KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia —
Between bites during his lunch of chicken with white rice, Sam Chin, age 46, frowned and said: “Now that Anwar is in power, he’ll do almost anything to keep it.”
Chin was talking about Anwar Ibrahim, a man who spent decades building a reputation as an anti-graft reformer before becoming Malaysia’s 10th prime minister last November. But now many of Anwar’s long-time supporters, including Chin, feel betrayed when it comes to his promises for change.
One key controversy stems from prosecutors dropping 47 corruption charges last week against Anwar’s deputy prime minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. Zahid was accused of bribery, criminal breach of trust and money laundering.
“Anwar has squandered all his moral capital as an anti-graft champion,” said Wong Chin-Huat, a political science professor at Sunway University. “By letting his deputy off he cannot claim any longer that he stands against corruption.”
Zahid used to be an opponent of Anwar’s, but the two became political allies after last year’s election when Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan coalition failed to gain a majority of seats in parliament on its own and needed the support of the Zahid-led Barisan Nasional coalition.
Critics accuse Anwar of hatching a deal to get Zahid’s political support so he could become prime minister, but Anwar insists he did not meddle in Zahid’s corruption trial.
“I steadfastly believe that Anwar did not interfere in this case,” said Azmi Hassan, a senior fellow at the Nusantara Academy for Strategic Research. “Anwar doesn’t need to wink or give indirect direction to the attorney general’s chambers, but I think the attorney general’s chambers understood very well that Zahid’s support towards Anwar is very critical here. If Zahid is found guilty, then Barisan Nasional’s support towards Anwar will be in the balance.”
But Wong, the political science professor at Sunway University, says there’s no way to leave out Anwar’s hand.
“The excuse that Anwar is not involved in getting his deputy Ahmad Zahid Hamidi walking free from 47 charges is lame,” Wong said. “In Malaysia the prime minister controls the attorney general’s chambers which doubles up as the public prosecution. Therefore, whatever decisions made by the public prosecution is bound to be seen as reflecting the government’s, the prime minister’s interests.”
But even before the charges against Zahid were dropped, many of Anwar’s supporters were already disappointed. They say he’s not following through on past commitments, such as his promise to review laws that restrict free speech, and to soften the quota system which heavily favors the country’s ethnic Malay majority for admission to public universities.
But Azmi says Anwar needed to make some “tweaks” because of the pressure he faces from the opposition coalition, Perikatan Nasional, which is gaining strength.
“If Anwar stuck to his principles, what he promised, what we know of Anwar before this, the government will collapse,” Azmi said.
The backbone of Perikatan Nasional is the conservative Malaysian Islamic Party which aims to make the country a theocratic state. Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan coalition has traditionally enjoyed strong support from liberal ethnic Malays as well as the country’s minority community. The majority of Malaysians are ethnic Malay Muslims but the country has sizeable ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian minorities. Most of them are Buddhist, Christian or Hindu.
Azmi says Anwar’s supporters-turned-critics need to accept that he had to make compromises because otherwise, he would lose more Malay support which could lead to a government controlled by Perikatan Nasional.
“They (Anwar’s supporters) need to be realistic, pragmatic,” Azmi said. “They would be far more unhappy with the alternative.”
But Wong, says Anwar’s political tactics may backfire. “Anwar’s decisions are not just purely driven by reality but also based on his calculation that his core supporters will stay with him, would tolerate whatever decision he makes. But this may not be true,” Wong said. “Even though they would not be able to turn around and support the opposition, they can always stay back at home and cause Anwar defeat in (future) elections.”