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Articles, Commentaries, Straits Times

Anwar Ibrahim and the Resilience of the Reformasi Movement

By OOI KEE BENG, in The Straits Times, 26 November 2022

AGAINST GREAT ODDS, and despite time threatening to run out for him, Anwar Ibrahim, at 75 years old, is now Malaysia’s Prime Minister. With that, a new era appears to dawn for the country. 

However, chances are, this change will not be as immediately dramatic as it might sound at first reading. Still, it could over time prove profound.

Now, there is a deep sense that Malaysia’s most prominent political conflicts have been manufactured for electoral reasons, and reassessing, even limiting the long-term damage that this phenomenon has wrought on the country will be a key concern for the Anwar administration. 

An unhealthy dynamic since 1969

Anwar’s assumption of the top job comes at an inflection point for Malaysia – after five decades of ethnocentric politics and politics – and must also be understood as a culmination of the dynamics unleashed by a growing Reformasi movement.

Coming into being as the Federation of Malaya in 1957 and the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, the adoption of federalism aimed at preserving political stability despite obvious diversities. Federalism was a vital condition for merger. 

But the centralisation of governance that followed the racial riots of 1969, favouring Malay nationalism to Malaysian nationalism, relied on sowing mistrust and dividing communities to succeed. That became the modus operandi for politics in the country. Populism in the form of racialism and religious fervour worked better electorally than any other exercise of democracy.

The fact that such divisiveness could pervade politics in the country and debilitate its workings was not lost on the founding fathers.To them, federalism was therefore a necessary condition for peaceful co-existence between the numerous communities and between many states.

It is worth reiterating that the groundbreaking Second Malaysia Plan implemented from 1970 to 1975 following the racial riots that created pro-bumiputra affirmative policy and set the country onto a new path was largely aimed at solving Malaysia’s acute socio-economic problems of widening inequality among the races, and not at implementing eternal racial supremacy for the majority community. Other measures put into place to reconfigure democracy in the country, including curbs on student activism and issues that can be raised in Parliament <just check what kind of issues were banned?>, should shoulder the  blame for the ethnocentrism that came to permeate Malaysian discourse, determine policy making and excuse political centralisation. 

As long as economic growth could be achieved year-on-year, this machine could chug along, and the socio-cultural divisions generated ignored. Even when the New Economic Policy ended in 1990, Malaysia was fortunately moving into a period of strong regional growth along with East Asia. Things looked hunky dory.

Then came the Asian Financial Crisis, and it all went sideways from there. Disagreements about how the crisis was to be managed led to the fateful and bitter split between the two top leaders in the country. Such splits had been common within the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the country’s preeminent party, but had major repercussions this time. 

The slugfest that began with the sacking of Anwar in 1998 by Mahathir Mohamad at the height of the crisis, would continue until 2022. Anwar’s sacking and jailing led to the rise of the Reformasi Movement.  A new generation of Malaysians were getting ready to take charge, encouraged by the cracks in the UMNO behemoth.

A Viable Opposition

Inspired by the regional upheavals of the times, which saw President Suharto fall in Indonesia and the beginning of democratisation and decentralisation in that neighbouring country, Anwar refused to leave the stage. Not even when he was hit with charges of corruption and sodomy. He suffered two jail sentences totalling 12 years, but in the process, he ushered in a new era of opposition politics.

After gaining a royal pardon in 2005, he lost no time in taking his place as the major opposition figure again. His supporters identified electoral reforms as the issue that would galvanise a hopeful public. He would come to suffer another jail term for sodomy but the movement had begun making inroads. With his party Keadilan taking power in key states in the Peninsula since2008, the struggle of the Reformasi could no longer be brushed aside.

What Anwar and his supporters managed to achieve was to articulate an alternative agenda proposing good governance, transparency and accountability in contrast to a poisonous version of Mahathirism defined by corruption, cronyism and authoritarianism. Facilitating the injection of this digestible ambition into the political mainstream stands out today as one of Anwar’s lasting achievements, notwithstanding doubts over how he will fare as Prime Minister.

Over the quarter century that followed 1998, ending with his swearing in on Thursday (Nov 24) as the tenth Prime Minister of Malaysia, Malaysia entered a period of bipolar politics. During this period, Anwar played a vital role as a bridge between opposition parties and in establishing a multiracial coalition under his leadership.

One can look back upon the results of the last five elections in Malaysia as a wearing down of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition. The resilience of Anwar Ibrahim is most clearly reflected in his electoral successes here. The victory  Abdullah Badawi had as president of UMNO in the 2004 general election over the opposition, was ironically followed by a strong showing by Anwar’s coalition in 2008, 2013 and finally 2018, when Pakatan Harapan toppled the BN from its pinnacle.

The 15th General Election held last Saturday left the country with a hung parliament. This standstill is a culmination of the intense fighting among the  political elites following the 1998 Mahathir-Anwar split. But what loomed large this time in the results was the rise of the Islamic party, Parti Agama SeMalaysia (PAS), which has doubled its seats in Parliament. Multiculturalism as the cornerstone of Malaysian social harmony would be under serious threat should they form the government.

It suddenly became obvious to many that Bersatu, the party Mahathir formed to fight UMNO in 2018, whose defection in 2020 brought down the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, would not be able to rein in its Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition partner PAS. 

Suddenly, on Sunday, what had so far been a peaceful electoral process threatened to turn ugly when PN announced that it would form the government with the support of the East Malaysian coalitions, GPS and GRS. 

In Malaysian democracy, a hung parliament requires the Agong step in to solve the impasse. No doubt, the country had never had a hung parliament before, but in early 2020, when the PH government unravelled, there was similarly no obvious majority. The Agong on that occasion went along with Muhyiddin who claimed he commanded the support of a majority in parliament. 

In November 2022, where the stakes are higher, keeping to protocol and process, the Agong wisely called for a unity government.

This call—and the subsequent positive response to it in the form of Anwar’s swearing in as Prime Minister—is what, to my mind, marks a new era. A unity government, by definition, is an attempt to break a situation, a conflict, a paradigm, that has become untenable, bankrupt even.

What the Agong, presumably with the full backing of the other sultans in the federation, did over the past week, was to present a perspective that could not be ignored. Muhyiddin’s knee-jerk reaction when confronted with the idea of a unity government of refusing the Agong’s suggestion, was, given the occasion, one show of an old ethnocentric recalcitrance too many.

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, often considered a chameleonic personality in his political career, may now turn out to be the person skilled enough to unite the country through inclusive policies, and internationally respected enough to excite investors and governments to provide support and recognition for this new era in Malaysia to take off properly.

Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute, and Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. His recent books include Catharsis. A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia.

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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