Anwar Ibrahim’s prophecy of power could come true at last. But for Malaysia, it might be better if it didn’t

by | Dec 18, 2020 | Opinion Pieces

  • As the Malaysian democracy icon prepares to meet the country’s king on Tuesday, anticipation is growing that he might finally become PM
  • History shows such an upset is possible, yet the compromises it would involve could dash any hopes of democratic reform and cause inequalities to stagnate

Last month, Anwar Ibrahim – leader of Malaysia’s opposition – announced he had the parliamentary support required to unseat current Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. It is not the first time he has made such a claim, however, having promised much the same in 2008, 2013 and earlier this year. On every previous occasion he has failed, but this time Malaysians are torn between hope and scepticism as on Tuesday, Anwar will meet the king, who has the constitutional power to appoint a new prime minister. So, will Anwar’s prophecy finally become self-fulfilling? Self-fulfilling prophecies occur when something happens because one said it would, whereas their inverse – self-negating prophecies – are the polar opposite. Both are well-documented phenomena, and serve to show the power that imagination has to shape the world we live in, as it is the claim itself that alters reality, creating the context needed for the prophecy to happen.

Politicians everywhere depend on these sorts of phenomena to some degree, but they are particularly apparent in Malaysian politics, with Anwar giving us a brilliant demonstration.

Like two-time prime minister Mahathir Mohamad before him, Anwar is attempting the impossible: claiming something exists in the hopes that his saying it will make it happen.

Count and recount as many times as you like, Anwar does not have “the numbers” in parliament – his loyal coalition supporters like the Democratic Action Party and Amanah have been staying at a safe distance, since he apparently did not consult with them nor reveal to them his plans.

This is the reason he has not been able to give names, or a list of the supporters he claims to have. But the timing of his announcement was crucial in creating momentum that has allowed Anwar to influence reality and, perhaps, eventually obtain what he wants.

Remember, it was only a few short years ago that Mahathir prophesied his own reinvention from autocrat to democrat, which ended up getting him re-elected as prime minister.

In 2017, after his reconciliation with long-time ‘frenemy’ Anwar, Mahathir embarked on a messianic narrative in which he claimed to be the only one who could end the “kleptocracy” of then Prime Minister Najib Razak – deeply embedded as he was, and is, in the 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Bhd) financial scandal.

Mahathir’s first 22 years in power were tainted by authoritarian tendencies and the severe repression of the Reformasi movement, founded by Anwar. Yet two decades later, Mahathir made Reformasi his own, and became a champion of human rights and democracy – ideas he had criticised in the past as “Western”.

The reinvention was unthinkable, but it worked. Mahathir became the man he claimed he had become and was appointed prime minister again in May 2018. It matters not whether he really changed, what is important is the mechanism through which he made it happen.

Today, Anwar is attempting a similar leap of faith – even if it implies compromising his democratic agenda by allying with the leaders of the United Malay National Organisation he once labelled “corrupt” and “kleptocrats”.

Najib, the former prime minister, and current Umno President Zahid Hamidi – along with other Umno leaders – have variously been accused of abuse of power, breach of trust and corruption related to the 1MDB scandal. In July, Najib was sentenced to 12 years in prison, a decision his lawyer has appealed to the higher courts.

Yet an alliance between Najib, Zahid and Anwar could turn the tide of history for the Umno leaders, whose political fates are now intertwined with their legal predicament. Umno’s alliance with Bersatu, Muhyiddin’s party, has not been favourable for Najib, what with his July sentencing and another corruption trial set to resume on Friday.

In spite of the theoretical independence of the Malaysian judiciary, the courts’ decisions are highly political ones and a leadership change could create a more favourable political climate for leniency. Like Anwar did when put on trial for sodomy, Najib has maintained his innocence for years and accused the Mahathir government – which brought the charges – of conspiring against him. The truth here does not matter: this could well be another self-fulfilling prophecy.

Anwar’s announcement in itself had several repercussions that laid new political groundwork and precipitated partisan shifts. The timing of the announcement, before the Sabah election, had a direct impact on the state’s polls. It highlighted deep tensions within the opposition coalition at both the federal and state level, creating a growing sense of uncertainty among Sabah’s voters who decided to go with what they perceived as a safer and more stable option: Muhyiddin’s ruling Perikatan Nasional coalition.

The opposition lost another state, and handed the embattled prime minister a superficial victory, for even though Muhyiddin may appear to be in a position of strength, he is in fact vulnerable to pressure from within his own government – both from Umno and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).

Anwar’s announcement only added to the pressure, as many of Muhyiddin’s recent political decisions have put his ruling coalition to the test. Despite the key role Umno played in consolidating several victories for Muhyiddin, he has favoured members of his own party when it came time to appoint the new chief minister of Sabah, as well as the new state cabinet. The leadership of Umno is, understandably perhaps, not best pleased with its fragile ally and wants Malaysia’s voters to have their say. But for Muhyiddin, an early general election could well be the end of the road.

Since we are discussing prophecies, let’s use our imagination to anticipate what could happen on Tuesday – and deduce whether Anwar’s prophecy will be self-fulfilling or not.

In the first scenario, the momentum created by his big announcement turns out to be enough to carry him to power. In the time between saying he had the numbers to oust Muhyiddin and actually meeting the king, he has been successful in garnering sufficient support to take over. The king, as protector of the realm in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, opts for a change of government. Anwar finally gets his hand on the tiller, and forms what he earlier described as “a Malay Muslim government” – with Umno and PAS comfortably in the majority. With time, and judicial leniency, the moral integrity of yesterday’s enemies and former “kleptocrats” is restored.

This, therefore, would no longer be a triumph for Malaysia’s erstwhile democracy champion, nor would it be the realisation of a dream for Malaysian democratisation – instead, it would be the final flourish in the deconstruction of Reformasi principles and the emergence of a new political narrative: a new “New Malaysia”. Such heavy compromises could put an end to hopes of democratic reform, and cause the country’s existing structural inequalities to stagnate.

In the second scenario, Anwar’s attempts to harness the momentum created by his announcement were not enough to take him to the top. His manoeuvring influenced the Sabah election and destabilised the Muhyiddin government – sending tremors through the stock market as collateral damage, or perhaps by design.

The momentum also helped him raise funds while making promises to businessmen keen on getting closer to the man they believe might become prime minister in a matter of days.

But this time, again, Anwar does not have the numbers. The meeting with the king is followed by a dramatic speech and disappointment for his supporters. He explains away the flop by crafting another conspiracy story.

Whether or not Anwar’s prophecy turns out to be self-fulfilling, there is another prediction we can all look forward to watching unfold: Najib’s triumphant return to power, only this time as a democracy icon.

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