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Anwar's Cabinet, another 'scam'?

For his government to survive, Umno needs to pacify the hearts and souls of the Malays, 'mission impossible' in a context where PN leaders have openly declared themselves as the government-in-waiting.

Sophie Lemière
5 minute read
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Sophie Lemière

Sophie is a political anthropologist and a former fellow at international institutions including Harvard and Stanford University. Founder of KL-based political consulting firm SoCo and editor of book series and blog "Malaysian Politics and People", she holds a master's and PhD in comparative politics and a master's in geopolitics.

"Kabinet Anwar: the whole country kena scam", I read on Facebook this weekend. Malaysia is renowned for its trolling industry; it also is home to many scammers who trick Malaysians first. Is the new prime minister one of them? 

The feeling of distrust among voters was very high before GE15 and disinterest among the youth led many observers to believe that the voter turnout would be low. After the Sheraton Move that saw the Pakatan Harapan (PH) majority overthrown in favour of an alliance led by Umno-Bersatu, many citizens felt like they had been scammed. After all, the Perikatan Nasional-Umno combo was not they had voted for. 

However, far from causing disinterest, the disaffection for Malaysian political leaders in fact led to a great turnout on polling day – a little over 73%. Another surprise at this election was that while many observers assumed the wave of young voters and first-time voters, largely young Malay males, would translate into votes for PH, first-time voters undeniably gave their support to PAS (49 seats), increased Bersatu’s influence (from 13 seats in 2018 to 24) and rejected its liberal Malay alternative Umno (down from 54 to 26 seats) and the multi-cultural alternative PKR (down from 47 to 31 seats). 

This means that while the Sheraton Move was certainly another distortion of the country’s political history – which had remained rather linear until 2018 – it did not translate in a loss of support for PN.  

The economic tremors in the post Covid-19 era raised a nostalgia for the old days of stability: those were the days of Umno. However, the overlap between Umno and the numerous court scandals added to the factionalism that did not resolve and in fact annihilated Umno's image of stability. 

GE15 was indeed a plebiscite for the other oldest and most stable political force in the country, PAS, and its ally Bersatu. Meanwhile, PH continued its prevalence in urban and non-Malay majority constituencies. Yet no party or coalition succeeded in obtaining a single majority, and Malaysia for the first time experienced a hung parliament.

The drama and intense negotiations that followed increased voters' anxiety, compounded by an unfamiliarity with the democratic process. In fact, a hung parliament followed by a long period of negotiations between parties and coalitions is a normal (democratic) exercise. Belgium surely holds the world record of functioning without a government for 592 days. However, the Agong saw things differently, urging coalitions to form a unity government to ensure the fair representation of voter’s voices. 

The antagonistic position of PN leaders against Anwar Ibrahim and the Umno court cluster gave Anwar a highway to form an alliance with his former enemy and the big loser of GE15, the Umno-led BN. Soon, the new allies were joined by Muda, GPS, GRS and other smaller parties. 

At the same time, the rise of racial threats further amplified Malaysians’ anxiety in an unfamiliar political territory. The threat of political chaos and a possible return of the May 1969 violence have been largely cultivated by political parties for years. It is thus unsurprising that the ghost of May 13 was used one more time to trigger fear and play on public opinion. 

Two narratives emerged: for some, beyond reformasi, Anwar became the democratic fortress against the "danger" of a conservative Islamic government, while for many Malays, the power seize by a non-Malay majority coalition would be the end of their political hegemony and a threat to their economic privileges (privileges and policies that in fact failed to eradicate poverty among Malays but mostly satisfied the middle class and elite). 

In this first narrative, the alliance between PH and Umno was depicted as the lesser evil, and the expansion of their alliance to the Bornean coalitions eased the idea of a dangerous liaison and justified the term "unity government". 

In the second narrative, PAS offered the guarantee of the preservation of Malay rights, while Bersatu represented a perfect image of Umno minus the scandals and the factionalism (or less factionalism, at least). The semantic of unity vs coalition government remains a subject of discussion today, as PN argues that there cannot be unity without its inclusion – an invitation it denied. 

Rather than being a pure racial or ethnic question, the PH-Umno extended political family versus PN feud is in fact a class conflict. When looking at the vote share of PH and PN, we see clearly that the urban elite largely voted for PH while the rural folks voted for PN. 

Urban Malay elites surely do not wish for their liberal lifestyle to be questioned by a conservative Islamic government (that would include some of the members of this very same government), and these concerns closely align with non-Malay interests. 

Meanwhile, the Malay rural and urban lower-income folks who may have been disappointed by the Umno scandals wish to secure what they believe is the only way for them to maintain a decent living (again, the failures of the NEP are rarely exposed). 

Anwar announced his Cabinet on Friday with five Umno ministers and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as his deputy. While the co-optation of Umno by PH was a strategy, supported by the king, to form a majority, it was also a violent silencing of the Malay voice. 

The reformasi agenda promoted by Anwar for over 20 years has faded over the past few years with the marginalisation of some of key PKR voices. Anwar has had to make many difficult compromises to build his majority, and GE15 proved undeniably that his persona and agenda do not appeal to the Malay masses. 

For his government to survive, Umno needs to pacify the hearts and souls of the Malays, "mission impossible" in a context where PN leaders have openly declared themselves as the government-in-waiting, a reference to Anwar's former title of PM-in-waiting. 

Anwar will have to navigate very carefully for his government to stabilise the country. After years of struggle, he inherits an extremely sensitive social context, and economic distress enhanced by high political fluidity. 

Scams, schemes and (no) shame seem forever linked to Malaysian politics, and these notes have left deeper marks in the recent history of the country. However, the Cabinet of the day, whether scammers-schemers-shamers or reformists-optimists-capitalists, may be able to unite on issues and policies that have dominated Parliament discussions for years: offering an equal voice and future for Sabah and Sarawak, and implementing overdue legal reforms for social justice and the expansion of civil liberties. Harapan may not be entirely lost.