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Anwar Ibrahim's decades-long, arduous journey to the PM job, and what it means for Malaysian politics

SINGAPORE — Mr Anwar Ibrahim has become Malaysia's prime minister after a rollercoaster three-decade journey during which he went from being heir apparent to the top job, to serving jail time for alleged sodomy and corruption, before a long stretch as opposition leader.

Pakatan Harapan leader Anwar Ibrahim moves among a crowd while campaigning ahead of the General Election at a rally in Tambun, Perak, on Nov 18, 2022.

Pakatan Harapan leader Anwar Ibrahim moves among a crowd while campaigning ahead of the General Election at a rally in Tambun, Perak, on Nov 18, 2022.

  • Mr Anwar Ibrahim became prime minister of Malaysia on Nov 24
  • His appointment to the country's top job came after three decades, during which he twice came close to the post
  • Despite winning the most seats with his coalition Pakatan Harapan at the Nov 19 general election, Mr Anwar did not have a parliamentary majority to form government in his own right
  • In the five days after polling day, Mr Anwar's coalition held talks with various parties to form the next government
  • The composition of his government is yet to be unveiled

SINGAPORE — Mr Anwar Ibrahim has become Malaysia's prime minister after a rollercoaster three-decade journey during which he went from being heir apparent to the top job, to serving jail time for alleged sodomy and corruption, and then being an opposition leader for a long stretch.

When Pakatan Harapan (PH), the political coalition he now leads, took office in 2018 in a shock defeat of Barisan Nasional (BN), Mr Anwar, now aged 75, looked on course to fulfil his ambition of becoming premier.

The agreement was that Dr Mahathir Mohamad, now aged 97, who had teamed up with his one-time nemesis Mr Anwar to jointly lead PH, would hand over the reins to the younger man sometime during the term of the government.

But that fell through due to political infighting and defections in PH in 2020. In the wash-up, Dr Mahathir stepped down as prime minister and the government led by PH coalition lost power.

At Saturday's general election, Dr Mahathir, Malaysia's longest-serving prime minister, suffered the ignominy of losing his own seat in Langkawi. He even lost his deposit.

Even after PH won the greatest number of seats in Parliament following the general election on Nov 19, it was not a given that Mr Anwar would be prime minister.

PH won 82 seats, while Perikatan Nasional (PN), led by former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, won 73. Neither won the minimum of 112 seats required to form a simple majority in parliament, and required the political support of other parties to do so.

BN, which was the main ruling coalition until the 2018 general election, won just 30 seats.


With Malaysia confronting the first hung parliament in its history, the question of who would lead Malaysia captivated national attention in the days after polling day on Nov 19 as the various parties raced to form alliances with one another.

The road was fraught with twists and turns after the Malaysia’s king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, set a deadline of Nov 21, 2pm for party to inform him of their choice of prime minister and alliances. He later extended the deadline to give parties more time to negotiate.

The day after polling day, Mr Muhyiddin of PN declared that his coalition was ready to work with other parties except Mr Anwar’s PH to form a government. He also announced that he had the support of parties in Sabah and Sarawak to form the next government.

Then, Mr Anwar announced on Monday morning that his party was in discussions with BN on the possibility of forming a new government together.

This was despite Mr Anwar’s fierce criticism of its party members who have been tainted by corruption.

The most notable BN figure to be linked to corruption is former prime minister Najib Razak who was jailed for 12 years earlier this year over the multi-billion dollar graft scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad.

Malaysian media also reported that factions within BN were split on whether to join forces with PH or PN to form the next government.

However, some clarity emerged at around noon on Thursday when the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the lynchpin party in BN, said that it would agree to the king’s proposal for a unity government, but only if it was not led by PN.

Its declaration, which implied that BN was willing to work with PH, appeared to be a key moment moving Mr Anwar closer to the top post.


The last time Mr Anwar had come close to the premiership post was after the last election in 2018, where he joined forces with his former foe, Dr Mahathir, to end six-decades of BN rule and form the government with PH.

The agreement then was that Dr Mahathir, who again took the reins as prime minister after PH's win, would hand over the position to Mr Anwar during the term of the government. Dr Mahathir was also Malaysia's premier from 1981 to 2003.

But by February 2020, PH was rocked by political wrangling. Some reports claimed that Dr Mahathir was planning to form a new government that would exclude Mr Anwar. 

Other reports said that other prominent figures in PH had held meetings with BN on a new partnership.

In what became known as the Sheraton Move, a faction within PH defected to form PN and lead a new government under Mr Muhyiddin with the support of BN.

This left Mr Anwar back in the opposition camp and further away from the prime minister post once again.

Before this, Mr Anwar was also seen as the prime-minister-in-waiting to succeed Dr Mahathir in the 1990s back when both of them were in Umno.

Mr Anwar had served as deputy prime minister from 1993 to 1998, and as finance minister from 1991 to 1998 under Dr Mahathir's BN administration.

However, he was fired in 1998 just after the Asian Financial Crisis. He spent six years in prison after being convicted of various charges including corruption and sodomy.

The charges, which Mr Anwar denied and maintains were politically motivated, led to the rise of the Reformasi political movement, which demanded cleaner government in the ruling BN. The movement saw tens of thousands of protesters take to the streets of Malaysia that year.

Mr Anwar founded the party, Parti Keadilan Nasional, in 1998. The party eventually became known in its current form as Parti Keadilan Rakyat, which is the main component party of PH.


Political observers had mixed views on the wider significance of Mr Anwar's ascension in Malaysia's political history, given that he had finally achieved the nation's top post.

Dr Meredith Weiss, visiting senior fellow from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, described the appointment as "a watershed moment" for Mr Anwar, given that he had been waiting for decades to take the top post. 

On the other hand, Dr Norshahril Saat, a senior fellow at Iseas–Yusof Ishak Institute, said that it is too early to make such calls, given that Mr Anwar required days of negotiation to form the government and it was not "a clear-cut victory" for him.

However, experts agreed that Mr Anwar's appointment heralded "a good start" in the process of Malaysia getting back on its feet again both politically and economically.

Besides being hampered by political instability in the last four years, the country's economy has also been badly battered by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

On Mr Anwar's leadership approach, Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, was confident that he will be a "reformist leader" given that he has been consistent in his calls for democratisation and multiculturalism since he left Umno in 1998.

However, he would need the full trust and power of the government to pull this off, Dr Oh said.

Dr Norshahril said that it is still too early to tell what kind of leader Mr Anwar will be, given that he has not held senior political office for many years.

He said that Mr Anwar was known to be a very good deputy prime minister and one of the best finance ministers that Malaysia has had.

Although Mr Anwar's past Cabinet experience is important, Dr Norshahril said that it is not essential to the current electorate, as seen by how voters had rejected former prime minister Mahathir at the polls. 

Giving his comment, Mr Adib Zalkapli, a director at advisory firm Bower Asia Group, is hopeful of Mr Anwar's leadership, and its impact on the political scene in Malaysia.

"We can expect more political reforms under him, in line with his campaign platform and more expanded democratic space," he said.

Visit our Malaysia Elections 2022 page for updates, coverage from TODAY journalists and more.

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