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Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim recently completed his first 100 days in office. While some dismiss the 100-day mark as inconsequential, it is not an unreasonable period of time to take the measure of both the man and his administration. 

After 100 days the picture that has emerged is that of a prime minister who is still much too preoccupied with consolidating his position to focus on much-needed structural and institutional reforms. 

He knows he is vulnerable. He does not enjoy strong Malay support. His reliance on UMNO is not without risks. Limiting the profile of the DAP in his government has not saved him from the usual racist accusations. Things may be relatively calm on the surface but underneath there’s deep political turmoil.

Under the circumstances, Anwar has had to move cautiously particularly on issues impinging on race and religion which could be quickly weaponised against him. Memories of the way the ICERD and ICC were quickly turned into near-extinction level events by a Malay-dominated opposition are still fresh.

No surprise then that the Anwar administration quickly ruled out reform of the civil service, backpaddled on the issue of repealing anti-democratic legislation (SOSMA, UUCA, CMA) and stayed away from the minefield that is education reform. 

Even on the issue of better race relations – one of his signature issues – Anwar has been nothing but ambivalent; giving great speeches on inclusiveness and tolerance while staying well clear of all the racial and religious controversies that surfaced in his first 100 days. 

With his ability to manoeuvre constrained, Anwar seems to have used first 100 days to focus on helping voters cope with rising living costs, by far the number one political issue today. At the same time, he has gone big on fighting corruption and introducing measures to curb the theft and wastage of government funds. 

Efforts at tackling rising living costs have been less than spectacular. Gimmicks like RM5 meals, free tampons and the proposal to tap into EPF savings for collateral only serve to highlight the absence of imaginative solutions. Dismantling the monopoly system – which Anwar has criticised – might help, but that too might be a can of worms.  

Whatever it is, people are facing real hardship; anger is growing. If the government doesn’t come up with better measures to lessen the people’s burden, it could lose the mostly Malay B40 vote in crucial state elections later this year.

The results of Anwar’s war on corruption in his first 100 days is also mixed at best. He has done nothing to restore faith in the MACC, the key agency in the fight against corruption. And neither has he moved to replace the MACC chief who has little credibility in the eyes of the public. 

With the MACC no longer seen as impartial and independent, its actions will automatically be viewed with suspicion. Furthermore, when charges are brought against former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin in less than 100 days while investigations into the LCS scandal – rumoured to involve some of those now in government – continue to languish after more than 1000 days, people are bound to wonder.

Of course, Muhyiddin should be charged if evidence of wrong-doing is there but perceptions of impartiality are important too. With the opposition now alleging selective prosecution, the government could face a backlash. 

While the lack of progress on reform in Anwar’s first 100 days may be excused away by the adverse political circumstances, some of his other decisions are harder to accept.

In his first 100 days, apart from appointing a man facing multiple criminal charges as deputy prime minister, he appointed his daughter senior adviser on economics and finance (she resigned following a public outcry), made a controversial and race-baiting former UMNO minister ambassador to Washington, put a PKR politician as chairman of a wholly-owned MOF subsidiary and another as chairman of the Companies Commission of Malaysia and handed the chairmanships of both MARA and FELCRA to UMNO cronies.

It’s hard to square such appointments with Pakatan Harapan’s self-righteous indignation when previous governments did the same. In this one area at least, Anwar could have lived up to his promises; that he did not will lead to questions about his sincerity.

It hasn’t helped either that human rights activists, artists and filmmakers, and government critics continue to be investigated and harassed. Even a peaceful march pressing for the rights of women is being probed. And why Anwar would lend support to UMNO’s continuing vendetta against former attorney-general Tommy Thomas is puzzling too.

Yes, it’s only 100 days but 100 days can be a long time in politics. Voters  are restless, suspicious and impatient; the ground may already be shifting. Time may not be on the Anwar’s side. If the Malay vote swings behind Perikatan Nasional in the upcoming state elections, a very messy and turbulent period could follow.

In his recent budget speech, Anwar asked with his usual rhetorical flourish “whether there is political will to effect change”. It is a question that Anwar himself must answer to the satisfaction of voters. 

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 16th March 2023]