A Testing Year: Where to Malaysia in 2023?

After a polarising 15th general election (GE15) and the formation of another frenemy government, many ask where Malaysia is headed politically.

As after May 2018, there is both hope and disquiet with displacement. Yet, unlike the sense of elation from victory from an elected change in government, the strongest emotions are those being felt by those who were defeated.

For many, the political battles have left them feeling battered, conscious of their power as voters yet simultaneously disempowered by elite deals that require recalibrating how different political parties and individuals are perceived. As elites are being required to compromise and cooperate with former enemies, Malaysians are being asked to reduce expectations and be “realistic” about reforms.

Political Probation

The government of Malaysia’s new and 10th prime minister Anwar Ibrahim does not have the usual political honeymoon that comes from an elected mandate.

Instead, it is on political probation — Anwar has a window where he and his government are being given time to prove themselves, a reprieve from the lens by more liberal critical citizens while facing the glare of an angry conservative opposition eager to capitalise on mistakes for their own ends. 

How long this probation period will last remains to be seen. It is tied to performance. At best, the government has a year before it faces a possible change in sentiment. This echoes the same period of the 2018 Mahathir Mohamad government. Importantly, however, the fear of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) political alternative and another possible backdoor takeover will check criticism.

The effective ratcheting down of expectations by Anwar’s government and greater recognition of the need for early deliverables may extend the probation period even further.

Views on the prospects of this new coalition government vary sharply from those (extremely optimistically) predicting a long five-year tenure, to those (more realistically) highlighting points of instability and others (pessimistically) pointing to a potential collapse. 

The gatekeepers of change are political elites — the royalty and elected representatives best positioning themselves in the changed political terrain. Those behind the gate, the civil servants and deep state, are also crucial; with a divided mandate.

Comparatively, Anwar has less control over the levers of government than his predecessors and faces considerable quiet resistance inside the bureaucracy.

Political Contests and Competition

With at least 6 (possibly 7, depending on what happens in Sabahdifferent state elections this year, voters will shape how much public pressure the current government will face.

The prospect of further “green” electoral strengthening of conservative ethno-nationalist forces looms, with potential gains in all 3 of the states led by Pakatan Harapan (PH) poised ahead.

The battles in the PH states will be the most contentious, with voters being potentially asked to endorse their former political foes and elites being asked to give away seat contests to former competitors.

Party elections will also set the tone, empowering delegates to decide Malaysia’s future. Focus is concentrated on Umno’s polls. Yet the party’s decision to bar a contest for the top 2 posts will further divide and weaken the party. 

Both PAS and Bersatu will have their own internal battles to resolve, not least of which is how they relate to each other. They are united ideologically with an ultra-Malay ethno-nationalist platform and recognise electoral strength in their collaboration, yet there is unease with PAS strengthening compared to Bersatu.

Their individual party elections ahead will test the collaboration and involve potential leadership changes. Their shared narrative that a common enemy “stole” power will dampen divisions within PN, while both state and party polls will likely intensify attacks on Anwar’s government.

Beyond attacks from outside, Anwar’s government will face internal challenges. With strong egos and even stronger senses of entitlement, the problematic dynamic of maintaining “unity” among elites will continue. Effective governance requires elite cooperation, especially regarding the economy.

Too often individual ministers work in silos, with common party members working in cliques, leading to disjointed policy implementation and a lack of clear priorities. This dynamic hampered the Ismail Sabri Yaakob government and is already emerging in the new government.

Troubled relations in frenemy arrangements were on display in Sabah already this year. The crisis may appear to be over with a Cabinet reshuffle, but tensions continue to simmer. One does not have to look far back in Sabah’s political history to see the effects of destabilising politicking and closing off those with significant political ambitions. 2020 was illustrative, 2023 will be as well.

Other political pressure points will be connected to trials (or the lack thereof) and the continued politicisation of corruption investigations/charges. PN leaders are already feeling the investigation heat.

The tie between “safe” while in political power and perceived political persecution of those in the opposition has limited space to address the abuses of those in power. There will only be so much dismissing of legal cases that will be publicly acceptable. 

A Culture War and Economic Battleground

Continued stories of scandals, corruption and otherwise, will persist. Ironically, while criminal sins are being violated, it will be a focus on vices that will inculcate the political narrative. Expect a deepening culture war ahead.

The empowerment of PAS nationally has increased its representatives’ sense of purpose and righteousness. Elected ustaz are expanding their roles and imposing their values. So far, the focus has been on gambling, alcohol, sexuality and attire. There is little recognition of even more serious issues of graft, addiction, hardship or respectful tolerance. Views of regulating behaviour are narrow. 

Malaysia’s culture war will have divisive ethnic overtones, tied to potential marginalisation of non-Muslims. It has the potential to cut into the fabric of society, slowly tearing away at trust and building anger. It can deepen the political polarisation and regional divisions of Borneo evident in GE15.

Anwar’s government will have to work to avoid these landmines. It will need to try to maintain control of the political narrative and pick the right battles if it is going to be able to navigate the year successfully.

A defensive position that emerged for the PH-Mahathir 2018 government on ethnicised issues ultimately resulted in defeat.

Money matters

The new current government has already set the tone that the focus will be on the economy with repeated promises of reform, starting with low-hanging measures. It is aiming to hold onto its political base while trying to win over voters concerned with their livelihoods — the overwhelming majority of Malaysians.

Next month, the government will stamp its own brand on the Budget, hoping for confidence from investors and citizens. The Budget will garner attention, not least of which will be the numbers that vote for it. How much it will pander to populism, patronage or set in place new policies remains to be seen. 

Anwar’s government has 2 opportunities to use a Budget to gain support this year, one in which ultimately will be his to determine as finance minister. He will wrestle with serious constraints, not least of which are a global economic slowdown, a new Cabinet with many inexperienced ministers, and revenue and implementation limitations.

Throughout, Malaysians will look on, hoping for the best but simultaneously preparing for less.

Increasingly more are recognising the limits of any government to address the everyday challenges they face. At the same time, they expect more from whoever is in government. There is a pressing need for concrete deliverables and better governance.

The political tests ahead will inevitably be trying, but it is a new year, a chance for a new beginning. After a tense Tiger year, the Year of the Rabbit is supposed to be lucky.

Anwar’s government will need to be lucky. 


First published on Between the Lines.