Kuala Lumpur Malaysia – Anwar Ibrahim began work as Malaysia’s prime minister after pledging to lead an inclusive government in the multi-ethnic, multi-religious Southeast Asian nation.
Anwar was sworn in by the king at 9am (01:00 GMT) at the Prime Minister’s Office in the country’s administrative capital Putrajaya on Friday.
In his first press conference on Thursday night, the 75-year-old elder statesman outlined his plans for the country.
He said he would not take a salary and that his government would “guarantee and protect the rights of all Malaysians, especially the marginalized and the poor, regardless of race or religion”.
He also stressed the importance of reform.
“We will never compromise on good governance, anti-corruption drive, judicial independence and the welfare of ordinary Malaysians,” he said.
Anwar was named prime minister by the king after an inconclusive election last Saturday that gave his Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition more seats but fell short of the majority needed to rule. PH will rule the country for the first time in a coalition between Kapungan Party Sarawak (GPS), the main party in Sarawak state in Malaysian Borneo, and Barisan Nasional (BN), which dominated Malaysian politics until 2018. A multi-billion dollar scam has taken place in state fund 1MDB.
Early in his Thursday night press conference, Anwar took a congratulatory call from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after sharing a video on social media of his conversation with Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Anwar described Indonesia as a “true friend” of Malaysia and said he was focused on strengthening the relationship between the two countries.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also noted the voter turnout and congratulated Anwar and the Malaysian people.
“We look forward to deepening our friendship and cooperation based on shared democratic principles and respect for human rights and the rule of law,” Blinken said. “We are committed to working with Malaysia to advance a free and open, connected, prosperous, secure and resilient Indo-Pacific region.”
Anwar’s appointment as prime minister ends an important political journey for the 1947-born in the northern state of Penang. After making his mark as a fiery student activist, the young Anwar was drawn to the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). The then ruling BN coalition party, where he rose rapidly.
His shock ouster in 1998 and subsequent imprisonment and corruption charges fueled political opposition in Malaysia, prompting calls for reform – known as ‘reformation’ – and contributing to a gradual realignment of the country’s politics. Anwar served a second sodomy trial and conviction before being pardoned and released from prison in 2018.
James Tsai, visiting Malaysian Studies Program at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, said, “Only a man like Anwar can contain Malaysia’s contradictions and turn the country into a new page in history. “Many would argue that he is precisely what the nation needs. After years of frustration, the reformist generation can breathe a sigh of relief.”
Anwar’s PH government collapsed amid a push from Malay conservatives, a second term for a reformist coalition after 22 months in its last administration. The country has been in a state of instability since two Prime Ministers took office over the years.
Anwar seems keen to draw a line under political maneuvering and says a confidence vote to show the strength of the new coalition will be the first item on the agenda as parliament sits for the first time on December 19.
“We have a really solid majority,” he told a press conference on Friday, representing two-thirds of the 222 seats in parliament. A majority of that size would give the coalition the power to change the constitution.
Former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who led the Perikatan National (BN) coalition that sought to form a government following the hung parliament, congratulated Anwar on his appointment on Friday.
In a statement, the PN said it would play a “check and balance role” in parliament.
The conservative coalition won the second-highest vote in the election, along with Malaysia’s Islamist party PAS, which won more seats among its members and emerged as the single largest party in parliament.
The PN leader on Thursday urged Anwar to “prove” his majority.
However, Muhyiddin did not hold a parliamentary vote after being appointed prime minister by the king in 2020, when power struggles within the PH coalition led to its collapse.
Muhyiddin was part of the PH government but jumped ship with other politicians. He was only in office for 17 months before he too was brought down by politics – he was replaced by Umno’s Ismail Sabri Yacob.
Ismail Sabri labored under pressure from factions in his party for more than a year before calling for elections this November.
Analysts said it was important for Anwar to learn the lessons of the first PH government and build confidence to ensure the longevity of his administration.
“A lot will depend on who he appoints to his cabinet and whether they can work together,” Bridget Welsh said. “There are many lessons to be learned from Pakatan Harapan’s first government in terms of building trust, managing expectations and communication. These are going to be the challenges going forward.
At a press conference on Friday he again insisted on reducing the size of the Cabinet, which has ballooned to nearly 70 ministers and deputy ministers in recent years. Welsh said it was crucial that the appointees were qualified and experienced given the challenges facing Malaysia and that would reflect Malaysia’s socio-economic realities and its youth population.
The country is predominantly Malay Muslim and Islam is the official religion but there are significant ethnic minorities such as Chinese and Indians and indigenous peoples.
Race and religion have long been sensitive issues in the country. Tensions have risen during the two-week election campaign, with police warning Malaysians this week against posting “provocative” content.
Gerald Joseph, who until earlier this year was Malaysia’s human rights commissioner and a long-time campaigner for democracy, said he welcomed the potential for Malaysia to open a new chapter, citing several recent reforms such as the lowering and automatic voting age. Voter Registration, 2018 was launched under PH.
The new prime minister should focus on reforms in parliament, including ensuring the appointment of a neutral speaker and empowering special committees.
Joseph told Al Jazeera, “Anwar has to prove himself like any other prime minister. “He should do reform work. He has to do the work of governance.