as both (Tan Sri) Muhyiddin Yassin and (Datuk Seri) Anwar Ibrahim scrambled for support. The political race to lead Putrajaya intensified when former Malaysian prime minister Muhyiddin claimed that he had received enough support from MPs to form a government.

In the end, after attempts to unify coalitions and bring some sort of peace during the political process, Malaysia’s King, Yang di-Pertuan Agong Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah Ibni Almarhum Sultan Ahmad Shah Al-Musta’in Billah had to step in, declaring that Anwar Ibrahim was to be Prime Minister and that a unity government should be sought.

Al-Sultan Abdullah’s move was necessary in unprecedented times. His Majesty has had to play a tough political chess game that he needed to watch closely. Indeed, three prime ministers in three years has only strengthened the idea that politics can no longer be business as usual and Malaysia must turn a new leaf.

The King realised that a revolving door of Prime Ministers claiming for support has become passé and often a manipulative step for politicians to retain power and maintain the status quo. It was a time for political winds to change, and at last, by virtue of the King and in light of coalitions who were unable to compromise to secure a majority, Anwar Ibrahim was thus sworn into office to bring an inclusive, multi-regional, multi-ethnic Malaysia.

Anwar has been in opposition for the better part of two decades and as Prime Minister, he lives in a reality of significant political dynamics not only at a national level but also at a regional and international scale. Anwar should bear in mind that he is living in an era where a Prime Minister can be ousted after 49 days in power (see: Liz Truss), that Presidents can still retain majorities despite unpopular poll numbers (see: Joe Biden) and that election deniers can still have a powerful megaphone (see: Donald Trump). However, in this spell of bleak possibilities, Anwar has the task of ensuring that Malaysian political parties need to come together and heal divisions.

Malaysia’s recent general election result has done little to espouse the notion that its political scene is no longer fragmented and fragile. In fact, Anwar is at a critical crossroad that will challenge whether or not he is able to realise the battle cry of his supporters for reformasi (reform) into a stable, empathetic and strong government. The next weeks are critical for Anwar to secure support and maintain credibility amidst uncharted political waters.

First, Anwar must maintain his pragmatism in government by working with his allies and foes in unison. Alongside his own Pakatan Harapan, Barisan Nasional and Gabungan Parti Sarawak has signaled its support for Anwar’s unity government and would require representation to consolidate this new coalition. This includes cabinet appointments that are politically diverse in ideology and thinking.

Many examples in the West and South-East Asia can prove to be benchmarks that Anwar can take note of such as the appointment of Barack Obama’s former bitter rival Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State when he became President.

In the case of a coalition government, we can also see this in the case of former UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s initial premiership where he appointed Nick Clegg – a member of the Liberal Democrats Party which was in coalition with Cameron’s Conservative Party – as Deputy Prime Minister.

Even Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, who initially insisted that political party chairmen should not serve in the cabinet. Now, his current cabinet is full of them. Why? Because at times, stability needs to be maintained and at this moment for Malaysia, Anwar will not be blamed if he named two Deputy Prime Ministers or even three for that matter. A team of rivals and a roadmap for power sharing is essential for political survival.

Second, it is important for both Anwar and Pakatan Harapan to recognise that parties that are going to join the unity government will be doing so with existing manifestos of their own and rhetoric which has technically placed coalitions like Pakatan and Barisan as mortal enemies. Hence, Anwar needs to make sure that his premiership is bolstered by a silver lining which can unite political parties together. Pakatan must be able to push for an inclusive government through the ropes of economic development and prosperity. Commitment to deliver on economic wins for Malaysia in a diverse environment must take center stage as not to trigger the cultural sensitivities of coalition partners.

Third, and perhaps the most important for Anwar’s long-term success is that he must use his presence at the international stage to consolidate support. Anwar is not only a prominent opposition leader who has famously endured numerous attempts to tarnish his reputation, but he has a breadth of experience in government and is a senior figure in South-East Asia. His story of reformasi and change resonates to many, and his decades of government as well as political experience commands respect internationally. This sets him apart from other rivals that are bent to question the credibility of his government.

Anwar’s dream for Malaysia is one that is peaceful, multiracial and compassionate. His decades fighting for this dream is finally inching closer and closer into a possible reality. If Anwar succeeds, Malaysia will not only reset, but thrive as a pedestal of reform and revival.

Raafi Seiff is the Director of Policy+, a think-tank that promotes good governance, fights for human rights and seeks to secure a green future in Southeast Asia. The views expressed here are solely the writer’s own.

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