Malaysia’s election saw a major extension of the franchise, with the voting age lowered to 18 following civil society campaigning. The outcome of voting was uncertain, with no political grouping winning a majority, but it ended with long-time challenger Anwar Ibrahim being sworn in as Malaysia’s new prime minister. He has promised reform, including the lifting of the country’s heavy restrictions on freedom of expression. At the same time, political volatility, which has seen the rise of a hardline Islamist party, seems sure to continue. Anwar should open up civic space to enable a constructive alliance between his parliamentary support and civil society to advance human rights.

Political change is on the cards in Malaysia – but further volatility and rising extremism could be too. On 24 November Anwar Ibrahim was sworn in as the country’s new prime minister following an inconclusive general election in which, for the first time in Malaysia’s history, no political group won an outright majority. The election came amid an economic downturn and in the wake of a political crisis that saw the country go through three prime ministers in three years.

Crisis after crisis

Anwar’s appointment as prime minister caps an extraordinary personal journey. In the 1980s, he went from student activist to rising star in the United Malays National Party (UMNO), the dominant party in the Barisan Nasional (National Front, BN) political alliance that had governed Malaysia since independence.

In the early 1990s Anwar became deputy prime minister and finance minister. He was seen as a charismatic reformer and widely tipped as the country’s next prime minister – but all that suddenly changed as a growing disagreement with long-time prime minister Mahathir Mohamad led to him being spectacularly fired from the cabinet in 1998.

Worse was to follow. In 1999 Anwar was jailed for sodomy, a criminal offence in Malaysia, in what was widely seen as a politically motivated and wrongful prosecution designed to end his political career. Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience. He was released from jail in 2004, becoming leader of the opposition at the head of a new party after a ban from politics imposed as part of his sentence ended in 2008.

But Anwar then faced further sodomy accusations, leading to a second, lengthy trial that eventually convicted him in 2014, sending him back to jail. This trial and conviction also attracted international criticism, with the independence of the judiciary called into question. He was released after receiving a royal pardon in 2018.

By then the political order had changed – and an unlikely alliance had been rekindled. The Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope, PH) alliance brought together Anwar’s People’s Justice Party with several others – including the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (BERSATU), led by his old ally turned adversary, former prime minister Mahathir. Mahathir had quit UMNO in response to a massive corruption scandal involving the country’s sovereign wealth fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

The 1MDB scandal, which broke in 2015, revealed a systematic campaign of theft of a staggering US$4.5 billion of state assets, enabling business leaders and politicians to enjoy rockstar lifestyles. The trail of corruption reached the very top: UMNO leader and prime minister Najib Razak was said to have personally benefited to the tune of US$700 million. In 2020, he was convicted of corruption and sentenced to 12 years in jail.

Public anger was reflected in an unprecedented defeat for BN at the 2018 election, producing Malaysia’s first-ever democratic change of government. PH promised to root out corruption and push ahead with the investigations Najib had stalled, winning by a narrow margin. With Anwar still in jail, the alliance was led by Mahathir, who at the age of 92 made an unprecedented return as prime minister. The agreement was that, once pardoned, Anwar would succeed Mahathir after two years – but that never happened.

In February 2020, many BERSATU members of parliament left the PH group and joined a new alliance, Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance, PN), leaving Mahathir without a majority. This led to BERSATU leader Muhyiddin Yassin becoming prime minister the following month, leading a minority government with BN support. But he didn’t last long either.

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the country in 2020 and 2021, the government was criticised for not doing enough to control it. Repeated attempts to unseat Muhyiddin ultimately led to many BN politicians withdrawing their support in August 2021, causing a crisis that forced him to resign as prime minister. Three potential prime ministers, among them Anwar, jostled for the position, with UMNO’s Ismail Sabri Yaakob ultimately prevailing.

His term was to be short-lived too. While Ismail and Anwar signed a bipartisan cooperation agreement, with the stated aim of providing stable governance during the pandemic, UMNO infighting continued. Calls for an early election grew, and the vote took place eight months before it had been due – on 19 November 2022.

A changed electorate

This was a far less predictable election than normal. On top of the political crisis and infighting of the last few years, this was a vote with a significantly wider electorate than before. In 2019, following civil society advocacy, a constitutional amendment was introduced to lower the minimum voting age from 21 to 18, bringing Malaysia in line with most of the world. The change also automatically registered everyone aged 18 or over to vote.

