Webinar on “Governing in the Shadow of UMNO’s long rule: Anwar Ibrahim’s Formula and Prospects for Reform”

In this webinar, Dr Kai Ostwald and Datuk Seri Utama Hasni Mohammad examined Anwar’s governance and reform challenges following UMNO’s decades-long hegemonic rule in Malaysia.


Thursday, 22 June 2023 – This webinar focused on the legacy of UMNO’s decades in power prior to the 2018 elections, and the ways it constrains the Anwar Ibrahim administration. The session started with a presentation by Dr Kai Ostwald, Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia and Associate Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. Dr Ostwald described the tumultuous years in Malaysian politics since the 2018 election which witnessed a string of coalitional realignments and prime ministerial changes. That instability contrasted with the preceding 60 years of UMNO rule, during which Malaysia was often referred to as a dominant party regime. UMNO made lasting imprints by conforming institutions to its image, blurring the lines between state and party, and reshaping political norms and narratives.

Speakers Dr Kai Ostwald and Datuk Seri Utama Hasni Mohammad with moderator Dr Lee Hwok Aun. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

After two successive electoral defeats in 2018 and 2022, UMNO has lost its dominance. Nonetheless, despite the party’s decline, elements of the regime remain, in contrast to post-Suharto Indonesia or Thailand, in which reformasi and constitutional change have, respectively, brought about more decisive breaks from the past. Continuity in Malaysia speaks to both the strength of the state and ongoing support for elements of the regime. UMNO reshaped and reinforced the norms and narratives that structure political competition in Malaysia. Specifically, UMNO’s raison d’être as the defender of Malay interests has fused the ruling coalition’s legitimacy with championing this cause.

Dr Ostwald argued that Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is constrained by these ideological bounds; hence, challenging them risks losing legitimacy. Hence, his administration treads extremely cautiously on multiple fronts – leadership appointments, engagement with the civil service, and political and policy rhetoric. Reform prospects are not nullified, but similarly constrained. The Anwar administration is more likely to move on matters tangential to identity politics. While constrained, the current formula may be more viable than any other; the oppositional “Malay unity” arrangement has struggled as well, due to structural and representational weaknesses arising from its ethno-religious homogeneity. The unity government thus may be a goldilocks solution: multiethnic enough and viable for East Malaysian autonomy, but still foregrounding a Malay component through UMNO.

Datuk Seri Utama Hasni Mohammad contributed his insights on the unity government’s cohesion and UMNO’s ongoing challenges. He spoke frankly about how the party has faded since the 12th general election (GE12) in 2008, when the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional government lost the two-thirds parliamentary majority that it had held for decades. Voters had sent out signals that the party needed to change, but the clarion call went unheeded and thus, UMNO has increasingly lost credibility among the Malays. The party’s woes are self-inflicted, and the current leadership has not provided a vision for recovering lost ground.

Hasni emphasised that the main focus of the federal administration should be to clarify and deliver Anwar’s Madani agenda, which is key to coalitional stability and good governance. He noted that Covid-19 impacts were more severe than is often recognised and that the Malaysian public is looking to the government for assistance. He also pointed out that the Yang di-Pertuan Agong has served as a stabiliser of government amid political unpredictability. The King, and monarchies in general, will continue to play a significant role in the foreseeable future. Regardless of the outcome of the state elections, UMNO will likely remain in the unity government because the party is getting a very good deal within the coalition.

The webinar proceeded to a Q&A session. Both panelists fielded questions on subjects such as the Anwar administration’s balance of championing interest groups versus bold reforms, relations between UMNO, PAS and Bersatu, and how the unity government’s model compares with Barisan Nasional. Malaysia Studies Programme Co-coordinator Lee Hwok Aun moderated this webinar, which was attended by 83 persons.