Anwar must listen to Malaysia’s voters

The results of the weekend elections held in six of Malaysia’s 13 states were a rebuke to Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

After intensive campaigning, the opposition Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition won two-thirds of the seats in the Malay-majority heartland states that it already governed and gained ground in three states run by Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan coalition.

In Selangor, Malaysia’s richest state, Pakatan Harapan lost its prized two-thirds majority while still holding on to power.

The country’s Malay majority voted overwhelmingly for the opposition. The core issue was the economy, as Malaysians have been struggling to recover from the severe economic contraction caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Anwar’s decision to make the elections a referendum on his leadership eight months after coming to power backfired.

Many will see the outcome as adding to Malaysia’s political instability. They will not be wrong, but the country’s trajectory will depend on whether bold decisions are made to address festering problems exposed by the election. Compromises from both sides of the political divide will be needed to address key socioeconomic issues.

Ahead of the election, the opposition engaged in months of destabilizing psychological warfare on social media. It seems set to continue this tactic.

Of particular concern are claims by PN, a coalition of ethno-nationalist and Islamist parties, that it should be seen as the country’s legitimate leader because of its support from Malay Muslims, even though the coalition holds only a third of seats in the federal parliament.

PN refuses to take a constructive opposition role, irresponsibly focusing on the pursuit of power at the cost of Malaysia’s social fabric. Despite its provocative bravado, however, the opposition is weaker than its electoral gains suggest.

The polls showed it gathering no substantive support from Chinese and Indian voters, the main minority groups in the six states that voted. The PN coalition, led by former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, also has yet to convince the business community that it can govern nationally.

Questions persist about the competency of PN, which is more comfortable with social media influencers, sports figures and religious scholars than with policy issues. In addition, some of the coalition’s leaders are facing legal charges.

Few expect a change in tactics, but PN’s ethno-nationalist rhetoric and growing electoral power will strengthen codependency among the parties in Anwar’s alliance and do little to attract partners from the ethnically diverse eastern states of Sarawak and Sabah, which account for a quarter of seats in the federal parliament.

Electorally, PN will have only a few opportunities to build traction before the next national election is due in late 2027. To ensure stability, however, Anwar’s government needs to take a hard look at both what is it doing wrong and what it is doing right. A cabinet reshuffle is overdue. At the least, the government needs a second finance minister if the prime minister continues to hold this portfolio.

A new strategy is also needed to communicate policy priorities and performance, and it should not be focused on Anwar and the “Madani concept” of good governance, which he has failed to explain adequately. Anwar suffered decades of demonization before becoming prime minister in last year and that legacy does not bode well for attempts to build government popularity around him.

Promised reforms must be delivered, including institutional changes that would separate government powers and depoliticize anti-corruption efforts. Meaningful change in education, health and social assistance are needed, too.

These reforms need to be implemented with consultation and buy-in from society, rather than in an ad hoc fashion. The election reaffirmed that Malaysians want better governance. Changing laws and individuals without changing norms and getting support across communities and within the civil service will not work.

Finally, the racial divisions in Malaysian society cannot continue to be ignored. The election showed that an approach that panders to conservative ideas only empowers them.

There is an urgent need to create a bipartisan civil society task force to address national unity and the concerns of minorities, from ethnic Indians who swung away from the government because of neglect and disrespect during the campaign to communities in Borneo that face severe marginalization.

This is not an issue solely for the governing coalition. The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, the largest party in the opposition coalition, should appoint non-Malay representatives in state legislatures it controls where minorities are not represented.

Ahead, inevitably, there will be strains in Anwar’s ruling coalition as a result of these polls, not least in relation to the United Malays National Organisation, a Malay-focused party that once dominated Malaysia but has been reduced to a small share of the federal parliament.

UMNO performed poorly in the election, winning only a fifth of the seats it contested. Many of its victories were dependent on tactical voting by supporters of Anwar, which could be withdrawn at a future election. The party now faces serious questions about its future viability.

For Anwar, the election results represent survival. But his government needs to attend now to the structural challenges exposed by the election. Failure to do so will guarantee that Pakatan Harapan will face more than a rebuke in the next election.


First published on Nikkei Asia.