With his appointment as the 10th Prime Minister of Malaysia, this will be an interesting time to observe how Anwar Ibrahim puts his words into action on the global debate about democracy versus autocracy.
Whether Malaysia can emerge as a champion of democracy in the region remains to be seen.
News of Malaysia’s long-time opposition leader Anwar’s election as Malaysia’s Prime Minister did not only make waves in the country but also worldwide. Anwar’s election received extensive media coverage as it marks a comeback from the two occasions when he was head of state in the 1990s.
The general election took place on 19 November 2022, resulting in an unprecedented hung Parliament. Anwar’s appointment, in many ways, was a highly emotional affair, especially for many of his supporters, who waited over two decades after he was ousted from government for his comeback.
Since his ouster, he mainly played the role of opposition icon, except for a short stint in government from 2018 to 2020. The chanting of “Reformasi!” (Reforms!) was loudly heard as he arrived for the press conference after he was sworn in as prime minister.
The appointment of Anwar is also significant at the regional level, as the Southeast Asia region witnesses democratic retrenchment, such as the ongoing turmoil in Myanmar, Hun Sen’s prolonged administration in Cambodia, and the election of Ferdinand Marcos Jr in the Philippines.
Anwar is facing a tough challenge at the national level, with the real test of running a “unity government”.
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His appointment has also attracted attention to how he will balance the great power rivalry in the region between the US and China, which surrounds the debate of democracy versus autocracy, and strategic issues such as the economy and security.
Anwar has received various labels generally associated with democratic values, such as “anti-graft reformer” by the Washington Post and “democracy icon” by CNN.
Anwar had the image of a “reformist” and a pro-democracy figurehead for decades, and as someone with strong links with the West, and now as prime minister, what will be his approach towards the region’s democracy issues, especially with China?
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a congratulatory statement to Anwar, described the 2022 general election as “a demonstration of the power of democracy” and reaffirmed the relationship of both countries that is rooted in close economic, people-to-people and security ties.
“We look forward to deepening our friendship and cooperation based on shared democratic principles and respect for human rights and the rule of law,” Blinked said. “We remain committed to working with Malaysia to advance a free and open, connected, prosperous, secure and resilient Indo-Pacific region.”
International rights groups have also generally welcomed Anwar’s appointment and pledged to prioritise democracy and human rights. Many are hopeful that Anwar will bring reforms and put Malaysia on the right track of democratisation.
Malaysia had generally maintained friendly bilateral relations with China, with some exceptions during the time of Dr Mahathir Mohamad, when he was second-time Prime Minister for a short stint between 2018 and 2020.
In October 2022 Malaysia, as one of the 47 UN Human Rights Council members, abstained on a vote on whether the council should debate alleged abuses of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Will this change under Anwar’s administration, and how will he navigate Malaysia’s relationship with China amid the pressure to strengthen democracy domestically and regionally and to play a key role internationally with the image of a leader who strives for democracy after years of suffering politically?
Before the last general election, in July 2022 Anwar shared his view about the great-power rivalry in the Asia Pacific in an exclusive interview with a Turkish portal, the Anadolu Agency. In the interview, he described Malaysia as a zone of peace, freedom and neutrality, adding it would be unwise for Malaysia to take any side in global bloc politics, where China’s rise as an important actor should not be ignored. At the same time, there is also a need to continue the engagement with the West.
He was somehow consistent in his approach to China when asked a similar question during his maiden press conference after he was sworn in. Describing China as “pivotal”, he continued, “I would not just leave it as it is, but need it [the relationship with China] to be enhanced.”
He recognises the geopolitical realities in Asia, acknowledging China’s strategic importance while stressing the need to enhance ties with the US.
We should also remember that Anwar visited Beijing in 2018, a move seen as an attempt to reconcile with China after Malaysia, under Mahathir, decided to review several major China-linked projects, including the cancellation of the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high-speed rail project and renegotiation of a contract on the China-financed “East Coast Rail Link”.
China-Malaysia relations have seen some ups and downs in recent years. The East Coast Rail Link project was resumed in 2019 after renegotiations with China and a price cut.
A day after Anwar was sworn in, Premier Li Keqiang, in a congratulatory message, reaffirmed the friendly bilateral relations between China and Malaysia. The statement emphasised that both sides have continually consolidated political mutual trust and deepened mutually beneficial cooperation for the peace and prosperity of both countries and the region.
Under Anwar’s administration, Malaysia’s approach to China is expected to remain stable as Malaysia cannot dismiss out of hand China’s critical role economically. While Anwar is known to have strong ties with Western leaders, for the time being, his approach to China is not expected to be antagonistic. Instead, there will probably be efforts to ensure Malaysia is not being thrown in a tricky seat, having to choose between the US or China. He will nevertheless face international public pressure, especially regarding human rights issues.
In the past, Anwar has expressed concerns over Uyghur issues. Labelled as a reformist, it will be interesting to see if he will speak out on the Taiwan issue, China’s human rights violations, and the dispute in the South China Sea in his new role.
With his appointment as prime minister of Malaysia, this will be an interesting time to observe how Anwar puts his words into action on the global debate about democracy versus autocracy. This will undoubtedly be a delicate balancing act and a test for Anwar. Whether Malaysia can emerge as a champion of democracy in the region remains to be seen. – The Prospect Foundation