The world of politics has much in common with that of the canine. A tenacious terrier can cower a huge Beauceron, while a bulldog’s submissive posture might lead it to be chased out of the pack, its fierce face notwithstanding.
This reality is encapsulated by the current political predicament facing Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. Despite not winning a majority at the November 2022 general election, he successfully crafted a supra-majority coalition that has remained unchallenged. Gains by the Islamist party PAS at last month’s important state elections did not significantly alter the country’s political dynamics.
Upon assuming office, Anwar’s immediate action was to crack down hard on Malaysia’s endemic corruption. However, he was less forceful on the country’s two other critical challenges: its weak and failing institutions, and the rise of intolerant Islamism. All three challenges feed on each other, creating an irreversible downward spiral that ends in Malaysia becoming a failed state.
Anwar was right to focus first of all on corruption. Cripple it and you break the chain, thus strengthening the country’s institutions and blunting the influence of the Islamists. In the latter’s perverted perception, the loot of corruption is but Allah’s bounty, thus halal, as long as it serves their political agenda.
These three challenges are relatively recent. In Malaya’s first election in 1955, the Islamist party (then known as the Pan Malayan Islamic Party) won just one seat, and Islamist politics has for decades struggled to gain purchase. As for the civil service, the British left Malaysia a crisp, honest, and competent bureaucracy in 1957 when the country achieved its independence. The current culture of corruption, cronyism, and nepotism, and the incompetence of the civil service, are the ugly legacy of longtime Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. He is still alive today at 98 years of age, and desperate to remain relevant. He attempted a political comeback in the 2022 election under a new party and was thrashed, even losing his deposit!
Anwar was once Mahathir’s protege and served as deputy prime minister until their falling out in 1998 over how to respond to the Asian economic crisis. From there Mahathir fired and later jailed Anwar on trumped-up sodomy charges, not once but twice, the second during the administration of Mahathir’s chosen successor, Abdullah Badawi, a manifestation of the extent to which Malaysia’s institutions had weakened and become tools of powerful politicians.
To date, the Anwar administration has arrested for corruption former Prime Minister Muhyiddin together with his top aides. The current leader of the opposition, Hamzah Zainuddin, had his bank accounts frozen while under investigation for corruption. However, Muhyiddin and a few other high-profile individuals were recently acquitted, reflecting the incompetence of the head of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) as well as the Attorney-General (AG), both leftovers from the previous administration. More disturbing is the AG’s seeking of “dismissal not amounting to an acquittal” (the now infamous DNAA) in the corruption case against current Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, leader of one of the parties in Anwar’s new coalition, which resulted in the dropping of all 47 graft charges against him.
Malaysians have not without reason viewed the DNAA as a sign that Anwar’s resolve to combat corruption is wavering. If not frontally addressed, this perception could undo Anwar and his coalition, and with that the country’s progress.
Why Anwar chose Zahid as his deputy prime minister in the first place involved a complicated and delicate political calculation. Zahid was already facing corruption charges when Anwar picked him. While “innocent till proven guilty” is a fine standard in a criminal courtroom, the appointment of someone to a position of high public trust requires a more stringent standard.
However, Zahid is head of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), having taken over from former Prime Minister Najib Razak when the party’s Barisan Nasional coalition lost the 2018 general election. Anwar adroitly leveraged his long political and personal relationship with Zahid to have UMNO join Anwar’s ruling coalition. Had UMNO and Zahid thrown their lot in with PAS, Anwar would today be leader of the opposition.
Of greater consequence had that happened, Malaysia would today be in the hands of the Islamists. PAS won the largest number of seats of any single party in the last election. However, it contested as part of a coalition that trailed Anwar’s in terms of the total number of seats won, and was thus denied the first crack at forming the government.
Crafting a political coalition is not for the squeamish or purists. Nonetheless, Anwar should have made it clear that if Zahid were later to be found guilty of any of those charges against him, he would cease to be head of UMNO and resign from both the cabinet and Parliament.
Anwar is now getting the blame for the retiring AG Idrus Harun’s colossal blunder and inexcusable incompetence. Indeed, for his prosecution team to now seek a DNAA in the Zahid case at this late stage, after 53 days of trial that involved testimony from 99 witnesses and after the judge had ruled for Zahid to enter his defense on all counts, arguably goes beyond incompetence.
To regain momentum in his fight against corruption, Anwar should endorse the Parliament Select Committee’s move to have the just-retired AG Idrus Harun and his replacement, another career officer, testify on their roles in Zahid’s DNAA. Anwar should go beyond and fire the current AG and chief of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and replace them with competent outside professionals. The best candidate for AG would be the lead prosecutor Raja Rosela Toran who took early retirement while amid Zahid’s case. She brooked no nonsense from Zahid or his high-priced legal team.
Anwar should also bring back the highly effective and much-feared Latheefa Koya to head the MACC. She was brought in after Najib’s coalition was defeated in the 2018 election and spearheaded the investigations into the colossal One Malaysia Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal. Latheefa released the infamous taped phone conversation between then Prime Minister Najib and the career prosecutor in the AG’s office, one Dzulkifli Ahmad, who at that time was investigating Najib in the 1MDB scandal. In that conversation, Dzulkifli tipped Najib on the ongoing investigation. That led Najib to later promote Dzulkifli to the post of MACC chief and award him the country’s highest royal honor. Dzulkifli still has that title; the rot in Malaysia is deep.
The Malaysian permanent establishment is hopelessly inept and polarized, and crippled by decades of political patronages and misdirected affirmative actions. Hence the need for an infusion of fresh outside talent.
While Najib was imprisoned in 2022 for his involvement in the 1MDB case, less acknowledged is that the responsible AG, MACC chief, and lead prosecutor were all specifically co-opted from the private sector following the 2018 election. That fact is worth emphasizing.
Cracking down on corruption carries short-term costs. Investors used to paying bribes might hold back out of fear, slowing economic activity. It also elicits resistance, and corrupt former ministers are now endlessly scheming to topple Anwar. Act fast and that latter problem can be solved. Investors will return when corruption is no longer a major factor.
At this point, Anwar’s government could turn its attention to the two other critical challenges facing it. The most destructive consequence of corruption is its impact on institutions. This is most evident in the schools. The national curriculum is heavy on Islamic rituals and rote learning. It offers indoctrination rather than education. Meanwhile, the teaching of subjects like English and STEM suffers.
Given his unchallenged Islamic credentials, Anwar is the only leader who could confront the increasingly powerful Islamists. A former long-time head of the Muslim Youth Movement in his younger days, Anwar mesmerizes listeners with his flawless quoting of the Qur’an. Nonetheless, he has to be adroit in handling the Islamists; one misstep could trigger mass outrage.
Downsizing the massive religious establishment, and shifting the saved funds to improving national schools, would be a good first step. As the government schools are attended almost exclusively by Muslims, the political impact might be muted. At the same time, defund religious schools, the breeding grounds for extremists. Again, that move could be explosive. However, if linked to similar defunding of “national-type” vernacular (mainly Chinese with a sprinkling of Tamil) schools, the impact might be limited. Neither religious nor vernacular schools should not get any state funding.
Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has to be a bulldog, ferocious in posture as well as actions. Any sign of weakened resolve in tackling these three critical challenges will only embolden his opponents to attack. At age 76, this could be his – as well as Malaysia’s – last chance.