Malaysia – From prison to prime minister

It was a political duel that shaped Malaysian politics for a long time: that between long-time Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his former companion Anwar Ibrahim.

The two had been a team for a long time and Anwar, who had been extremely active politically since he was a student, had been groomed by the elder Mahathir to succeed him. But in the late 1990s they fell out. Exactly why remains a mystery to this day. Mahathir said there was conflicting opinion on how the country should deal with the severe financial crisis that was sweeping Southeast Asia at the time. And he spoke of a dubious character of Anwar.

A spate of extremely dubious charges and lawsuits against Anwar ensued, putting the former finance minister and deputy prime minister, who has a talent for mobilizing masses, behind bars for years. Anwar was convicted of corruption and homosexuality, which is illegal in largely Muslim Malaysia. Civil society organizations immediately pointed out that these trials were based on false and coerced statements. And not only human rights organizations, but also many governments saw Anwar as a political prisoner. The latter, in turn, remained adamant about his goal of one day becoming prime minister of his country.

The Malays are also favored under Anwar

His dream came true on Thursday: the 75-year-old was sworn in by King Abdullah in the palace in the capital, Kuala Lumpur. Anwar’s alliance, the Alliance of Hope, won 82 of the 222 parliamentary seats in Saturday’s election. That wasn’t enough for a majority, but Anwar managed to forge a coalition. He managed to secure the support of regional parties, for example from the state of Borneo. In doing so, he kept the National Alliance, which had received 73 mandates and also wanted to form a government, at a distance.

In his inaugural speech, Anwar immediately focused on a topic that he has repeatedly addressed for a long time: corruption. He promised his government would be clean. As a first step in his administration, he announced that he would reduce the number of ministers and cut ministerial salaries at the same time.

He also addressed a point that has always been a sensitive one in Malaysian politics: namely the relationship between the individual ethnic groups.

Malays, Chinese, Indians and indigenous peoples live together in the state of 32 million people. Anwar apparently wants to do a balancing act.

He emphasized that he would stick to the special rights of the Malays, who make up the largest ethnic group with around half of the population. These include, for example, preferential treatment when filling positions in the public sector. At the same time, the one-time leader of an Islamic movement said his government will be there for all Malaysians, regardless of their origin.

In any case, many Malaysians are hoping for stability after years of political turmoil. There have been three different heads of government in the past four years.

Anwar takes office at an extremely difficult time, says Malaysia expert James Chai of the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. “Politics is fragmented into many factions, the country is only recovering from an economic downturn and the bitter memories of the corona pandemic,” analyzed Cha in an interview with the Reuters news agency. But Anwar is known for being able to unite different camps, which is perhaps why he is now at the helm of the government at just the right time.

Also, Anwar can probably count on his fight with Mahathir finally being over. He is now 97 years old and has now lost his seat in parliament in the election. Mahathir, who was the world’s oldest prime minister from 2018 to 2020, has announced that he is now retiring from politics.

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