‘Once foes, now friends’: Malaysia’s ruling alliance in show of unity ahead of state polls

The closing of ranks is important for the alliance as it faces elections in six Malaysian states in about two months, when its vaunted claims of unity are expected to be severely tested.

Hazlin Hassan

Hazlin Hassan

The Straits Times


Delegates at the inaugural Unity Government National Convention at Umno's headquarters on May 14. PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

May 15, 2023

KUALA LUMPUR – To shouts of “former foes, now friends”, the component parties of Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s government put on a show of unity at its inaugural convention on Sunday, ahead of state polls that will test its support among voters.

Datuk Seri Anwar, the main speaker at the one-day convention, delivered his speech at the headquarters of his former Umno party 25 years after he was sacked in 1998 as a rebel politician.

“I am overcome with emotion as after 25 years, I return here to speak,” Mr Anwar said.

“This is a great day for the unity government and for Malaysia. Thank you to all of you for burying the hatchet and for working together,” he said.

Mr Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) party – formed in 1999 while he was in jail – was given little chance of survival then.

Today, it is the lead party of his six-month-old unity government comprising 19 parties.

And the tables have turned. Umno has been defeated in the last two general elections by Mr Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance led by PKR. Umno is now a small though crucial member of his ruling alliance.

The convention was attended by more than 10,000 delegates at the World Trade Centre Kuala Lumpur, headquarters of Malaysia’s once-invincible Umno.

In his speech, Mr Anwar pledged to boost the economy and improve the livelihoods of Malaysians amid global inflation and a wobbly economic outlook.

He cited success in attracting investments from China to Malaysia following his appointment as the country’s 10th prime minister in November.

PH secretary-general Saifuddin Nasution told reporters that the government has “not looked back” since it was formed six months ago.

He described it as a “strong, stable and functioning government”, and pointed to the rallying call of “dulu lawan, sekarang kawan” (once foes, now friends) heard in several speeches during the convention.

The closing of ranks is important for the alliance as it faces elections in six Malaysian states in about two months, when its vaunted claims of unity are expected to be severely tested.

The 2018 PH government, then led by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, collapsed after just 22 months following a bitter split between its leaders.

Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Umno president Zahid Hamidi urged all party leaders to back Mr Anwar ahead of the polls in Kedah, Penang, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Kelantan and Terengganu states.

“I am confident that if we all back Anwar, this government will remain beyond the next general election,” said Mr Zahid.

Strong public turnout at the Prime Minister’s Hari Raya Aidilfitri open houses nationwide showed that he enjoyed the support of the people, he added.

The polls in the six states, expected around July, will not affect Mr Anwar’s federal government, which has 148 MPs, as only state assembly seats are up for grabs.

But the ruling alliance cannot afford to lose seats in the three states it controls – Penang, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan – especially from Malay voters. The polls will involve half of all Malaysian voters.

The three other states up for grabs, all Malay-majority states, are widely expected to remain with the federal opposition alliance of Perikatan Nasional led by Malay-Muslim parties.

The opposition has been playing up several controversial decisions of the Anwar government, including the appointment of Mr Zahid as deputy premier as he faces dozens of corruption charges.

The ruling alliance consists of PH with 82 MPs, the Umno-led Barisan Nasional coalition with 30, Gabungan Parti Sarawak with 23 lawmakers, and other small parties.

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