100-day report: Malaysia’s Anwar cracks down on corruption, protects poor, analysts say

Sheridan Mahavera
Kuala Lumpur
100-day report: Malaysia’s Anwar cracks down on corruption, protects poor, analysts say Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim waves as he leaves parliament in Kuala Lumpur, Dec. 19, 2022.
[S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

After about 100 days in office, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is winning praise for cracking down on corruption and protecting the poor, but the real test will be institutional reform that strengthens governance and democracy, observers say.

Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan coalition campaigned on the platform that it was the antithesis of the long-ruling UMNO – promising systemic change to end decades of entrenched patronage and graft, misgovernance and embezzlement, racism and bigotry, and crony capitalism and inequality.

Analysts, economists and civil society leaders have given him a cautious thumbs up for his performance so far.

“While there have been positive changes since he came to power, these changes can be fleeting without institutional reform,” said Anil Netto, president of Aliran, one of Malaysia’s oldest human rights organizations.

“Ultimately, his administration will be judged on whether he enacts the institutional reforms that the country needs.”

Anwar is in an unenviable position.

Malaysians expect a lot from the anti-establishment, free speech, pro-democracy and liberal icon, only the second opposition leader to head a government in close to 70 years. But his path to leadership has come at a cost – he has had to ally with former foe and indeed, the establishment party, United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

That is something to keep in mind, said analyst Tunku Mohar Mokhtar of the International Islamic University of Malaysia.

“His promises could be better kept if the coalition he led [Pakatan] could form the government outright,” Tunku Mohar told BenarNews.

“Because he had to build a unity government that had to include party leaders whose image is tarnished by corruption charges, he has to be on the defensive,” Tunku Mohar said, referring to UMNO chief and Deputy PM Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is facing trial on graft charges.  

Anwar has said, more than once, that his government is firmly against corruption, and at the same time believes Zahid’s case is for the court to decide impartially.

Good governance and accountability’

In the meantime, Anwar’s priorities in his first three months as PM mirrored the top three concerns of voters going into the November general election, where Pakatan won the most – but not a majority – of seats in parliament.

Pollster Merdeka Center found that cost of living was the top concern for voters, followed by economic growth and corruption.  

To help middle- and low-income Malaysian families along with small businesses, the government froze a rate hike for electricity tariffs except for large corporations.

His government also focused attention on stabilizing the price and supply of food in the local market – it imposed a ceiling on prices on chicken and eggs, which are the cheapest source of protein for a majority of Malaysians.

Malaysia, like the rest of the world, saw post-pandemic recovery hampered by the spillover effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as prices of fuel and essential goods rose sharply amid slowing growth. Malaysians wanted a government that would stem spiraling inflation, especially the rising costs of food and living.

Additionally, the people of the South Asian nation are scarred by the scandal surrounding the 1Malaysia Development Berhad sovereign fund that saw the opposition come to power for the first time in 2018 by toppling UMNO.

Since taking office, Anwar has reviewed expensive mega-projects for evidence of kickbacks and ended awarding projects through direct negotiations.

“Rescheduling and re-tendering development projects has identified billions of ringgit in savings,” said economist Geoffrey Williams, a professor with the Malaysia University of Science and Technology.

For instance, his government said it saved 1.8 billion ringgit (U.S. $402 million) when it reviewed the award of a flood mitigation project that initially cost 15 billion ringgit ($3.3 billion). An earlier administration allegedly awarded the project through direct negotiation instead of open tender.

“This is a matter of good governance and accountability. The leadership must ensure no leakages,” Anwar said back in December.

Williams noted that the administration also found that 10 billion ringgit ($2.2 billion) of subsidized diesel meant for commercial vehicles and small-scale fishermen allegedly had been misappropriated last year.

The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency (MACC) has launched a slew of probes targeting individuals and companies involved in alleged wrong-doing connected to a fund called Jana Wibawa, which was started in 2020 and meant to help businesses struggling with pandemic-era losses.


Anwar has stressed good governance and has been firm in showing that he does not compromise when it comes to corruption, said political analyst Tunku Mohar.

“He has tried to ensure that there would not be any new abuse of power or corrupt practices by the current administration,” Tunku Mohar told BenarNews.

But there have been blunders too, such as the appointment of his daughter, Nurul Izzah, as a senior adviser on economics and finance, although she later resigned, Tunku Mohar said.

“The recruitment of his daughter as his adviser was a misstep, and although he fiercely defended the decision as a right one because she is capable and does not receive a salary, it is still nepotism,” he said.

“Fortunately, there was a way out when his daughter was then offered a position in the secretariat for the PM’s economic and financial advisory council. However, the damage was done.”

Additionally, some of Anwar’s anti-corruption drives seem targeted at political foes, noted Pushpan Murugiah, acting chief executive of The Center to Combat Corruption.

“It is worrying that the MACC appears to be investigating cases of corruption involving the previous administration when they are no longer in power,” Pushpan told BenarNews.

“This doesn’t give confidence to the public that the MACC is acting independently.”  

Anwar must ensure that reforms identified under the National Anti-Corruption Plan 2019, that are supposed to be completed by the end of this year be carried out, Pushpan said.

The reform proposals include laws deterring political interference in government procurement and operations of public agencies, setting up of specialized corruption courts to deal with graft cases, and separating the powers of the public prosecutor from the attorney general.

Anwar’s main challenge will be to end patronage culture within the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional party, one of the major partners in his government, Tunku Mohar said.

“Public perception still sees BN, especially UMNO, as practicing patronage politics,” the analyst said. “On institutional reforms, he has been cautious in not upsetting the civil service.”

‘A lot of hope’

Meanwhile, reforms of contentious laws that have stifled political dissent have yet to be announced, said Netto of human rights group Aliran. These include the Sedition Act, Communications and Multimedia Act and the Official Secrets Act have yet to be announced.

Anwar had promised they would be reformed, Netto said.

Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail’s statement in December that the Special Offenses (Security Measures) Act, otherwise known as SOSMA – a controversial law that allows detention without trial – would not be reviewed, particularly upset several rights activists, including members of his Pakatan coalition.

After all, SOSMA has been used against Pakatan members.

“It was also disappointing to hear a member of Anwar’s cabinet saying that AUKU – a law curbing political activities by university students and staff – is not going to be reviewed. Anwar himself was a victim of crackdowns by university officials while he was a student activist,” Netto said.

“There is a lot of hope pinned on this government because it campaigned on and promised institutional reforms,” Netto said.

“Without these reforms that hope will fade.”  

Iskandar Zulkarnain in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.


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