Campaign won, real test begins for new Malaysian Prime Minister

By EILEEN NG – Associated Press

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Reformist leader Anwar Ibrahim has won a hard-fought battle to become Malaysia’s new prime minister. But working with former enemies to form a unity government while a polarized nation looks on will immediately test his political skills.

There is no honeymoon for Anwar, 75, who went straight to work less than 24 hours after being sworn in as the nation’s 10th leader.

National television broadcast Anwar on Friday morning in the administrative capital, Putrajaya. His first test will be building a cabinet and distributing portfolios to placate the various members of his unity government.

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Anwar vowed on Monday that his cabinet will be slimmer compared to the previous oversized government and said he would forego his pay as prime minister amid the country’s economic slowdown. He said new cabinet members would also be asked to cut their salaries.

“My main priority now is the cost of living,” he told a news conference.

Anwar pledged to work quickly to find ways to help Malaysians grappling with rising food costs, a currency at its lowest in over two decades and stagnant wages ahead of an expected economic slowdown next year.

Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope, won 82 seats out of 222 in the November 19 general election. To gain a majority, he won the support of two key rival blocs: the long-ruling National Front, which has 30 seats, and the Sarawak Parties Alliance, which has 23. Several smaller blocs have announced they will also join.

Former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Malay-leaning National Alliance unexpectedly won 73 seats. Muhyiddin’s stubborn ally, the pro-Sharia Pan Malaysia Islamic Party, became the country’s largest single party with 49 seats, indicating the rise of conservative Islam.

Anwar’s victory, backed by political rivals, marked another “watershed moment that ushered in a new era for Malaysian democracy,” said Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, a political analyst at the University of Science, Malaysia.

This came against the backdrop of his alliance’s overwhelming electoral victory in the 2018 polls, which ended the Front National’s 60-year grip on power and led to the country’s first regime change since independence from Britain in 1957 prime ministers. Anwar was in prison at the time for sodomy, which he said was politically motivated.

Anwar maintained a conciliatory tone after his appointment, welcoming all parties to his government as long as they adhere to the principles of good governance, no corruption and a “Malaysia for all Malaysians”.

Analysts said the makeup of his cabinet will provide a clearer picture of his future policies as he fleshes out his campaign promise to clean up the government and heal deepening racial and religious wounds. Its anti-corruption platform is being tested amid fears some National Front leaders fighting bribery allegations will be offered concessions in return for their support.

An ethnic Muslim, Anwar must also earn the trust of conservative Malays, who felt he was too liberal and sided with Muhyiddin’s right-wing bloc in the contentious election. Police have tightened security and Anwar’s supporters have been ordered to refrain from celebrations that could provoke Islamic supporters.

In such a racially charged environment, Anwar’s goals – including replacing a decades-old action plan that gives Malays privileges in jobs, education and housing – can be a minefield.

Anwar has assured the Malays that their constitutional rights and the status of Islam as a national religion will be protected. But he stressed that other races must not be marginalized in order for the country to be unified.

“Since independence, there has been racial segregation in Malaysia,” said political scientist Ahmad Fauzi.

“Anwar will develop his own formula to contain the problem, but to think he can erase it is to expect the impossible from him,” he added.

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