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Khairy Jamaluddin: Anwar’s government is stable, but his greatest challenges are still to come

03 Mar Khairy Jamaluddin: Anwar’s government is stable, but his greatest challenges are still to come

Khairy Jamaluddin: Anwar’s government is stable, but his greatest challenges are still to come.


The 2022 Malaysian election saw Anwar Ibrahim end his tumultuous, decades-long endeavor to become the country’s Prime Minister. His political victory was nevertheless accompanied by abundant political uncertainty and negotiation, with a unity government ultimately being formed between his Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), and parties from Sabah and Sarawak. Questions remain over whether he will avoid the political fate of the previous administrations and succeed at implementing the reform he has become synonymous with. Such insights and assessments regarding Anwar’s first 100 days in office were shared by Mr. Khairy Jamaluddin, Former Malaysian Minister of Health, at a talk organized by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) on February 15, 2023.

Professor Simon Tay, Chairman of SIIA, served as the moderator for the session with SIIA Director Nicholas Fang as a commentor.


Stability of the Unity Government

At the forefront of the talk was the question of whether Anwar’s unity government will be able to last. Mr. Jamaluddin believes the current government is stable – at least for the next five months. The given time can be attributed to state elections that are scheduled to be held this year, but Mr. Jamaluddin also said that given the recent political chaos in Malaysian politics, there is presently a general understanding in parliament to allow Anwar some leeway to settle in and implement his agenda.

The significant inclusion of parties from Sabah and Sarawak in Anwar’s unity government reveals a key change in the power dynamics of Malaysian politics. Though UMNO and Zahid were the first to offer their support to join PH in a ruling coalition, the Borneo bloc secured him stability and an assurance of majoritarian control. With UMNO experiencing its worst election result in history, a new center of power has arisen in East Malaysia. Since severing their institutional ties with BN, Sabah and Sarawak have created their own political parties and slowly are leveraging their power as a neutral, “election proof” bloc that can enter a post-electoral pact with any party or coalition and emerge from elections with beneficial rewards.

Compared to Dr. Mahathir’s government in 2018, Anwar also has a policy edge in that he is starting from a “clean slate”. The 2018 government came into office with a manifesto that was “unrealistic” and unachievable, leading to extremely elevated expectations that resulted in inevitable disappointment when they were not able to fulfill their promises. The current government did not campaign with an explicit manifesto and thus have substantially less pressure to deliver on stated commitments.

However, some concerns raised by Mr. Jamaluddin included the appointments of first-time ministers for key ministries with significant social spending, specifically in Health and Education. While he advised the public to allow the new ministers some time to settle in before evaluating their performance, he warned that the learning curve will be extremely steep. Yet another concern relates to the unfilled vacancies of significant civil service positions like Chief Secretary of the Treasury. While these may simply be early adjustment challenges, such issues could still yet impact the functioning of Anwar’s government or signal future obstacles to come.


Forthcoming Challenges Loom Large

While there have been no sweeping changes so far, the nation’s Budget, tabled on February 24, was the first opportunity to see which direction Anwar plans to steer the country – in addition to being his first significant test. The most pressing post-Covid challenge will be the issue of a limited fiscal space and a lack of reserves that has sparked renewed conversations surrounding revenue generation. Mr. Jamaluddin cautioned that solutions will not be easy, especially as some choices would either prove to be extremely unpopular, such as reintroducing GST, or likely be marginally effective, like a capital gains tax.

Anwar’s concurrent role as Finance Minister has not only raised concerns over his centralization of power but also provides added pressure to deliver a satisfactory Budget. Mr. Jamaluddin noted that while one’s intentions in occupying both positions may be benevolent, there still remains “systemic risk” in consolidating such responsibility and power under a single individual.

This comes after the controversial appointment of UMNO leader and BN chief Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who carries substantial political baggage in the form of dozens of corruption charges, as deputy prime minister. Such a move visibly clashes with Anwar’s reformist image and stated effort to combat corruption in Malaysian politics. This paradox may prove to be an obstacle to amassing voter support ahead of his biggest challenge – the state assembly elections.

Six states are set to hold elections this year, with the first expected to be held by the end of the summer. Control of state legislatures is split evenly between PH and Perikatan Nasional (PN). Mr. Jamaluddin predicted all three PN states will safely remain with them, as well as PH’s Penang. Selangor and Negeri Sembilan, on the other hand, will be closely watched. Selangor will be especially important, being the most industrialized state and the “crown jewel” of Malaysia. According to Mr. Jamaluddin, the biggest fear for PH is if Selangor flips, as that signals a major loss in widespread support that can jeopardise the administration’s efforts to survive the term, let alone successfully implement their agenda.

With an eye on the state elections, PH’s relative weakness in garnering Malay votes has led Anwar to invest heavily in shoring up Malay support. This is evidenced by the selection of Indonesia as his first international trip and his visit to Türkiye to offer moral support, in addition to the rescue teams and humanitarian aid already sent, after the devasting earthquakes last month. Such image projection will hope to increase the percentage of Malay support for Pakatan Harapan, which Mr. Jamaluddin says was likely to be as low as 11% in the 2022 General Election.

Given changing racial demographics, securing the Malay vote will prove to be increasingly important. The results of the election exposed the splintering of the Malay vote and has made clear that the demographic does not vote homogenously. Courting different segments of the population will consequently encompass a larger role in the future of Malaysian politics.


Khairy’s Personal Political Aspirations

As a conclusion to the evening, Mr. Jamaluddin acknowledged that he is not done with party politics and desires to someday return to the federal government. He expressed that he would be interested in a position at the state level as it would grant him valuable experience and present a possible re-entry point into federal politics. However, he says he will not be hasty in making his decision, as a political return would necessitate him choosing a new party, a decidedly difficult decision given the length of his association and nature of his exit. For now, he will observe the actions of the different parties, and subsequently make a decision depending on what aligns with his personal views.