On The Radar: Malaysia's new prime minister

On November 19, Malaysia held its general election after years of political turbulence. The result was a hung parliament but after a weekend of talks, Malaysia's king appointed Anwar Ibrahim as prime minister. AMC has a brief look at both the story behind Ibrahim and the political crises Malaysia has faced since 2018.

New Malaysian prime minister Anwar Ibrahim’s road to the role has not been easy. 

His political career began as a student activist in the 1960s. He was involved in different Muslim youth groups, even founding the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia in 1971. 

In the 1980s, he accepted an offer to join the United Malays National Organisation, the country’s oldest continuous national party and founding member of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition. 

Anwar Ibrahim's official portrait 2022. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Ibrahim’s invitation came from the prime minister at the time, Mahathir Mohamad. 

What followed was a swift rise to power. He spent time in ministerial roles for culture, sports, education, and finance, before becoming deputy prime minister in 1993. 

He was widely regarded as Mohamed’s protégé and likely successor - that is, until the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Ibrahim clashed with Mohamed over how best to handle the crisis and their relationship soured intensely. Ultimately, Ibrahim was sacked and expelled from UMNO.

But that wasn’t the end – on top of that, Ibrahim was arrested in 1998 on charges of both corruption and sodomy – charges he said were politically motivated. His arrest and the following court proceedings drew an outcry both domestically and internationally.

Despite appealing, Ibrahim was sent to jail and it took until 2004 for the federal court to overturn his conviction.  

Ibrahim went back to politics, campaigning for a coalition that opposed the UMNO-led government. He made some gains in the political arena, even winning a seat in the lower house.  

However, in 2008, further sodomy charges were laid against him and Ibrahim entered another court battle. He was acquitted in 2012, but within two years, his acquittal had been overturned. By 2015, the Federal Court had upheld the conviction and Ibrahim was sent back to jail. 

It wouldn’t be until 2018 that he was pardoned and released.   

Malaysia’s turbulent political scene 2018-2022 

In 2018, the incumbent majority party United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and its Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition - who had been in power for more than 60 years - went into the general election under a cloud of scandal.  

Much of it focused on then-PM Najib Razak and his role in the 1MDB scandal. The 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) was a state fund set up to drive development in the country. Razak was the fund’s chairman. 

But billions of dollars were siphoned out of the fund – some of it ending up in Razak’s accounts. By 2018, he had been charged for his part in the scandal.

Under this shadow, UMNO was ousted in the election.  

This was a massive moment for Malaysian politics as UMNO had been in power since the country’s independence in 1957. 

A large political poster on the roadside showing a man giving a speech

A campaign poster for Anwar Ibrahim during the 2022 election in Malaysia. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In its place, stepped the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition government. The coalition itself was another massive moment for Malaysian politics, as it brought together allies-turned-foes Mahathir Mohamed and Anwar Ibrahim. 

Part of Mohamed’s agreement as leader of PH was to hand over his position as prime minister to Ibrahim after two years. Ibrahim himself couldn’t immediately take power, as during the 2018 election, he was in prison on charges of corruption and sodomy – charges he said were politically motivated.

But before power shifted hands, the PH coalition government fell to infighting. 

In a political power play called the Sheraton Move, key politicians withdrew their support for the PH coalition. It lost its majority and Mohamed resigned as prime minister.  

In the following instability, Malaysia’s king appointed a new prime minister: Muhyiddin Yassin. Yassin led the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, bringing UMNO back to power as a key partner.   

However, Yassin faced similar issues. In 2021, UMNO withdrew its support for the PN coalition amid political infighting and the coalition lost its majority. Muhyiddin resigned and on authority of the king was replaced by his deputy, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who lead the BN coalition 

Against this background, Malaysia held its general election on November 19 with three main coalitions vying for power: current PM Yaakob, with his UMNO-dominated BN coalition; almost-PM Anwar Ibrahim, with the PH coalition which won in 2018; and Muhyiddin Yassin, with his PN coalition. 

The election resulted in Malaysia’s first-ever hung parliament. Ultimately, Malaysia’s king appointed Ibrahim and the PH coalition as the new government. Ibrahim was sworn in as prime minister on November 24.

However, he still faces hurdles - in his first press conference, Anwar said that a motion of confidence will be tabled at the sitting of Malaysia’s parliament on December 19 to end the question of his government’s legitimacy. 

Banner image: Anwar Ibrahim in 2013. Image: Wikimedia Commons

- Asia Media Centre