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Anwar’s dilemma

By Murray Hunter - posted Thursday, 1 December 2022

As an indication of just how precarious his 'unity' government is, Anwar Ibrahim , Malaysia's new prime minister, is being forced by circumstances to take on as his deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the president of the United Malays National Organization and a man who faces 47 counts of criminal breach of trust, corruption and money laundering charges involving funds allegedly looted from a charity he started. Keeping him out of prison in a newly independent criminal justice system will be a challenge.

The decision to take on Zahid has shocked and dismayed Anwar's followers, who for years have waiting for him to take office to head a reformist government, But as a longtime political observer told Asia Sentinel, "Anwar needs Zahid's numbers. Zahid needs their endorsement."

Ironically, Anwar's staunchest and most trustworthy ally is totally counterintuitive. Zahid will be the one who stands by him, which could be to his detriment. But only Zahid can keep the restive Barisan components together, both among the MPs and the parties. This will bring great friction between Anwar's current people in the not-too-distant future.


Anwar must survey a landscape in which his potential enemies are camouflaged against the scenery. His government is not a Pakatan Harapan one. Its not quite a unity government. It's a government founded on the best compromise that could have been made at the completion of GE15. The monarchy saw Anwar as a moderate center-right figure in contrast to the far-right ethno-centric ultra-nationalist-Islamic opposition.

Anwar's government was a bet made on steering some form of middle path, which the establishment saw as in the best interests of the nation. However, he faces challenges that will aim to destabilize him, if not even make him fall from government. These can be summarized as follows.

A new parliamentary opposition

For the first time in decades the parliamentary opposition will be Malay-centric. With the polarizing of the electoral results, Muhyiddin Yassin's Perikatan Nasional, with the rural Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia as the senior partner, playing directly to the Malay heartlands, their only constituency. This is where the attacks painting Jewish, communist, and anti-Islamic labels on the new government are coming from. They won't go away anytime soon.

With corruption issues and upcoming court cases due against members of the new government, with Zahid as their poster boy, expect Perikatan Nasional to suddenly become the anti-corruption coalition. This is potentially Anwar's weak spot, depending on the composition of his cabinet, which PN will seek to exploit. Anwar may have to take the back foot over corruption issues among his coalition parties to keep it intact.

The opposition is supported by a massive social media apparatus. The last weeks of the election campaign saw hostile racial posts on social media and continued attacks on the ethnic Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party. PAS is well resourced with trolls, bots, cybertroopers and bloggers who will take the battle to the new government.


Taking these groups down by legal means, using the conveniently-passed anti-fake new law passed by the previous government, could be counterproductive, while leaving them intact could be destructive. Anwar and his future home minister need to be particularly sensitive so as not to create new heroes for the opposition.

The civil service

Anwar has the civil service to contend with. The civil service has over decades built up a very powerful Malay agenda. Any reforms that appear to compromise this can be very easily dismembered, as the civil service is the primary extension of government.

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This article was first published on Asia Sentinel.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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