2023 was a year of progressive consolidation of power for Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s Unity Government. After assuming office, Malaysia’s perennial prime minister-in-waiting navigated his way around an uncertain mandate, an increasingly polarised political climate and state government elections. Anwar ended the year in a more secure position — but will face an increasingly impatient electorate in 2024.
The November 2022 general election did not yield a clear-cut majority to any grouping or coalition. Following the intervention of Malaysian then monarch, Anwar was invited to assemble a unity government. Drawing on ties with his former party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), Anwar cobbled together a sprawling group of parties and coalitions to secure a parliamentary majority. The unorthodox manner of his appointment and the disparate nature of the ruling grouping led many to question Anwar’s mandate and possibilities of survival.
Despite an initial flurry of measures to bolster his mandate in late 2022 and early 2023 — such as tabling a motion of confidence in parliament, hammering out a memorandum of understanding between his coalition partners and strategically allocating cabinet positions — at first there was little in the way of tangible policy outcomes. Anwar did not visibly leverage his time in opposition to develop a concrete plan of action, nor were many experienced cabinet members from the first Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration from 2018–2020 reappointed. There were few early deliverables beyond Malaysia Madani, an alluring but nebulous governance strategy inspired by prosperity, social justice and democracy.
As the cabinet ministers gained momentum, policy frameworks were rolled out in the second half of 2023, such as the Madani Economy framework, the New Industrial Master Plan 2030 and the 12th Malaysia Plan Mid-Term Review. While more detailed policies were welcome, much of the substance of these plans was generated by civil servants with input from line agencies and did not directly align with Malaysia Madani’s lofty commitments to concepts such as respect, care and compassion.
Despite securing an eventual two-thirds majority in parliament, Anwar has been acutely aware of the unity government’s limited traction among Malay voters. Consequently, his administration has made several moves that have disturbed PH’s largely urban voter base. This has included increasing the budget for the Department of Islamic Development, proposing the expansion of the scope and power of Sharia courts and meeting hard-line clerics.
There has also been limited progress on long-promised governance reforms. The government did establish question time in parliament for the prime minister, pass a Fiscal Responsibility Act aimed at stabilising public finances, and strengthening the role of parliamentary committees. Yet the longstanding commitment to separate the portfolios of the prime minister and finance minister was flouted, as was any arrangement to provide Opposition members of parliament (MPs) with equal amounts of constituency development funds.
Critics have also signalled the use of measures such as the Internal Security Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act to clamp down on dissent. Most crucially, Anwar’s commitment to anti-corruption was questioned when Deputy Prime Minister and UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was granted a ‘discharge not amounting to acquittal’ on charges of corruption and criminal breach of trust.
A great deal of political capital was spent in preparing for six simultaneous state government elections on the peninsula in August. Encompassing three urban and three rural Malaysian states, these elections were framed as a referendum on the unity government. Buoyed by their credible performance in November 2022, the opposition coalition Perikatan Nasional (PN) performed well. The largely Malay-based group focused on identity politics, as well as PH’s ‘unholy alliance’ with UMNO. While the unity government and PN retained their respective states, the results exposed UMNO’s dwindling attraction for Malay voters, as well as some decrease for PH in urban wards.
Having survived this electoral test — albeit less strongly than hoped — Anwar is now in a more secure position. Barring one state government election due by the end of 2025, there are no major polls on the horizon and his parliamentary majority has been bolstered by five PN MPs declaring their support for his administration. The outgoing monarch stated that he would not entertain any moves to topple the incumbent administration, and the incoming one has taken a firm stance against moves that cause political instability.
Meanwhile, the country’s citizens are struggling economically. A November 2023 poll indicated that almost four out of five voters cited economic concerns as their number one priority. Buffeted by the high cost of living and with little left in their retirement accounts, Malaysians are not overly concerned with politics. Yet the unity government has limited fiscal room for manoeuvre. Over the past decades, Malaysia’s oil reserves have accounted for a decreasing proportion of state revenue and the reimposition of a goods and services tax is politically taboo.
An October opinion poll indicated that Anwar’s popularity declined throughout 2023 and now hovers just above 50 per cent. He can draw little comfort that his three immediate predecessors also lost popularity over the course of their first year in power, as their administrations were toppled soon after. Anwar needs to move rapidly to address cost of living issues, articulate a clear and accessible vision for the country and — with an eye to cementing his legacy — leverage his numbers in parliament to pass measures to improve the country’s institutions.
Francis E Hutchinson is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.
This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2023 in review and the year ahead.