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25 Sep 2018 17:44
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  •   Home > News > International

    Is Anwar Ibrahim on his way back, or will Malaysia's change experiment fail?

    Malaysia's long-time opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is out of jail and set to make a return to Parliament, but whether he gets a go at the top job depends on a few things.

    By one starry-eyed estimation, Anwar Ibrahim is "the Nelson Mandela of Malaysia".

    Now, the long-time opposition leader, freed from jail after his party's coalition won last May's elections, is set to make a return to Malaysia's Parliament.

    And later, if a deal with current Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad holds, Anwar could soon ascend to the country's top job.

    "Mr Anwar Ibrahim is now running for a Parliamentary seat," explained Ei Sun Oh, a former Malaysian prime ministerial adviser and Nanyang University of Singapore adjunct fellow.

    The Parliamentary seat Anwar will contest has been won by the governing People's Justice Party coalition with a comfortable majority.

    It has been vacated this week by a retiring MP (the one who invoked the Mandela comparison).

    "And that in theory should qualify him later on, if he gets elected, to become the next Prime Minister of Malaysia," Ei Sun Oh told PM.

    Of course there are often differing opinions within a ruling party about who should lead, Dr Oh said, pointing to Australia's recent leadership turmoil.

    "But if everything goes smoothly, yes, he should be Malaysia's next prime minister."

    There is a pact within the ruling coalition led by Dr Mahathir that he will pass on the premiership to Anwar Ibrahim after two years.

    "But Malaysian politics is sometimes very unpredictable," Dr Oh said.

    And there are some rumblings of dissatisfaction within the Coalition about the attempt to parachute Anwar into the seat.

    One party activist, lawyer Siti Kasim, has used social media to call on voters to reject the move, asking, does Anwar's family think they can "do whatever they like at our expense?"

    "Nope!" she replied to her own query on Instagram.

    Economic headwinds

    The political machinations are taking place in an already tumultuous year.

    Malaysia is facing significant economic headwinds and unpredictable fallout from investigations into the multi-billion-dollar 1MDB embezzlement scandal.

    Political instability would be unwelcome in the current economic climate.

    Malaysia is no basket case economy, but the list of challenges is not insignificant.

    In his first 100 days, despite mounting foreign debt and the slowest economic growth in a year, Dr Mahathir dumped an unpopular goods and services tax and introduced costly petrol subsidies.

    High oil prices are providing some financial respite, but Malaysia is forecast in coming years to shift from being a net oil exporter to a net importer.

    So the goal is more foreign investment.

    But Dr Mahathir has caused some market jitters by questioning the value to Malaysia of big Chinese infrastructure projects.

    "The Malaysian government is not totally averse to construction of gigantic infrastructure like high-speed rail and so on," Dr Oh said.

    "It's just that at the moment we simply cannot afford it because our foreign debt is mounting and a priority would be to lower those foreign debts because there are lessons from other countries, Turkey, Argentina, to name just a few."

    Dr Mahathir has welcomed the Chinese company Alibaba setting up regional headquarters in Malaysia, but he has cancelled a number of big infrastructure projects.

    "It's time for China to learn a bit from this sort of lesson, that in some other countries perhaps the China model of development would need some adjustment," Dr Oh said.

    More pointers to the government's priorities are expected with its first budget, expected in late October.

    Where's the money?

    In the meantime, the financial scandal that saw billions of dollars embezzled from the country's sovereign wealth fund, known as 1MDB, and sees investigations stretching from New York to Singapore, could yet embroil dozens of politicians and have any number of unforeseen implications.

    Malaysian investigators said this week that up to 50 politicians may have accepted stolen money in the scandal.

    Already, multiple charges of corruption, abuse of power and money laundering have been laid against former prime minister Najib Razak, who denies culpability.

    In a sensational twist, the lawyer defending Dr Najib against those charges has himself now been charged in the scandal, pleading not guilty to two counts of money laundering.

    Dr Mahathir has a goal of recouping $6.25 billion of funds thought to have been lost through 1MDB.

    Malaysia is attempting to sell a $347 million yacht bought with stolen funds, and to have returned to Malaysia a $49 million jet parked in Singapore.

    Singapore has ordered the transfer of $15.27 million of funds in various currencies to a special 1MDB recovery bank account, a tiny portion of the fraction of more than $277 million that Singapore police have seized from bank accounts and properties linked to 1MDB.

    What next?

    If Anwar Ibrahim were to take the reins again, his priority would also be to revive Malaysia's economy, said Dr Oh.

    But so far, he says, we have not seen a coherent or comprehensive economic policy from the new government.

    He thinks if the economy does not improve in the next few years, there could be a rise in nationalism.

    Sectarian issues, which were also exploited under Najib Razak, are also a perennial issue in Malaysia, according to Dr Oh.

    He says the result of the election demonstrates to the world that when people are fed up with corruption, they will unite, despite multicultural differences, to overthrow that government.

    "But in some of the more remote constituencies in Malaysia, sectarian communal concerns like supremacy of one race or religion are still very pertinent — if we are not careful, they could be revived in no time," he warned.

    "The previous ruling party could indeed be voted back to power, and they would hoard power like nobody's business."


    © 2018 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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