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Interview

Malaysia's PM-designate Anwar backs review of Malay privileges

De facto coalition leader 'trusts' Mahathir to keep promise and hand over power

Malaysia's prime minister-designate Anwar Ibrahim says he supports the review of the Bumiputra policy that previous leaders had used to enrich their cronies. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia's prime minister-designate Anwar Ibrahim on Aug. 28 outlined plans for institutional reforms including the review of affirmative action for ethnic Malays known as Bumiputra, while giving Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad leeway in running the government. 

His role, the 71-year-old former Deputy Prime Minister said, will encompass more once he is elected member of parliament.

"I intend to be in parliament the latest by October through a by-election," Anwar told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview at the People's Justice Party headquarters on the outskirts of the Malaysian capital. He is expected to be installed as party president in a November congress after presiding for years in absentia because he was in jail. His party is the main force in the ruling coalition Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope.

Anwar's political comeback is part of a pact reached with his once arch-enemy Mahathir who had sent him to jail on corruption and sodomy charges. Both politicians joined hands to unseat former Prime Minister Najib Razak during  historic polls on May 9 that resulted in a change of government for the first time since independence in 1957. 

Under the deal, Mahathir will hand over power to Anwar in two years but Anwar, who had his five-year jail sentence shortened following a royal pardon enabled by the poll victory, needs to be elected to parliament first.

"The decision to be active in parliament is strategic in a sense that you don't create an impression that I am trying to disturb and make things difficult for Mahathir," said Anwar who wanted to allow the prime minister a freehand in running the country.

Instead, he said he would like to play a "check-and-balance" role by looking at institutional reforms that include a review into the Bumiputra policy, a set of affirmative action aimed at lifting the social welfare of Malays, who form the ethnic majority and are mostly Muslim, but has been partly used by politicians to dish out state assistance to their supporters.

Malaysia's former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim at People's Justice Party's headquarters in Malaysia on Aug. 28. He believes Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad will keep his promise to hand over power. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

"The policy, which is race-based and [has been] abused to enrich cronies has to stop," said Anwar. He wants the government to return to the policy's original objective of alleviating poverty among Bumiputra, or sons of the soil, a reference to the Malays and indigenous people of the country.

"The policy that helps the marginalized, minorities and Bumiputras lagging behind has to continue not as a Bumiputra policy but as affirmative actions," Anwar reiterated.

A government advisory council recently proposed more inclusive recommendations to add to the policy, to spur a change in mindset and encourage competitiveness without impeding economic growth and holding back other social groups.

Besides the Bumiputra policy review, Anwar said improvements could be made in state procurement and the fight against corruption by reforming the anti-graft agency into a truly independent body.

Anwar is supportive of Mahathir's revision of Chinese-backed infrastructure projects but acknowledges the need to enhance Malaysia's relationship with the world's second largest economy. He also believes Mahathir will keep his promise to hand over power.

"I trust him and there is no reason for me to question," he said while acknowledging that some people are trying to create a wedge between both men for personal reasons. "As long as I continue to have a good rapport with him, it is alright," he added.

Anwar also advocates tolerance in the multiethnic country, which has increasingly turned conservative in recent years. He blamed the previous government for being "too soft" in trying to appease its support base among the Muslim conservatives. Malaysian society, he said, must live with different beliefs and ways of life and must respect people who are different, including gays, bisexuals and those who identify as transgender.

"If people have their own sexual orientation, it is up to them," said Anwar but added that the government will not recognize such partnerships legally, referring to same-sex marriage.

Researcher Ying Xian Wong contributed to this article.

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