Home TA Online Formidable first year: Anwar’s forte and fault lines

Formidable first year: Anwar’s forte and fault lines

But the PM must deliver not just to his opposition's constituents but to the entire nation

Anwar and his deputies Zahid and Fadillah

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By M Santhananaban

Congratulations are in order to Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim for completing a full year in office.

He was sworn in on 24 November 2022. Some will say it is just a date. But a year is a year. That year is of watershed significance because his four predecessors eventually turned out to be below par.

In the past year, the political and economic situation has stabilised. The PM has taken Malaysia off the rollercoaster ride it was on since 2020. We can now anticipate what can happen more calmly and breathe more easily.

Of course, we have to examine how Anwar has used his time, the combination of assets and talents available to him, given the terrain he has had to operate on.

An alarming initial impression is that he has travelled a bit too much, he has talked or lectured from too many lecterns and has given unprecedented attention to relations with his friend in Turkey, to the extent of even receiving that friend’s son.

In announcing a 30-day visa-free entry for travellers from China and India, he also announced that facility for nationals of Turkey when they were already enjoying such a facility. This tilt to Turkey has to be explained.

Malaysia needs discipline and has to observe some austerity and make dedicated sacrifices to move forward. Reform is unavoidable to graduate from decades of splurging on stately buildings, subsidies and substandard education at the expense of competency, efficiency and transparency.

Commendable acts

Yet the PM has to be congratulated because his assumption of the post signalled the end to the phase of his four predecessors’ mediocrity and audacious mendacity: they did not earn or even receive a decent send-off.

Anwar’s predecessors had allowed the financial and political situation in the country to deteriorate and drift. Their uppermost concern, it would seem, was to stay in power and deny him a passage to the prime minister’s post. They failed famously in that misguided venture but do not seem to have abandoned their sinister schemes.

Anwar achieved the impossible in overcoming their best efforts.

To his credit also, although the PM’s wife and daughter are involved in politics, there is not that much controversy about them. We are accustomed to seeing a series of prime ministers promoting their sons-in-law and sons. It is a relief to see Anwar not making the same mistake.

A hung parliament, combined with the perception that prime ministerial retreads like retreaded tyres have sharply reduced reliability and political mileage, worked in favour of Anwar. The rulers gently coaxed, carefully created and guided this “unity government” behind the scenes in a smooth and sophisticated manner. Hadi Awang and Mahiaddin Yasin fell by the wayside.

Asean endorsement

Three days after Anwar was sworn in, the Brunei sultan arrived for an unscheduled visit to meet and congratulate the new PM. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s visit was of symbolic significance as it signalled a full endorsement of the Malaysian verdict on Anwar.

Anwar had come to power legitimately after a period of political uncertainty, crass chicanery and three short-lived lacklustre political veterans who had somehow become PM. Instead of acting as an interim leader, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, for instance, had attempted to retain the prime minister’s post and failed.

Brunei, like all of Malaysia’s neighbours, welcomed this stability and promise that Anwar’s unity government represented.

Innovative, inclusive but imperfect

What was anxiously awaited initially was an indication of the new PM’s cabinet choices. Admittedly, Anwar made some poor choices by selecting appointees seemingly for their loyalty than any outstanding ability or learned luminosity.

Education, health and home affairs have not performed to high expectations. These three areas pose important challenges because of the legacy left behind by previous governments. A revamp is badly needed because of the huge number of undocumented foreign nationals, declining education standards and an overworked public healthcare sector.

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It was sad to lose the distinguished Salahuddin Ayub, a down-to-earth and dedicated soul.

Double F and double R

Of the cabinet ministers, the most valuable asset, RR or Rafizi Ramli, has been the Recessed Rainmaker. He has not been positioned and well utilised to assist the prime minister meaningfully.

The other one – double F or Fahmi Fadzil – functions more like a Finicky Functionary. Fahmi must cool down, sit back and accept fair comment on his boss. It is not necessary to tighten existing regulations just to elicit praise and plaudits for the government. Fahmi must have faith that the government is the best available.

Double F must also consciously comprehend that Anwar is made of such stern mettle to withstand every kind of denigration, as he has done so admirably in the past. So please don’t block, bully or banish bloggers. They are the spice of life in our interconnected WhatsApp-savvy society.

Interesting innovations

The most important innovation that Anwar brought to the cabinet was the naming of two deputy PMs, one of whom is from Sarawak.

