Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Anwar Ibrahim started working as Malaysia’s prime minister after promising to lead a government inclusive of all in the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Southeast Asian nation.
Anwar showed up at 09:00 a.m. (01:00 GMT) on Friday at the prime minister’s office in the country’s administrative capital, Putrajaya, after being sworn in by the king the day before.
At his first press conference on Thursday evening, the 75-year-old veteran politician outlined his plans for the country.
He said he would not receive a salary and that his government would “guarantee and protect the rights of all Malaysians, especially the marginalized and the poor, regardless of their race or religion”.
He also stressed the importance of reform.
“We will never compromise on good governance, anti-corruption, judicial independence and the welfare of ordinary Malaysians,” he said at the late-night event.
Anwar was appointed prime minister by the king after an inconclusive election last Saturday that left his Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition with the most seats but short of the majority needed to govern. The PH will govern the country in coalition with the Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), the main party in the state of Sarawak in Malaysia’s Borneo, and the Barisan Nasional (BN), the alliance that dominated Malaysian politics until 2018 when he first lost power. amid the multi-billion dollar scandal at state fund 1MDB.
At the start of his Thursday evening press conference, Anwar received a congratulatory call from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after he shared a video on social media of him chatting with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the first foreign leader to gift him his congratulations. Anwar described Indonesia as a “true friend” of Malaysia and said he would focus on strengthening relations between the two countries.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also extended his congratulations to Anwar and the Malaysian people, noting the record number of votes cast in the election,
“We look forward to deepening our friendship and cooperation based on shared democratic principles and respect for human rights and the rule of law,” Blinken said. “We remain committed to working with Malaysia to advance a free and open, connected, prosperous, secure and resilient Indo-Pacific region.”
Anwar’s appointment as Prime Minister caps a memorable political journey for the man who was born in the northern state of Penang in 1947. After rising to prominence as an incendiary student activist, the young Anwar was drawn to the United Malayan National Organization (UMNO), the dominant party organization in the then-ruling BN alliance, where he quickly rose through the ranks.
His shock dismissal in 1998 and subsequent imprisonment for bribery and sodomy galvanized Malaysia’s political opposition, fueled calls for reform – known as “reformasi” – and contributed to a gradual realignment of the country’s politics. Anwar underwent a second trial and conviction for sodomy before being pardoned in 2018 and released from prison.
“Only a man like Anwar could embody Malaysia’s contradictions and lead the country into a new page of history,” said James Chai, Visiting Scholar in the Malaysian Studies Program at the ISEAS-Yusof Institute. Ishak from Singapore. “Many would say he is precisely what the nation needs. The Reformasi generation can breathe a sigh of relief after years of despair.
Anwar’s PH government is the second in the reformist coalition after its last administration collapsed following the retreat of Malaysian conservatives after just 22 months. Since then, the country has been in a state of instability with two prime ministers in as many years.
Anwar appears keen to draw a line under political maneuvering and says a vote of confidence to show the strength of the new coalition will be the first item on the agenda when parliament first sits on December 19.
“We have a really convincing majority,” he said, adding at a press conference on Friday that it represented two-thirds of the 222-seat parliament. A majority of this size would give the coalition the power to change the constitution.
Former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin who led the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, which also tried to form a government after the suspended parliament, on Friday congratulated Anwar on his appointment.
In a statement, he said PN would play a “check and balance role” in parliament.
The conservative alliance won the second most votes in the elections with PAS, the Islamic Party of Malaysia, winning the most seats among its members and emerging as the largest party in parliament.
The PN leader urged Anwar on Thursday to “prove” his majority.
However, Muhyiddin himself failed to hold a parliamentary vote after being appointed prime minister by the king in 2020 when a power struggle within the PH alliance led to its collapse.
Muhyiddin had been part of the PH government, but along with other politicians he jumped ship. He only survived 17 months in power before he too was overthrown by politics – and replaced by UMNO’s Ismail Sabri Yaakob.
Ismail Sabri held the post for just over a year before calling elections in November, also under pressure from factions within his party.
To ensure the longevity of his administration, analysts said it was crucial that Anwar learn the lessons of the first PH government and build confidence.
“A lot will depend on who he appoints to his cabinet and whether they can work together,” Bridget Welsh said. “There are many lessons to be learned from the first government of Pakatan Harapan in terms of building trust, managing expectations and communicating. These are things that are going to be the challenge ahead.
At a press conference on Friday, he again stressed that he would reduce the size of the cabinet, which had exploded to nearly 70 ministers and deputy ministers in recent years. Welsh said it was crucial that the appointees have skills and experience given the challenges Malaysia faces, and that this also reflects Malaysia’s socio-economic realities and its young population.
The country is predominantly Malay Muslim and Islam is the official religion, but there are significant minorities of Chinese and Indians, as well as indigenous peoples.
Race and religion have long been sensitive issues in the country and tensions have emerged during the two-week election campaign as police this week warned Malaysians about posting “provocative” content.
Jerald Joseph, Malaysia’s human rights commissioner until earlier this year and a longtime democracy campaigner, said he welcomed the opportunity for Malaysia to open a new chapter, noting that Many recent reforms, such as lowering the voting age and voter registration, had begun under PH in 2018.
The new prime minister should focus on reforms in parliament, he added, including ensuring the appointment of a neutral president and the empowerment of specialist committees.
“Anwar has to prove himself like any other prime minister,” Joseph told Al Jazeera. “He has to make the reform work. It must make governance work.