Malaysian PM Anwar goes slow on reform as he strengthens position

Analysts believe Malaysian PM Anwar Ibrahim is not rushing out reforms as he looks to consolidate his position and focus on Malaysia’s sluggish economy. PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR - Just over a month after taking office, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim – who is known for his reformist credentials – has remained largely silent on the reform agenda, as he focuses on further strengthening his position while leading a government made up of ideologically disparate parties.

His Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition has long led the call for several key legal reforms, but Datuk Seri Anwar’s government has yet to stitch together the different manifestos from all the parties that make up the government – including long-time rival Barisan Nasional (BN) and several smaller outfits mainly from the island of Borneo.

Economic Affairs Minister Rafizi Ramli – one of the key PH strategists – said on Dec 20 that the process of stitching together manifestos from the various parties has just started.

“The Cabinet decision so far was to ask the chief secretary to set up a committee (to look at the different manifestos), it’s not a committee set up by political parties but rather by the government,” Mr Rafizi told reporters.

The parties in the ruling coalition had signed an agreement on Dec 16, but it was silent on any commitments to specific legislative reforms.

In its manifesto for the general election held on Nov 19, PH had, among other things, promised to put in place a term limit for the office of prime minister, introduce a political funding Act, separate the office of the attorney-general and chief prosecutor, introduce permanent terms for both Parliament and state assemblies, and provide more autonomy to Borneo states Sabah and Sarawak.

The reforms were part of PH’s legislative pursuits since the 2018 election, but the coalition had managed to realise only a handful of those, due to the political uncertainty that has rocked Malaysia since 2020.

PH could not fulfil many of its intended reforms after taking federal power for the first time in 2018, as the government collapsed less than two years into its tenure due to defections. Its biggest legacy has been the lowering of voting age from 21 to 18 and introducing automatic voter registration in 2019.

The coalition entered a confidence and supply agreement (CSA) with then Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob in 2021 – promising parliamentary backing for crucial Bills and supply Bills in exchange for several key reforms. Through this, a landmark anti-hopping legislation and a constitutional amendment elevating the status of Sabah and Sarawak were passed in Parliament.

However, the introduction of a term limit remains unfulfilled, while Datuk Seri Ismail’s pursuit of a political funding Act based on the spirit of the CSA was also short-lived as Parliament was dissolved.

Analysts believe that Mr Anwar is not rushing out reforms as he is looking to consolidate his position and also redirect his administration’s focus on Malaysia’s sluggish economy and rising inflation driving up living costs, especially for lower-income groups.

“Economic revitalisation must necessarily take priority over all other issues, at least in the short term, as the country is undergoing yet another stretch of economic downturn. So all these reforms issues would have to take a backseat to the economy,” Singapore Institute for International Affairs senior fellow Oh Ei Sun told The Straits Times.

Bower Group Asia deputy managing director Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani said PH is going slow on reforms, having learnt its lesson from its previous administration – which had alienated the bureaucracy after making sweeping changes once it came to power, eventually leading to destabilisation within its own ranks.

“PH, as a coalition, has learnt from its previous administration that it needs to be more patient and calculated in introducing key legal reforms,” Mr Asrul Hadi said.

“Anwar is currently consolidating his position as prime minister. Despite the agreement between PH and its coalition partners, he still needs to tread strategically to incorporate the manifestos of all parties,” he added.

The November election resulted in a hung Parliament, with PH as the biggest bloc. Mr Anwar eventually managed to form what he calls a unity government, after BN, along with several Sabah and Sarawak parties, agreed to join his government – giving Mr Anwar 148 MPs in the 222-seat Parliament, or a two-thirds majority.

He is the first premier to hold a supermajority in Parliament since early 2008, but his position remains tenuous due to his reliance on his coalition partners for a majority.

Mr Anwar built the last two decades of his political career on the platform of reforms. Malaysia’s reform movement was born out of his imprisonment on corruption and sodomy charges in 1999, and has remained the chant for his party Parti Keadilan Rakyat and the PH coalition he leads to date.

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