Anwar broke with tradition with that move. It was his first tangible gesture to demonstrate his inclusiveness. He did not create controversy or comply with the tradition that the deputy PM’s post is the exclusive province of ethnic Malays from the peninsula. He just did it and shut up his minders and the mainly Malay peninsula-based opposition.

To his credit also, he is the first PM since Hussein Onn to reaffirm the guaranteed position of the minorities in the nation. This was not a new concession. It was the reaffirmation of a constitutional provision, which also guarantees the special position of the Malays and the indigenous people.

This was a courageous step, and he received a lot of flak for that from at least two of his predecessors who unashamedly flaunted their meanest Malay-first identity. The rumblings are still there and are unlikely to disappear. Of course, they could not single out the Sarawak appointee.

Anwar is certainly the most inclusive prime minister of the nation in the past four decades. That in itself is a big step forward for the vast majority of moderate Malays and all the minorities after the phase of his small-minded predecessors.

In his first year in office, the PM also recognised the services of two well-regarded veterans of opposition politics, Lim Kit Siang and Nik Aziz Nik Mat. They were recommended for and received honorific awards. These were undoubtedly the most richly deserved decorations for exceptional courage and contributions to the vibrant democratic culture of the nation.

The other impressive feature of this year-old government is the noted absence so far of hushed corridor talk or suspicion of grand larceny, looting or lawless activity by any of his ministers. Previous prime ministers had their well-known preference for dubious deals and dalliance with nefarious nominees and shady deal-makers.

Serving opposition interest

Yet Anwar is also the unusual, uncharacteristic PM who has piously pandered most to the agenda of his peninsula-based Malay-first political opponents.

There is much irony there. It is that irony that taints his administration and taunts and troubles many.

But unlike the first six prime ministers, Anwar did not enter an ecosystem with a clear asymmetrical advantage over the other component parties of his unity government.

Three of Anwar’s predecessors enormously damaged the power and prestige of that office. They overplayed their hand and went overboard by dispensing favours to their cronies and being populist.

They ran up a huge debt burden and overextended the functions of the bureaucracy to delve into religious issues that fall under the jurisdiction of the Malay rulers. They also raided the nation’s Treasury for esoteric and experimental projects.

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And so, the prime minister’s position has become a diminished one which has limited authority and flexibility for acute crisis management and good governance. A routine gaffe today can and will be played up in Parliament and over social media to ridicule and belittle the PM or his ministers.

Anwar has also had to share power with some odd and odious characters who faced charges for serious offences. Even after a year, he has not progressed much beyond rhetoric and repeated repartee to emerge as an impressive, innovative or transformational leader. He shows no dogged determination or the confidence to govern with clout, compass and content.

The country urgently needs reform and rebuilding. Yet, the task of re-energising a bloated bureaucracy is a mammoth one.

There is also the issue of a befuddled identity arising from a half-hearted attempt at imitating some West Asian norms.

Anwar needs to come out and say categorically that Malaysia is an integral part of a rich Southeast Asian heritage. The country is located in the heart of a vibrant Asean region; it is not an appendage of the Middle East.

Malaysia boasts Asia’s most diverse population, blending elements from China, India, Indonesia and West Asia, alongside a vibrant indigenous heritage, including that of Sabah and Sarawak. This diversity is a strength – not a snag or a drag.

Forty-two years have been squandered in trying to emulate the homogenous, strikingly secular Japan and South Korea. Both countries became economic and educational powerhouses while maintaining their cultural identity. They, however, failed to retain their independence in security and foreign policy by tying themselves too closely to US priorities.

Today, the Philippines and Thailand, which were linked to the South East Asia Treaty Organization (Seato) during the Cold War, show a lot more imagination and independence in handling their relations with the US and China.

Malaysia has to demonstrate today it is looking neither East nor West but for the best alternative. Getting embroiled in the brawls of Big Power politics, whether directly or by proxy, is not an option for Malaysia. The country does not have to suffer from that constraint.

We were never a part of Seato and have carefully followed a course of not becoming embroiled in Big Power rivalry.

The fashionable and fastidious Arabisation of pockets of the country has not helped us either. It is creating more silos and divisions in the country. It is perhaps not prudent for the PM to state that, but his clear descent into – some say overplaying of – the fractious Hamas-Palestine issues clouds further this difficult agenda of strictly striving to further Malaysia’s interests.

The last time the word Palestine assumed such a significance in our local political parlance was when Ustaz Sulaiman Ahmad, also known as Sulaiman Palestine, challenged the then Umno president, Hussein Onn, in 1978 in party polls. Some say the ustaz (religious teacher) was a proxy of the most devious politician in the country’s political history.

