PMX at 100 Days: Anwar Out of the Gate

Malaysia’s 10th Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has reached 100 days in office. But while the milestone serves as a common time frame to mark performance, this arbitrary 3-month plus assessment period can, at best, only provide an early indication of strengths and weaknesses.

Given the conditions any PM would have inherited — limited revenue tied to excessive leakages and a narrow tax base, a deeply politically polarised country, significant bureaucratic resistance to good governance and a less-than-favourable global economic climate — the task of governing was always to be challenging.

Sour and sweet

The opposition Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition’s continuous reliance on racialised rhetoric to divide Malaysians and destabilise the government rather than accept defeat has further compounded difficulties. It, in fact, remains myopically focused on gaining power and the spoils of war.

The recent exposure of alleged corruption during PN’s time in government in scandals such as Jana Wibawa has added bitterness to the sour toxic rhetoric.

However, support among the largest ethnic community, the Malays, remains contested.

My now-complete study of voting in the 15th general election (GE15) at micro granular polling station-level finds that Pakatan Harapan only won an estimated 13% of Malay votes from those who voted in Peninsular Malaysia (up from an estimated 11% in the macro level preliminary study, with the results to be published soon).

Yet, combined with support from Umno, Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) and Warisan, the government holds a majority of support of Malays who voted across Malaysia as a whole, and also, the overwhelming support of non-Malay communities.

Importantly, post-GE surveys show modest gains in support since November; goodwill has grown.

January 2023 survey from Merdeka Center found that 68% of Malaysians support Anwar as prime minister. In fact, Anwar’s popularity is already higher than Ismail Sabri during his tenure.

Despite strong public support for announced measures (that would be envied elsewhere), there continues to be a not-as-sweet-as-hoped “honeymoon” period.

To hold onto power, elite support and Parliament numbers remain crucial. In his Parliament speech, Malaysia’s Agong was blunt in his call for stability and hoped that there would be no change of government during the remainder of his tenure as king.

Crucially, Anwar has managed to consolidate his coalition, to shore up support. And while there are grumblings among those for whom on-board promises have yet to be fulfilled, with informal cooperation among fellow disgruntled quarters mooted, relations between the core coalition partners have improved.

With Anwar looking (very) comfortable in his return visit to Umno’s World Trade Centre headquarters and smiles all around (except for those that they forgot to invite), the shared interests of being in power have started to move towards exercising power.

Umno Budget model

The retabled and revised Budget 2023 has been the biggest test so far, yet is expected to be easily passed in Parliament this month. Debates in Parliament are ongoing.

Anwar’s government has framed it as an expansionary Budget targeting those most in need. This progressive distributive framework aims to differentiate this Budget from those of his predecessors it falls back into the old formula of dependence on handouts and “goodie delivery”. The Budget arguably overestimates the global economic recovery and inflates spending by including traditional off-Budget items.

Critical sectors in human capital development — health and education — have only been given modest increases in funding, following old patterns of spending that often fail to reach citizens. Furthermore, it is not clear how the Budget supports growth in an economy that’s still recovering from the Covid-19 crisis.

From inadequately explained billions allocated to GLCs to cutting constituency allocations, the model of the Budget remains Umno-like. It differs from Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s PH 1.0 in that it is not an austerity budget. Yet, it echoes the pattern of the past; with funds being allocated to shore up those in power and undermine political opponents.

Like Mahathir, too, Anwar is focused on trying to win over those who did not vote for him, while ignoring — and (modestly) increasing taxes on — many of those who did. The Budget is used as a tool to gain popularity; not only is it clear that state elections are coming, it is evident that Budgets have become part of government branding, a practice that former prime minister Najib Razak did well.

In Anwar’s government, there is a frenetic pace to reinforce performance legitimacy. His ministers have concentrated on early deliverables. Some of these have been done well.

Among the most tasty “low hanging fruit” are short-term initiatives on affordable meals via Menu Rahmah initiative spearheaded by Domestic Trade Minister Salahuddin Ayub and the opening of Department of Statistics data by Economic Affairs Minister Rafizi Ramli. There is also greater public engagement, perhaps best illustrated by the townhall meetings with stakeholders. A good example is the commendable effort by Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa to listen to the concerns of beleaguered medical doctors in public service, although the problems in the health sector remain serious.

Notably too, ministers who are not so prominent (or concerned with being) in the news, such as Women, Family and Community Development Minister Nancy Shukri and Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Chang Lih Kang, among others, have focused on getting on with business.

Primacy of caution

Malaysians have been carefully watching as Anwar’s government operates under high scrutiny. Mistakes — such as the nepotistic appointment of his daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar as his advisor (she has since moved to another position) and less-than-believable comments about anti-corruption given the history of some of the Cabinet appointees — have festered. Anwar still grapples with a trust deficit and his loquaciousness has created more opportunities to find gaps between the talk and the walk.

Accompanied by a talented professional photographer, Anwar’s government has focused on building up himself (and his government) rather than laying out clear policies and narrowing in on a handful of priorities.

In 100 days there have been multiple trips abroad to shore up support internationally, including a trip to the risky aftershock earthquake zone in Turkey. Meanwhile, crises exist in Malaysia, in hospital emergency rooms, areas hit by too-regular flooding and in classrooms too long neglected. Trips to supermarkets can also be risky, with sticker shock ever present.

Anwar’s political base and reformasi core supporters, however, wait patiently. The argument that reforms have to be implemented slowly contends with the notion that the window of opportunity to implement reforms, the honeymoon period, is closing; a primacy of caution risks evolution into the primacy of status quo, with many of those long in the status quo (still) in power.

3 months plus is not a long time in office, and opportunities remain. With the Budget passage, Anwar’s first major test will have been met. The next major tests will be the coming Umno party polls in May and 6 state elections, that are expected to be called for July.

Anwar has come into power after a long walk of his own. He is now walking slowly and cautiously, calling for patience and understanding. For now, despite frustrations and as long as the economy continues to expand and the opposition continues to be seen as an unpalatable other to a majority of Malaysians, he has both.


First published on Between the Lines.