Sunday, February 5, 2023

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In 2023, Malaysians have a right to see Anwar govern

By Krishantha Prasad Cooray

2023 will be a challenging year for the whole world. Between economic uncertainty, violent weather and the ravages of war, there is no country that does not face tough decisions and uncertainty in the year to come. Malaysia is no exception. But unlike many countries, Malaysia is fortunate enough to have a new government, with a new, mature leader who is respected and trusted worldwide. This is a privilege that few countries enjoy today.

But it is a small miracle that Malaysia emerged with this privilege, thanks solely to its new Prime Minister’s ability to unite political allies and enemies alike to work together and serve Malaysians. Unfortunately, it seems that some senior political leaders are intent to find ways to scuttle and sabotage the government at any cost.

The essence of democratic governance is that it puts the people in charge of their destiny. Political parties build platforms, take them to the people, and those with the most persuasive arguments are, rightly or wrongly, chosen by the people to govern. When they fail, it is again up to the people to decide whether it is worth giving them another chance, or whether it is time to try something new. In theory, such a Darwinian method of selecting rulers should tend towards better leadership. In practice, rulers often abuse their power to distort the process and in doing so, erode the sovereignty a democracy needs to succeed.

Malaysia has been a victim of this pattern for decades. Whatever else can be said about Yang Amat Berhormat Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim, no one can deny that successive governments moved mountains to repeatedly deny the Malaysian people a chance to decide on the merits of the policy platform that Ibrahim brought to the table. Whenever the prospect of him becoming a serious political contender arose, criminal charges or political “moves” materialized like clockwork, the actions of an elite few, to deny the will of the many. When the bag of dirty tricks was finally empty, and when other parties had exhausted their options to stop him, Anwar finally achieved the impossible and secured a political victory that stunned his opponents.

The greatest risk that Malaysia faces in 2023 is that the same cabal of powerful people and vested interests that bent the law to keep Anwar from coming into office will now seek to scuttle his government out of spite, not with an alternative plan to form a government, but to politically paralyze Malaysia once again and blame it on Anwar.

As of right now, his opponents have their work cut out for them. There is no stronger sign of Anwar’s strength in parliament than the fact that the opposition went through such great lengths to block a roll call vote and prevent the government from showing Malaysia the extent of Anwar’s majority. If it was indeed a slim majority, the opposition would have had no reason to try and obscure that fact, let alone to be so proud of having done so. The only fathomable reason for the opposition to be proud of having stopped a roll call vote is that they did not want the Malaysian people to see how many Parliamentarians Anwar had succeeded in bringing into his fold.

Some may celebrate this sort of political gamesmanship as a clever tactic to ‘outfox’ Anwar and deny him a chance to prove his numbers. But Anwar is not the real victim of this focus on gamesmanship, on ‘moves’, and on rule-by-sabotage. At a time like this, politics is not a game. For the poorest of the poor, it is a matter of life or death, of feast or famine. It does no favors to ordinary Malaysians whose faith in democracy is waning after successive hung Parliaments and paralyzed regimes.

Advocates of free speech often remind people that the right of free speech is not just about the right of someone to speak, but also about the right of the audience to hear what the speaker has to say. For decades, people found ways to deny Malaysians of their right to hear what Anwar Ibrahim had to say. Now, those same people, discredited by the electorate, must not be allowed to deny Malaysians a chance to see how Anwar would govern.

This is not just an Anwar Ibrahim moment. It is a Malaysian moment. If his government is paralyzed by another “move”, it is unlikely to be replaced in the short term, and the paralysis that follows will do unspeakable damage to the economy and Malaysia’s world standing. This is why ordinary Malaysians, more and more of whom are being exposed to what he has to say, are likely to follow Anwar and strengthen him, not weaken him.

This is why any serious attempt to scuttle the government is bound to backfire on those who try to cause such a calamity. This time, Malaysians will blame them for the bedlam that follows. They will not get to dictate who to blame, because it is clear to all who are willing to see that Anwar is a popular world leader and Malaysia’s best chance to rejuvenate the economy and retake the spotlight in the international order.

As Anwar has long been an outspoken victim of many of the injustices and inequalities that he aims to correct, Malaysians, foreign investors and statesmen are all building their confidence in the independence of the judiciary and the freedom of the press in Malaysia under a ruler who is sincerely invested in such principles.

Even in his first month on the job, Anwar has moved governance in a direction unlike ever before seen in Malaysia. He has shunned luxuries, declared war on corruption and bureaucracy, put the spotlight on the untapped economic potential of East Malaysia. He is trying to transform the economy to focus on creating value, and do away with patronage networks and middlemen. As he conceded at his very first press conference, this is not the hand of cards that Anwar wanted to play, but instead it is the coalition with which the King and Malaysian people are counting on him to succeed with.

The challenges this government must address are daunting. From cleaning up the public sector, grappling with the devastating impact of the floods, and unleashing the prosperity that will come from releasing the economic potential of every Malaysian, Anwar and his coalition have their work cut out for them. No opposition should give a government a free pass. But Malaysians deserve a mature opposition that will engage on an intellectual level with Anwar’s policy proposals. Where they disagree with his policies they can articulate and defend alternate views, insist on transparency and take a clear stance on issues – as Anwar has – that Malaysians can judge at the next election.

Malaysia has waited far too long to have the opportunity to try, if not the man Anwar Ibrahim, the political vision that he has incubated for so long. Some of his ambitions, such as curtailing waste and bloat in the public sector, may sound uncomfortable, but are inevitable if Malaysia is to realize the same prosperity and efficiency of its tiny neighbor, Singapore.

In 2023, Malaysians must insist that they get a chance to see whether the Prime Minister can realize his vision and his promises and deliver the prosperity and dignity that Malaysians deserve. Now that the fearmongering has failed to keep him from power or oust him, the people can see for themselves whether Anwar’s vision was dangerous enough to justify imprisoning him to keep him off the ballot. They can see if it makes a difference to have a leader at the helm who is taken seriously by the international community and who is well read on Islam, economics and international relations. Once he has had a chance to try and deliver on his promises, whether he has succeeded or failed will be for Malaysians to decide one day, at GE16.

Even though Anwar and his allies have managed so far to stay one step ahead of the opposition, every minute he is forced to spend on petty politics is a minute wasted that they could otherwise spent delivering on his promise to the King and the people to unite and govern Malaysians.

As unlikely as it may seem today, if the opposition somehow manages to pull off another underhand maneuver, and some other hotel lobby becomes the next “Sheraton” for a move to cut the government off at its knees and deny Anwar a chance to deliver, it is Malaysians who will lose, as they may never again have the chance to learn whether a truly transparent, egalitarian liberal democracy is the destiny that Malaysia deserves. And if Malaysians lose that opportunity, those who denied it to them may pay a hefty political price.

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