Little more than a year after becoming Malaysia’s prime minister in late-November 2022, Anwar Ibrahim is getting mixed reviews from political analysts.
As the country’s fifth prime minister in less than five years, some credit his sustained grasp on power with bringing political stability to the country.
“When Anwar formed the government last November, a lot of pundits or the general population think it will only last two months or three months [until] the government will collapse because the government consisted of 19 different [parties],” said Azmi Hassan, a senior fellow at the Nusantara Academy for Strategic Research in Kuala Lumpur. “But it has already lasted for one year.
“It brings stability,” he added. “What the people want basically is stability so that the government can function and do what the government is supposed to do.”
Survey results released by the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, however, say Anwar’s approval rating dropped to 50% compared to 68% a year ago. It also showed substantially increased dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the economy.
Maria Chin, 37, a local accountant who voted for Anwar’s coalition last year, complained to VOA about rising costs of living. “Our family’s grocery bills have gone way up,” said the married mother of two children.
But Azmi says the prime minister has limited control over this issue.
“Food prices going up and ordinary things [costing more] is not unique to Malaysia,” Azmi said. “What Anwar has done is to give cash aid to the people who need it most. Not only giving cash aid to a wider section of the community, but he [increased] the amount.”
Political analyst Wong Chin-Huat credited Anwar with cutting red tape to help speed up the approval process for privately funded projects. “Anwar’s administration is looking for ways to make Malaysia more attractive to foreign companies,” Wong said.
Anwar’s administration says one of its goals is to make Malaysia a regional hub for the electric vehicle industry. Several months ago, Tesla announced that it would set up its first Southeast Asian office in Malaysia.
Anwar’s swearing in capped an incredible comeback for the long-time opposition leader who served two jail terms totaling almost a decade for sodomy and corruption, charges he says were politically motivated.
Always maintaining his innocence, Anwar has pledged to fight corruption. But critics say the prime minister hasn’t followed through on many of the reforms he has long advocated, including the separation of politics from the justice system and softening the quota system for admission to public universities that heavily favors the country’s ethnic Malays.
Leading a multi-ethnic coalition that has traditionally enjoyed strong support from liberal ethnic Malays as well as the country’s minorities. Anwar, says Wong, is trying to satisfy conservative voters but disappointing some long-time supporters.
The majority of Malaysians are ethnic Malay Muslims, but the country has sizeable ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian minorities. Most of them are Buddhist, Christian or Hindu.
Anwar received heavy criticism after the attorney general’s chambers dropped 47 corruption charges against Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who heads the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) political party. Zahid was a long-time political rival who joined Anwar’s coalition after the November 2022 election.
“Many of the ethnic minorities who have been supporting [Anwar] for the past 25 years are getting disillusioned thinking that Anwar lacks the determination to change the country,” Wong said. “But at the same time most of the ethnic minorities also understand that there is not a better alternative.”
Five opposition MPs recently shifted their support and backed Anwar as prime minister. Several of them said they needed to take this step to help their constituencies get more federal funding.
“This is the [Malaysian] equivalent of pork barrel politics in America,” Wong said, describing the style of politics that Anwar had long battled as an opposition leader. “Anwar is showing that he’s not a full reformist.”
But Azmi defended this maneuver.
There are “a lot of things Anwar said during his opposition days that cannot be fulfilled when they are in the government because when you are in the government you are in a different position,” Azmi said. “There are certain political realities that he has to deal with in order to keep his government stable.”