The elimination of the distinctions based on race, colour, creed, and gender has been a long-held dream of the proponents of a free world devoid of lines of differentiations between humans. However, the return of inward-looking politics across several quarters of the world has dealt a severe blow to believers of globalisation’s abilities to eliminate divisiveness. The case of Malaysia, which is a multi-ethnic, multiracial and multicultural country, with people of various origins including Malays, Indians and Chinese becomes pertinent in this context. On November 19th, Malaysia held its 15th general elections, and on November 24, long-time opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was sworn in as Malaysia’s tenth prime minister (PM). Anwar has previously served as deputy prime minister, has served two prison sentences and spent years in the opposition. His Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition won 82 of the 222 seats in the parliament. Before the election, Anwar had stated that if elected. He would emphasise governance and anti-corruption and rid Malaysia of racism and religious bigotry. After being sworn in on November 24, he promised to rule for all Malaysian, and added that no Malaysian, irrespective of race or religion should be left to feel left out or marginalised.
A day later, at a press conference, Anwar stated that the first step of the new government should be to restore the confidence of the people so that they do not see ministers and leaders regardless of political party and religion who think only about salaries, contracts and shares. He also has refused to take a salary as a PM. He also stated that his primary focus would be on the cost of living, given Malaysia’s stagnating economy and the polarised landscape. As clear from the statements Anwar made, immediately post his election, the issues of race, religion, marginalisation, corruption and confidence in the elected government remain thorny issues in Malaysia. The issue of political stability remains a perpetual one for the country, given the fact that since 2018, Malaysia saw three different administrations and three prime ministers! The PH coalition government had previously collapsed in 2020, and the earlier defeated United Malays National Organization (UNMO) had vaulted back to power with an unsteady coalition government.
For the PH government this time, the question of stability remains. While Anwar symbolises a brand of cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic politics as evident from his statements so far, the dangers also loom large as there has been a visible rise in the support for Malaysia’s Islamic Party (PAS), which now holds 49 seats. In fact, Anwar’s appointment came only after five days of negotiations in which his PH coalition vied with Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) bloc for the support necessary to form the next government. The decision was finally made by the king, Sulatan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, who appointed Anwar with a mandate to unify a polarised Malaysia, after a period of political instability which saw the end of the previous government in October this year. Muhammad Yassin, whose PN Malay coalition includes the PAS had disputed Anwar’s appointment insisting that he had the support of 115 MPs.
In contrast to Anwar’s cosmopolitan policies, PAS advocated the introduction of Sharia law, and advances the idea of a Malaysian identity that is narrowly Malay and Islamic and is suspicious of the minorities of Indian and Chinese origin. Kuala Lumpur-based Centre for Independent Journalism had identified divisive and hate speeches from PAS leaders during the election campaign. The party has often been labelled “Malaysia’s Taliban”. The high number of seats that PAS has won is a sign of looming dangers of divisiveness that harps on a form of Malay identity that is discriminatory. Thus, people-centric measures and inclusivity become a big challenge for the newly-formed government in Malaysia.
Effective governance has been another thorny issue for Malaysia, at least since 2018. Multiple changes in government since 2018 have caused several changes in budgets and other policies, and if the current coalition government cannot survive due to political volatility, the country will sink further in the pit of ineffective governance. PH holds 82 seats in the 222-member parliament and there have been indications that it will receive support from the UNMO which leads the Barisan Nasional (BN) bloc that has 30 seats. Other parties, including the Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) and Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS), have also indicated support for the PH coalition. What is still unclear is how robust this support will be. Hopping between parties has previously led to instability in previous governments and the recently introduced anti-hopping law prohibits individual members of the parliament from switching parties. However, it allows for parties and blocs to collectively change their allegiance.
Given the reduced external demand for goods and services worldwide as well as rising costs of living, the PH government faces additional challenges. Given the fact that a crisis in the form of fresh Covid-19 cases is wreaking havoc in China and at least a million deaths are being registered, Malaysia’s economy is bound to suffer impacts. China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner accounting for 18.9$ of the total trade. In the first half of 2022, Malaysia recorded 87.4 billion ringgit of $19 billion of foreign direct investments of which 48.6 billion ringgit, or 55. 61% came from China. Malaysia, like most other ASEAN countries has also been anticipating more tourism from China to boost the tourism sector, which has been already hit hard by the prolonged pandemic. All of this will suffer deep impacts now that China is suffering a fresh round of Covid infections.
As such, an economic storm has been gathering on the horizon, and this could be an acid test for the new government. Rising prices and eroding purchasing power have been long standing challenges, and all three main political blocs- PH, BN and the PN had promised to ease cost of living burdens during their election campaigns. A major economic problem facing Anwar’s government is that of the depreciating ringgit vis-à-vis the US dollar, and the rapid decline needs to be arrested. Thus, people-friendly policies be it in the economic realm or in the political realm along with fiscal consolidation remain major challenges. While the election of a cosmopolitan government is a welcome change in a diverse country like Malaysia, amidst rising inward looking policies across the globe, the dangers remain as exemplified by the rising support for a party like PAS. The common Malaysian would benefit from policies of a cosmopolitan government and Anwar’s coalition needs to ensure it can give Malaysia the political and economic stability it has been long vying for.
The article has been authored by Sriparna Pathak, associate professor and director, Centre for Northeast Asian Studies, OP Jindal University.