Passion for the Palestine cause is legitimate and laudable, but it should not become a plank for political capital. Anwar has, for valid reasons, handled issues related to Islam extremely cautiously as he cannot possibly go against the strong general tone and the tide on the ground.

But he could have brought greater management skills and moderation to the nation by manifesting a moderating, modernising programme for the entrenched and expanded bureaucracy in the Islamic Development Department.

Instead, he strengthened that role by conferring on Jakim additional powers. That bureaucracy cannot be divorced from the Public Service Department’s burgeoning establishment which claims about half the country’s operating budget for salaries, pensions and upkeep.

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A careful reappraisal of both the PSD and Jakim is long overdue and something Anwar has not given sufficient attention to. The nation cannot allow a further expansion and enhancement of both these agencies’ establishments, as the most concerning issues of the day were the handiwork of these two departments.

The PM must admit that an entrenched and much-expanded bureaucracy is not sustainable. He has been instrumental in emphasising adherence to Islamic values in Malaysia, but surely the growth of tahfiz (religious) schools, the empowerment of a bureaucracy for Islamic development, the adoption of Arab culture and the apparently secondary role ascribed to Muslim women will regress rather than regenerate the nation. It is a retrogressive step if an organisation like Sisters In Islam is considered incendiary or inferior.

Muslim women

No doubt Muslim women in Malaysia are as advanced, educated and accomplished as women anywhere. So it does seem superfluous that some states controlled by extremist elements have imposed segregation and other discrimination that denigrates, perhaps unintentionally, the dignity of women.

Countries that practise such policies invariably lose an important source of talent and trust – vital ingredients in nation-building efforts.

The people of Malaysia don’t need to emulate other countries or societies in establishing a solid foundation for the reconstruction and consolidation of our society.

We have the wherewithal to evolve towards a more satisfactory equilibrium that will give greater equality, accountability and transparency in Malaysian society.

The diversity and delicate fusion of cultures, the harmony that exists in Sarawak, for instance, had once existed in the whole country.

Open up to Asean

Perhaps a simple way to counter and dilute the development of extremism and the adoption of Arab-Iranian orthodoxy is to foster closer socio-cultural relations with our Asean neighbours. Our people must know our neighbours, especially the highly successful ones, better.

Regrettably Asean, in spite of existing for more than half a century, remains a top-down protocolar heads-of-government summit-driven organisation.

Anwar can initiate a process to realise more Asean people-first and people-driven activities within this regional grouping.

A start can be made to expose our institutions of higher learning and think tanks to interact and exchange postgraduate scholars with other Asean countries. The objective is purely to dilute this coconut shell-imposed tunnel-vision approach to the Arab world, which tends towards orthodox religious content.

Our farmers, fruit growers, fish breeders, rice growers and teachers must be exposed to the best techniques practised in the Asean region.

Look for the best

Japan and Korea, given their extremely cold climates, hardy environments and much higher levels of technology, cannot be models for Malaysia.

Let us face these realities and slowly downplay the ‘Look East’ policy, which our mediocre senior bureaucrats have been so keen on, for the creation of their little Napoleon administrative empires, tourism and travel benefits.

We must trust Anwar will get better at focusing on his task of putting Malaysia first.

He has had a year-long torrid tryst with much talk, travel, tribalistic troublemakers and an unfathomed, little appreciated tilt to Turkey.

Anwar must understand that the reason most people, including some components of the bureaucracy, back him is that, at the moment, he is seen as the least odious and least offensive. The other possible contenders for the prime minister’s post are seen as far worse alternatives.

To reciprocate the goodwill and generosity that he gets from most segments of the people, the PM must deliver not just to his opposition’s constituents but to the entire nation.

M Santhananaban is a retired Malaysian ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Raymond Rayan
Raymond Rayan
3 Dec 2023 8.27am

KUdos to a job well done.
But the PM should take serious view on the extremism affecting the mentality of some of the
politicians and layman and women . This if remains unchecked shall be detrimental to the well being of a nation thats proud to be multi-racial , multi-religious and living in harmony. Extremism will wreck all the peace and harmony that we have.
Secondly, the education system have to be revamped to create REAL intellects amongst our population and NOT paper wielding bureaucrats and politicians who have no common sense or speak contradicting their paper qualifications. The number of PHD scholars churned out by our educational institution is alarming that requires govt. intervention.

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