Popular M’sian opposition politician Sanusi remains in spotlight despite lying low

The Malaysian opposition’s most popular politician, caretaker Kedah Menteri Besar Sanusi Md Nor, has made the headlines in the past few days for being glaringly missing in action.

Hazlin Hassan

Hazlin Hassan

The Straits Times


Caretaker Kedah Menteri Besar Sanusi Md Nor's conspicuous absence at rallies has made the news. PHOTO: THE STRAITS TIMES

August 11, 2023

ALOR SETAR – The Malaysian opposition’s most popular politician, caretaker Kedah Menteri Besar Sanusi Md Nor, has made the headlines in the past few days for being glaringly missing in action.

The leadership of his Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) had instructed the brash-speaking politician to lie low and not attend rallies due to security factors, as the “enemies have laid a trap”, PAS MP Afnan Hamimi told a political rally on Sunday.

“We need to be prepared for any possibility. I have already said this before: In the next one or two days, there is a possibility of something terrible happening,” he told the attendees.

Kedah is one of six states in Malaysia going to the polls on Saturday to elect their state assemblies.

Sanusi is the election director for Perikatan Nasional (PN), which is defending control of the Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu state assemblies. PAS is a key party in the PN opposition coalition.

There has been speculation that the assemblyman could be detained for questioning on several alleged offences before the elections.

His conspicuous absence at rallies has made the news – as has the growing list of court cases against him of late.

Sanusi, 49, has been accused of insulting the Selangor Sultan. He was controversially arrested on July 18 at 3am at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur before being charged in court with sedition.

He is also due to be questioned by the authorities over his alleged links to the theft of rare earth in Kedah, as the ruling alliance of Pakatan Harapan (PH) and Barisan Nasional (BN) trained their guns on him.

In the past week, he has also been slapped with notices of demand from business tycoon Vincent Tan and caretaker Selangor Menteri Besar Amirudin Shari for defamation.

Speculation mounted last week that he had been rearrested, after he failed to show up at a rally in Kedah, but the police quickly issued a statement denying this.

PAS’ move to keep Sanusi – who won his seat in 2018 and became menteri besar in 2020 – away from the media spotlight signals its defensive stance.

But he has appeared at unofficial events, such as when he played in a friendly football match with residents in his state ward on Monday.

That day, he dismissed rumours that he had been ordered to keep quiet or that he had been forced into cold storage by the party leadership.

“I had to attend a PAS meeting and several other meetings in Kuala Lumpur. I travelled by car and returned late, so of course I could not attend the programmes I was scheduled to attend. I had to rest,” Sanusi was quoted as saying by the Malay-language Sinar Harian daily.

While there is some concern in PAS that Sanusi and his legal entanglements could become a liability to the party, the charges and accusations levelled against him by government leaders appeared to have fuelled his popularity in Kedah.

Sanusi previously announced several ambitious projects under the catchphrase “The Greater Kedah”.

But rivals PH and BN have taken potshots at him, saying that there has been no development in the state during the three years under PN rule.

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has attacked Sanusi at rallies for claiming credit for a lucrative €5 billion (S$7.4 billion) investment announced last week by German chipmaker Infineon Technologies to expand its plant in Kulim, Kedah.

Datuk Seri Anwar said the federal government was responsible for bringing in the investment, and not the state administration.

Nevertheless, this and other problems affecting the northern state – recurrent floods, illegal logging and deforestation, for instance – are secondary for voters, who cite the Menteri Besar’s work on the ground to help the common man.

Assistant manager Syura Rosli, 37, said: “He helps people a lot. He will meet people to ask them what problems they have, and he will help them.”

But while Sanusi’s popularity appears untarnished by his alleged link to the rare earth scandal, some of his other moves have not gone down well in Kedah.

A resident who wanted to be known only as Kumar, who works in the travel trade, said: “The state has not developed under the current leadership. His policies are also not friendly to investors and the industry.”

“He needs to focus on developing the state. He has not mentioned how he is going to develop the economy, improve the education system or bring people together,” Mr Kumar told ST.

He added that the Islamic party-led state has stopped duty-free sales of cigarettes on Kedah’s resort island of Langkawi, and there are fears the PN state administration will also implement similar restrictions on alcohol.

“If we are positioning ourselves as an international destination with international investors, then we need to have tourism-friendly policies.”

Still, political scientist Sivamurugan Pandian of Universiti Sains Malaysia said: “Sanusi has become an icon, and the voters may vote based on sentiment or emotions rather than a way forward for the betterment of the state.”

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