Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Anwar Ibrahim began working as Malaysia’s prime minister after vowing to lead an inclusive government in the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Southeast Asian nation.
Anwar arrived at the prime minister’s office in the country’s administrative capital Putrajaya at 09:00 (01:00 GMT) on Friday after the king was sworn in the previous day.
In his first news conference on Thursday night, the 75-year-old political veteran outlined his plans for the country.
He said that he would not receive a salary and that his government would “guarantee and safeguard the rights of all Malays, especially the marginalized and impoverished, regardless of their race or religion.”
He also stressed the importance of reform.
“We will never compromise on good governance, the anti-corruption campaign, judicial independence and the well-being of ordinary Malays,” he said at the evening event.
Anwar was appointed prime minister by the king after an inconclusive election last Saturday left his coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH) with a majority of seats but without the majority needed to govern. PH will rule the country in coalition with the Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), the main party in the Malaysian Borneo state of Sarawak, and Barisan Nasional (BN), the alliance that dominated Malaysian politics until 2018 when it lost power for the first time in amid the multi-billion dollar scandal at the state fund 1MDB.
Early in his press conference on Thursday night, Anwar received a congratulatory call from Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after sharing a video on social media of him chatting with Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, the first foreign leader to offer his congratulations. Anwar described Indonesia as a “true friend” of Malaysia and said he would focus on strengthening the two countries’ relationship.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also congratulated 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,” Blinken said. “We remain committed to working with Malaysia to promote a free and open, connected, prosperous, secure and resilient Indo-Pacific region.”
Anwar’s appointment as prime minister caps a momentous political journey for the man born in the northern state of Penang in 1947. After making a mark as an incendiary student activist, the young Anwar was drawn to the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). , the dominant party organization in the then-ruling BN alliance, where it rose rapidly through the ranks.
His shock dismissal in 1998 and subsequent imprisonment on corruption and sodomy charges galvanized Malaysia’s political opposition, fueled calls for reform, known as ‘reformasi’, and contributed to a gradual realignment of the country’s politics. Anwar endured a second sodomy trial and conviction before being pardoned in 2018 and released from prison.
“Only a man like Anwar could embody Malaysia’s contradictions and turn the country over a new page in history,” said James Chai, a visiting fellow in the Malaysian Studies program at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. “Many would say that he is precisely what the nation needs. The Reformasi generation can breathe a sigh of relief after years of despair.”
Anwar’s PH government is the second in the reformist coalition after his last administration collapsed amid pushback from ethnic Malay conservatives after just 22 months. The country has been in a state of instability ever since with two prime ministers for so many years.
Anwar seems ready to end the political maneuvering and says a confidence vote to show the strength of the new coalition will be the first item on the agenda when parliament meets for the first time on December 19.
“We have a truly compelling majority,” he said.
Shortly before Anwar was to be sworn in on Thursday afternoon, former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin urged Anwar to “show” his majority, claiming without evidence that his PN coalition had the most support.
The conservative alliance won the second most votes in the elections with PAS, Malaysia’s Islamic party, taking the most seats among its members and emerging as the largest party in parliament.
Muhyiddin himself, once in BN and part of the PH government in 2018, was appointed prime minister by the king in 2020 after a power struggle within the PH alliance led to its collapse.
He did not hold a parliamentary vote after his appointment and tried to suspend parliament. He survived just 17 months in office before disgruntled UMNO members ousted him and Ismail Sabri Yaakob took his place.
Ismail Sabri held the post for just over a year before calling the November elections.
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 you appoint to your cabinet and whether you 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 communications. These are things that are going to be the challenge going forward.”
Anwar has previously said he will reduce 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 have competence and experience given the challenges Malaysia is facing, and that they also reflect the socio-economic realities of Malaysia and its young population.
The country is majority ethnic Malay Muslim and Islam is the official religion, but there are significant ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities as well as indigenous peoples.
Race and religion have long been sensitive issues in the country and tensions arose during the two-week election campaign, with police this week warning Malaysians against posting “provocative” content.
Jerald Joseph, Malaysia’s human rights commissioner until earlier this year and a long-time pro-democracy activist, said he welcomed Malaysia’s potential to open a new chapter, noting that many recent reforms, such as reducing the minimum voting age and automatic voter registration change, had started under PH in 2018.
The new prime minister should focus on parliamentary reforms, he added, including ensuring the appointment of a neutral speaker and empowering specialist committees.
“Anwar has to prove himself like any other prime minister,” Joseph told Al Jazeera. “He has to make the reform work. He has to make governance work.”