NOVEMBER 28 — So the results of Malaysia’s 15th general election are in and Anwar Ibrahim — after years of maybes and might have beens — has scraped through and emerged as prime minister.
It’s a good outcome for a man whose journey to the top has been anything but smooth.
Anwar was first sworn in as a minister in 1983 and he was deputy prime minister in 1993. Back then he was already seen as a prime minister in waiting but it would take nearly 30 years for him to snag the top job.
During those years he would spend time in prison, see his former allies become his enemies and then somehow become his friends again only to betray him once more... and so on.
Now a man who started his political journey as an Islamist and a vocal proponent of Malay rights leads the most liberal and multicultural of Malaysia’s major political alliances.
His Pakatan Harapan coalition won more seats than any other in the general election (82 seats) but it fell short of the 112 seats it needed to command an outright majority in Parliament.
So Anwar can really only hold on as prime minister as long as he has the support of parties outside his core coalition.
It appears that for now he has the support of the once ruling Barisan Nasional and GPS, the major political grouping from Sarawak.
This gives him the seats he needs to make policy decisions but there will have to be compromises as he accommodates his various allies.
And in opposition he faces a confident Perikatan Nasional, a coalition of the Islamist PAS and Malay-centric Bersatu.
Leaders from both parties have said they will place the interest of Islam and the Malay community above all else.
PN’s ability to create stable policy or implement economic reforms is questionable but it has emerged as a huge political force in Malaysia.
PAS which has long been confined to strongholds in the north east of the peninsula is now the single largest party in Parliament winning 49 seats in its own right.
The set-up, therefore, from the perspective of non-Malaysians does not look too promising.
You have a conservative Islamic and Malay-oriented Opposition and a government which consists heavily of minority parties. The Chinese-dominated DAP is Pakatan Harapan’s largest constituent party.
While Anwar now clearly stands for a multicultural Malaysia, the country is evidently polarised along racial and religious lines.
Islamist and Malay-centric parties appear to be growing more powerful and just waiting to seize power.
I was recently in Kuala Lumpur and it was remarkable how multicultural and vibrant the city felt. It seemed like the metropolis was coming into its own as a regional centre and yet the elections have made clear that the cities — KL, Ipoh, Penang, Johor Bahru — are outliers in a country that in many respects sees itself as deeply islamic, conservative and Malay. .
Just a few weeks ago I was gung ho about Malaysia. Even with the recent political instablitiy, the country’s economy had shown strong growth.
I figured that with a clear mandate a new government would only speed up growth and progress, finally pushing Malaysia into the ranks of the world’s developed nations.
At present Malaysia’s GDP stands at over US$13,000. Four years of solid growth will see GDP touch US$20,000 — taking Malaysia to the verge of being a developed nation.
Fundamentally the country is blessed with an extremely strong and broad based economy and considerable human talent but with all this, I would now hesitate to invest in a country where PAS is the single largest political party.
Their vision does not seem conducive to creating a stable and prosperous Malaysia but many Malaysians clearly subscribe to this vision.
This is the challenge confronting Anwar and every Malaysian who really believes in Malaysia. They need to convince their fellow countrymen that a multicultural Malaysia with some modicum of meritocracy is desirable.
Because of the failings of previous governments, many see multiculturalism and tolerance as a cover for corruption and cronyism.
The new government has to prove that multiculturalism is compatible with good governance and that it can bring about development for all and mitigate corruption.
Anwar and his allies will need to show results fast and convey these results not just to urban voters but out into conservative hinterlands.
It’s a tough challenge for any government. Let alone a motley ruling coalition that barely commands a majority in Parliament. Led by a man now 75 years old.
The clock is really ticking for the Malaysia we all know and love. I really hope it manages to survive and thrive but for this to happen it will need every bit of support from its neighbours — including Singapore — to make this work.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.