Seminar on “Can Anwar Ever Attract The Support Of Malay Voters? An Analysis of Malaysia’s Political Polarisation”

In this hybrid seminar, Mr Khairy Jamaluddin delivered a comprehensive analysis of the current Malaysian political landscape under Anwar’s premiership.


Tuesday, 9 May 2023 – In the 2022 General Election (GE2022), none of the three coalitions secured a parliamentary majority despite Pakatan Harapan (PH) winning the highest number of seats on the back of strong non-Malay support. Anwar Ibrahim, chairman of PH, was sworn in as the Prime Minister after securing support from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and East Malaysian parties. The need to form an alliance with UMNO has raised concerns that Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim may not have sufficient support among Malays. The ISEAS-Yusof Ishak organised a hybrid seminar to shed light on this pertinent issue, with Mr Khairy Jamaluddin as the guest speaker. Mr Khairy had previously served in several Malaysian ministries including Youth and Sports, Science and Technology, Health. He was also responsible for Malaysia’s Covid-19 Immunisation Programme, and is presently the Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

Speaker Mr Khairy Jamaluddin with Dr Francis Hutchinson as moderator. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Mr Khairy began his presentation with an overview of the political landscape under Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. The Unity Government is presently stable, though the upcoming state elections would serve as a crucial test for Anwar to strengthen his mandate among the Malay voters. Mr Khairy explained that the current administration needs to prove that it can gain substantial Malay vote, since PH only secured an estimated 15 per cent of the Malay vote with most Malays voting for UMNO (Barisan Nasional) or Perikatan Nasional (PN) in GE2022. Mr Khairy revealed that in a recent survey, 46 per cent of respondents chose Anwar as the most suitable PM candidate, while the first runner-up Muhyiddin Yassin only received 17 per cent. Nonetheless, among Malay respondents Anwar only had a slight lead over Muhyiddin at 32 per cent against 25 per cent respectively.

Mr Khairy commented that the present administration would remain stable should it retain the three PH-governed states in the upcoming state election. At present Selangor, Penang and Negeri Sembilan are governed by PH while Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah are governed by PN. Mr Khairy predicted that the status quo would prevail in the upcoming state election, but PN is likely to make inroads and gain some additional Malay-majority seats in PH-governed states. Nonetheless, in the unlikely event that PH and UMNO fail to retain either Selangor or Negeri Sembilan, the Unity Government would be in a precarious position. In addition, should UMNO be wiped out by PN, the Unity Government could come under attack for lacking Malay support.

Mr Khairy commented that the anti-hopping bill passed in late 2022 also provided much-needed political stability, since the bill reduces the likelihood of individual Members-of-Parliament (MP) switching sides and supporting other coalitions. In addition, East Malaysian parties are reluctant to switch sides and withdraw their support from the Unity Government since there is no appetite among East Malaysians for another political change.

Mr Khairy admitted that the lack of strong support from Malays in GE2022 has prevented Anwar from fulfilling his promise of change and reforms, since he is dependent on UMNO President Zahid’s support to cross the simple majority threshold. Despite a poor performance in GE2022, UMNO remained stuck with top leaders who are tainted with corruption scandals. Mr Khairy commented that PH must secure credible Malay support in the next general election for a strong mandate in order for Anwar to implement his reform agenda.  

In his concluding remarks, Mr Khairy argued that despite Anwar’s charismatic personality, he needs a grand narrative to move Malaysia forward since charisma typically has a short shelf life. As politics is deeply polarised between Malays and non-Malays, Anwar has a difficult balancing act to serve as a progressive leader leading good governance for all while also not abandoning the conservative Malay ground.

In the question-and-answer session, participants asked about the chances for UMNO to reform, ongoing corruption trials involving UMNO senior leaders, the longevity of Bersatu, and Khairy’s personal political direction after being sacked from UMNO. The seminar drew about 200 participants online and onsite. Dr Francis Hutchinson, Senior Fellow at the Malaysia Studies Programme, moderated the seminar.

(Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)