Anwar Ibrahim has beaten the odds and achieved an ambition he has harbored for decades. He is now Malaysia’s prime minister. After years of opposition politics and even time in prison, Ibrahim is now in a position, however tenuous, to put into place the programs and systemic reforms he has theorized about and campaigned for while in the wilderness. But it’s a difficult task for a man both on the inside and outside of the system—a leader who came up inside the coalition that ruled Malaysia for decades but has also stood outside it for years.
Much needs to be done. The country has a political system that is laden with corrupt roadblocks to progress, including political gridlock in the Parliament and a dysfunctional civil service as well as a legal system where the rule of law is still an ambition rather than a reality. Recent financial scandals have shaken confidence in the institutions of government and the economy.
Najib Razak was once Malaysia’s prime minister. Now, he is in jail. He and his family are accused by the U.S. Justice Department of stealing up to $1 billion from the Malaysian taxpayer and economy at large due to their participation in the 1MDB scandal, which made international headlines and forced global financiers to think twice before investing in Malaysia.
One of the architects of the fraud, businessman Jho Low, is still a fugitive. Much of the money has not been recovered—and does not look likely to be. At the same time, Malaysia is suffering the shocks of both regional and global slowdowns—after China’s economy and its domestic demand fell due to the long-time persistence of zero-COVID policies and as American and European markets contract ahead of the anticipated recession and its associated supply shocks.
Quite an in-tray for a new prime minister, especially one who has been on the outside of decision-making for the past two and a half decades.
But Ibrahim has been preparing.
He told Foreign Policy during an interview for a profile last year that his commitments are to a special vision for the country: a young country with sadly squandered potential. That’s not least due to the problems of machine politics and political corruption among the country’s elite—whom Ibrahim has finally subverted and supplanted in power.
When we spoke then, Ibrahim was receiving support from disgraced former leader Najib before his imprisonment. Ibrahim rationalized his support by reference to machine politics: “Now, the understanding is that Najib has to deal with his cases. Of course, we acknowledge he wields an influence, a vast influence within the party. But I discussed with him and his team the policies and the parameters: judicial independence; free media; equitable economic policy; to reduce abuse and corruption. This, I said, could not be compromised. And to be fair to them—notwithstanding what happened in the past—they agreed.”
This apes Ibrahim’s canny use of the grand old man of Malaysian politics, Mahathir Mohamad—a friend, foe, patron, persecutor, and enemy of Ibrahim’s – who finally lost his own seat in the most recent election.
For Ibrahim, these contortions of Malay politics are justified by the outcomes he argues that he can achieve, from democratic restoration to economic growth.
At the time, analysts told Foreign Policy that Ibrahim was prepared to wait, just as he had for years, for the opportunity to put his program into practice.
“He said that his mother and her sisters and all that lived beyond 100, so there is no reason why he can’t stay on beyond 100,” said retired academic Syed Husin Ali. “Well, whatever it is, as I said just now, I am quite confident that Anwar will get the premiership sooner or later.” Syed was himself one of the founding fathers of the left-wing United People’s Party in Malaysia—and many years ago, a professor of Ibrahim’s when the latter was a student of sociology at the University of Malaya in the 1960s.
Ibrahim’s waiting has paid off. And there’s something else in Ibrahim’s back catalogue that might help his time in office be one of confidence-building and retrenchment.
In the 1990s, Ibrahim was a widely respected joint office-holder as deputy prime minister and finance minister. He held the economic post for most of that decade. This was a time of great growth and optimism, not least in Malaysia. It was a period that created the “Four Asian Tigers”—fast growing Asian economies destined to have higher exports, higher productivity, and higher wages. It was a bold and imaginative moment, where the European, North American, and Soviet stranglehold on development was being radically upended, setting the stage for the 21st century.
In many ways, Ibrahim represented the optimism and boldness of his country while he remained respected and restrained in his economic stewardship. Some older Malaysians look back on those days as a golden age.
That seems a long way off now. Inflation is hollowing out economies worldwide and playing havoc in Malaysia, where the rising price in staples threatens to push urban and rural poor alike into destitution. During his campaign, Ibrahim said that tackling this crisis by stabilizing prices is his first priority.
But his position is also compromised—albeit in ways that might not be fatal. Malaysia’s recovery is, as Bloomberg reported, fragile, and Ibrahim himself must manage to maintain market confidence while walking a political tripwire. He came to power at the head of a coalition of various allies and stakeholders, all of whom have sectional interests within Malaysia and each of whom must be appeased and have their interests balanced.
Ibrahim has said he will serve, for the time being, as his own finance minister. There will need to be a major national budget issued within the next few months, and Ibrahim’s supporters are looking to him to revitalize the economy with the ideas cooked up during decades of opposition.
Parliament is still in near deadlock, and markets are jittery and in need of being appeased. Meanwhile, sectarianism still impacts the multiracial, multifaith nation, with a growing hard-line Islamist bloc in the legislature signaling profound dissent from Ibrahim’s message of cross-sectarian bridge-building and an embrace of all faiths and backgrounds in government.
If all this was not enough, then Ibrahim faces the prospect of political strife, as his government—a coalition of more than a dozen parties—could run into parliamentary trouble any time.
Similarly, Ibrahim must deal with a complex international situation. He acknowledges U.S.-China tensions and the difficulty this means for Malaysia, a strategic country at the heart of the Asia-Pacific region. Ibrahim maintains that Malaysia ought to be prepared to work with both the United States and China, but his insistence on democracy and anti-corruption at home will give U.S. President Joe Biden some cause for satisfaction in an era of democratic backsliding.
Ibrahim has decades of relationships with foreign countries, which will have a bearing on his current policies. He has long been a supporter of India, including cultivating a close relationship while leader of the opposition with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. With the two countries increasingly closely tied and with trade such a contentious issue in the Belt and Road Initiative era, Indian publications have already implied that Ibrahim’s premiership ought to include closer economic linkages and political cooperation between India and Malaysia.
Similarly, Ibrahim has maintained ties with Turkey, including sheltering in a Turkish Embassy when fleeing what he called politically motivated criminal charges in 2008. He took a congratulatory call from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan upon attaining office.
These past relationships give Ibrahim some international supporters, but they offer him little immediate respite from political challenges at home. This is a difficult business, even if it is the culmination of a lifetime’s return to the top.
“You see, either I’m naive and unrealistic or not pragmatic as a political leader,” he told Foreign Policy last year with a laugh. “But I appreciate the fact that as far back as 2013, with all the forces, the judiciary, the media, the police against us, we won nearly 52 percent of the popular vote. That is what gives me the confidence. We cannot underestimate the wisdom of the masses.”