Malaysia’s New Prime Minister: To Serve Malaysia or Washington?
The elections unfolded shortly after the G20 meeting held in nearby Indonesia and the APEC 2022 forum held in Thailand. Taken together, we see both the significant shifting of the region and the world away from US-led unipolarism toward multipolarism, but also efforts by the US to retain its power and influence worldwide.
Anwar Ibrahim is a polarizing figure in Malaysian politics and a long-time ally of Washington who has spent decades and millions of dollars providing him and others across Malaysia’s opposition political support.
With Anwar Ibrahim now prime minister of Malaysia, considering the significant amount of US support provided to him and the network that brought him into power over the decades, there are fears that Malaysia will now not only begin distancing itself from cooperation with China, but will also become a belligerent US proxy amid growing US-Chinese tensions.
Anwar Ibrahim’s Deep US Backing
These fears are rooted in Anwar Ibrahim’s long-standing association with Washington-based regime change organizations, particularly the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) as well as its many subsidiaries.
Anwar Ibrahim has literally traveled to Washington DC to participate in US NED activities. He participated in a 2007 panel discussion titled, “The Legacy of Westminster: Democracy Assistance Since the Founding of NED and the Challenges Ahead,” for example. But more troubling is the US NED-funded opposition movement he has helped lead for years, “Bersih.”
Bersih began taking to the streets in yellow-colored protests in 2007. The organization is often presented by the Western media as a grassroots movement, yet it is actually made up of opposition parties including Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party (PJP). Anwar Ibrahim himself had openly led calls for the public to join the movement’s rallies over the years.
Revelations regarding Bersih’s US government funding emerged in 2011. Malaysian Today would report in an article titled, “Bersih Repudiates Foreign Christian Funding Claim,” that:
[Bersih chairperson Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan] admitted to Bersih receiving some money from two US organisations — the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Open Society Institute (OSI).
The NDI is a subsidiary of the US NED. The NDI’s website profile for programs in Malaysia in 2011 stated:
In July 2005, NDI organized a national-level workshop for party leaders on election reform. NDI has since conducted many workshops across Malaysia to promote electoral reform in collaboration with Research for Social Advancement (REFSA), the secretariat for BERSIH. In 2006, NDI conducted a a workshop for BERSIH that focused on improving the action plans of each participating organization or political party in accomplishing their objectives. In 2007, NDI and BERSIH conducted a series of workshops in the politically neglected provinces of Sabah and Sarawak to educate previously disenfranchised political aspirants.
The US government funding activities to “reform” Malaysia’s internal political processes and to specifically train opposition parties toward “accomplishing their objectives” (getting into power) is blatant foreign interference.
Anwar Ibrahim would participate in Bersih protests for years until finally becoming prime minister. There is no doubt that not only did the US government interfere in Malaysia’s internal political affairs, it did so for the explicit purpose of installing a Washington-friendly government into power.
While the US NED and its subsidiaries meddled in Malaysia over the past two decades, Western newspapers like the New York Times in 2011 published articles like, “U.S. Groups Helped Nurture Arab Uprisings,” admitting to the role the US NED and the NDI played in the deadly unrest and regime change that swept the Arab World that year.
The New York Times admitted:
A number of the groups and individuals directly involved in the revolts and reforms sweeping the region, including the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and grass-roots activists like Entsar Qadhi, a youth leader in Yemen, received training and financing from groups like the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights organization based in Washington, according to interviews in recent weeks and American diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks.
The New York Times also admitted:
The Republican and Democratic institutes are loosely affiliated with the Republican and Democratic Parties. They were created by Congress and are financed through the National Endowment for Democracy, which was set up in 1983 to channel grants for promoting democracy in developing nations. The National Endowment receives about $100 million annually from Congress. Freedom House also gets the bulk of its money from the American government, mainly from the State Department.
In 2018, Anwar Ibrahim’s allies won that year’s elections. Daniel Twining of the International Republican Institute (IRI), another NED subsidiary, would brag during a talk (starting at 56 minutes) by the Center for Strategic and International Studies that same year that:
…for 15 years working with NED resources, we worked to strengthen Malaysian opposition parties and guess what happened two months ago after 61 years? They won.
Twining would elaborate on how the NED’s network played a direct role in placing US-backed opposition figures into power within the Malaysian government, stating:
I visited and I was sitting there with many of the leaders the new leaders of this government, many of whom were just our partners we had been working with for 15 years and one of the most senior of them who’s now one of the people running the government said to me, ‘gosh IRI you never gave up on us even when we were ready to give up on ourselves.’
Twining would also boast:
…guess what one of the first steps the new government took? It froze Chinese infrastructure investments.
[Malaysia] is not a hugely pro-American country. It’s probably never going to be an actual US ally, but this is going to redound to our benefit, and that’s an example of the long game.
It is irrefutable that Anwar Ibrahim and the opposition he represents benefited immensely over the course of decades from US government funding, training, and other forms of political support in a process of blatant US interference in Malaysia’s internal political affairs. It is also very clear that the purpose of this US interference is to direct Malaysian foreign policy, specifically in terms of China and Washington’s goal of turning its partners in the region against it.
What does this all mean for Malaysia next with Anwar Ibrahim now prime minister?
Was Anwar Ibrahim a Good Investment for Washington?
Many US-sponsored client regimes waste little time in irrationally pivoting their respective nations away from long-standing alliances, trade, and other prospects in service of US foreign policy objectives. It is, at the moment, uncertain, if and how Anwar Ibrahim is prepared to reciprocate Washington’s years of support.
The Diplomat in a recent article titled, “Malaysia’s Democratization Poses New Challenges to China’s BRI Projects,” would point out:
Malaysia faces another change in government following a closely contested election which has resulted in a hung parliament. It is unknown whether this will alter the status of the nation’s BRI projects yet again. With the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition led by reformist leader Anwar Ibrahim on the verge of forming a government, another review of these projects remains a possibility, given that the coalition has historically been hostile to many BRI projects.
The South China Morning Post would report that indeed such “reviews” were likely to take place in its article, “Anwar backs Mahathir’s review of Chinese deals – but not to annoy Beijing.”
While the article argues that this process is simply attempting to cement in place the best deals with China rather than simply overturning them to pursue Washington’s objective of isolating Beijing, this all remains to be seen.
Metrics such as Malaysia’s continued participation in or withdrawal from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or Malaysia’s actions regarding claims over the South China Sea will very soon indicate whether or not Washington’s long-term investment in Anwar Ibrahim and the opposition network who helped him into power paid off or not.
The Western media refuses to report on US interference anywhere, including in Malaysia. Understanding who the US has backed for years and what their expectations are once they take power will help us better understand the “how and why” of the decisions Malaysia now makes going forward in both its US and Chinese relations.