Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Anwar Ibrahim has taken office as Prime Minister of Malaysia after promising to lead a government that would include everyone in the multi-ethnic, multi-religious Southeast Asian nation.
Anwar reported to the prime minister’s office in the country’s administrative capital, Putrajaya, at 09:00 (01:00 GMT) on Friday, having been sworn in by the king the day before.
During his first press conference on Thursday evening, the 75-year-old former politician outlined his plans for the country.
He said he would not receive a salary and that his government would “guarantee and protect the rights of all Malaysians, especially the marginalized and impoverished, regardless of race or religion”.
He also stressed the importance of reform.
“We will never compromise on good governance, the fight against corruption, the independence of the judiciary and the well-being of ordinary Malaysians,” he said at the late night event.
Anwar was appointed prime minister by the king after an inconclusive election last Saturday that gave his Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition the most seats, but not the majority needed to rule. PH will rule the country in a coalition with Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), the main party in Sarawak state in Malaysian Borneo, and Barisan Nasional (BN), the alliance that dominated Malaysian politics until 2018 when it first entered the lost power amid the billion-dollar scandal at state fund 1MDB.
At the start of his Thursday evening press conference, Anwar took a congratulatory call from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after sharing a video on social media of him chatting with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the first foreign leader to congratulate them. Anwar described Indonesia as a “true friend” of Malaysia and said he would focus on strengthening the relationship between two countries.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also offered his congratulations to Anwar and the people of Malaysia, noting the record number of votes cast in the election,
“We look forward to deepening our friendship and cooperation based on shared democratic principles and respect for human rights and the rule of law,” said Blinken. “We remain committed to working with Malaysia to promote a free and open, connected, prosperous, safe and resilient Indo-Pacific region.”
Anwar’s appointment as Prime Minister concludes a momentous political journey for the man born in 1947 in the northern state of Penang. After impressing as a fiery student activist, young Anwar was lured into the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the dominant party in the then-ruling BN alliance, where he quickly rose through the ranks.
His shock dismissal in 1998 and his subsequent imprisonment on charges of corruption and sodomy fueled political opposition in Malaysia, fueled calls for reform – known as ‘reformasi’ – and contributed to a gradual realignment of politics in the country. Anwar underwent a second sodomy trial and conviction before being pardoned and released from prison in 2018.
“Only a man like Anwar can embody Malaysia’s contradictions and lead the country to a new page in history,” said James Chai, a visiting fellow in the Malaysia Studies program at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “Many would argue that he is exactly what the nation needs. The Reformasi generation can breathe a sigh of relief after years of despair.”
Anwar’s PH government is the second for the reformist coalition after the last government collapsed after just 22 months amid pushback from ethnic Malaysian conservatives. The country has been in a state of instability ever since with two prime ministers for as many years.
Anwar seems keen to draw a line under the political maneuvering, saying a vote of confidence to show the strength of the new coalition will be the first item on the agenda when parliament first meets on December 19.
“We have a really convincing majority,” he said, adding at a press conference on Friday that it took two-thirds of all 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 Nasional (PN) coalition, which had also tried to form a government after the hung parliament, congratulated Anwar on his appointment on Friday.
In a statement, he said PN would play a “check and balance role” in parliament.
The conservative alliance received the second most votes in the election, while PAS, the Islamist Party of Malaysia, took the most seats among its members and emerged as the largest party in parliament.
The PN leader had urged Anwar on Thursday to “prove” his majority.
However, Muhyiddin did not hold a parliamentary vote himself after being appointed Prime Minister by the King in 2020 as a power struggle within the PH alliance led to its collapse.
Muhyiddin had been part of the PH government, but jumped ship with other politicians. He survived just 17 months in office before he too was brought down by political parties – and replaced by UMNO’s Ismail Sabri Yaakob.
Ismail Sabri held the position just over a year before calling November’s elections, also under pressure from factions within his party.
To ensure the longevity of his administration, analysts said it was crucial that Anwar learn the lessons of the first PH government and build confidence.
“A lot will depend on who he appoints to his cabinet and whether they can work together,” said Bridget Welsh. “There are many lessons to be learned from the first government of Pakatan Harapan in terms of building trust, managing expectations and communication. These are things that will be the challenge in the future.”
At a press conference on Friday, he again emphasized that he would reduce the size of the cabinet, which had grown explosively in recent years to nearly 70 ministers and state secretaries. Welsh said it was critical that the appointees had aptitude and experience given the challenges facing Malaysia, and that it also reflected the socio-economic realities of Malaysia and its youthful population.
The country is primarily ethnic Malay Muslim and Islam is the official religion, but there are significant minorities of ethnic Chinese and Indians, as well as indigenous peoples.
Race and religion have long been sensitive issues in the country and tensions erupted during the two-week election campaign, with police this week warning Malaysians against posting “provocative” content.
Jerald Joseph, a Malaysian human rights commissioner and longtime advocate for democracy until earlier this year, said he was pleased with the potential for Malaysia to start a new chapter, noting that many recent reforms, such as the cut in the voting age age and automatic voter registration, had started in 2018 under PH.
The new prime minister should focus on parliamentary reforms, he added, including ensuring the appointment of a neutral speaker and strengthening specialist committees.
“Anwar has to prove himself like any other prime minister,” Joseph told Al Jazeera. “He must make reforms succeed. He has to make the board work.”