Following these changes, over six million more people were eligible to vote in 2022 compared to 2018, an increase of over 40 per cent. Over 15.5 million people voted in 2022 compared to around 12.3 million in 2018, leading to long queues on polling day.

This election may perhaps have marked the start of a generational shift in Malaysia’s politics, which has long been dominated by men of advanced years. Even Anwar, once the fresh face, is 75 as he takes the top job for the first time. Former prime minister Mahathir stood again in this election, at the age of 97, heading a new party that humiliatingly won no seats. There were early signs in this election that parties might be starting to think they should select younger candidates and target their campaigns at the new mass of younger voters.

Voices from the frontline

Tharma Pillai is co-founder and Advocacy Director of Undi18, a youth civil society organisation (CSO) that successfully advocated for the lowering of the voting age.


In the first year we ran a digital advocacy campaign, something unheard of in Malaysia, where most civil society work and campaigning take place very much on the ground. We came into existence as a hashtag movement in February 2017.

At the time we were not registered as a CSO. We didn’t have funding. Our team was very small. The campaign was our passion project. But due to effective digital mobilisation, it looked like we had so many supporters. That prompted the media to pick up on our story.

We were always willing to work with people of all political leanings. Many Malaysian CSOs tend to side squarely with the opposition because for a long time our country had one-party rule. We of course worked with the opposition, but we also engaged with other parties. That also made us open to engaging with whoever criticised our movement and addressing any grievances directly.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get too far with the government. We knocked on many doors and talked to many people, but the government viewed young people as inclined to vote for the opposition, so they disliked the idea of lowering the voting age for reasons of political calculation.

But we gained traction with the opposition, which raised the issue in their manifesto. This gave us a lot of leverage when the opposition eventually came to power in 2018. They had promised to deliver change on this issue.

But not having a supermajority, the government needed to negotiate with the opposition. We did our best to engage with political parties across the spectrum, especially those in the opposition, to convince them that this was not a partisan initiative and all could benefit, them included. We pleaded with them to support the bill for the sake of young people, democracy and Malaysia’s future. Luckily, the then-Minister of Youth and Sports was a very strong ally of ours and helped us navigate these obstacles.

Thanks to these efforts, in July 2019 this became the first constitutional amendment in Malaysia’s history to pass with 100 per cent of the votes in the lower and upper houses of parliament.

In Malaysia, ‘young voters’ are defined as those between 18 to 40 years old. After the changes, they account for 51 per cent of the electoral roll, up from 40 per cent. This means young people could make change happen. Malaysian politics are dominated by old people. At one point we had the oldest prime minister in the world

Change started happening even before the polls opened. In the run-up to the election, many senior leaders were replaced with younger candidates in order to appeal to young voters. Overall, the number of young and new candidates increased. And all parties had more youth-centric manifestos, addressing some of the concerns expressed by young people, such as corruption, climate change, the state of the economy and healthcare.


This is an edited extract of our conversation with Tharma. Read the full interview here.

Uncertain outcomes

This novel electoral experience produced no decisive outcome. But many voters made one thing clear: they’re tired of BN. This once-dominant force, six decades in power, now holds only 30 of the 222 seats in the Dewan Rakyat, parliament’s lower house. Its vote has more than halved since its last election win in 2013.

This left the alliances that finished first and second both claiming they could form a government, while both falling a long way short of the winning post of 112 seats. PH, with Anwar at its head, came first with 81 seats, down on its 2018 performance. PN made the biggest gains, more than doubling its seats to stand at 73.

As well as BERSATU, PN’s member parties include the Malaysian Islamic Party, a far-right conservative religious party. It accounts for 41 of PN’s seats, making it the biggest single party in the group and indeed in parliament.

Key concerns in the election included corruption, economic downturn and the cost of living. But the results may also reflect a deepening of ethnic division and carry the potential for restriction of minority rights.

Malaysia is a federal and multicultural country, with around half of its population made up of ethnic Malays and sizable minorities of people of Chinese and Indian heritage. Since the 1970s, government policies have favoured Malays, including in education, employment and housing. Proponents characterise these policies as affirmative action, critics as discrimination against non-Malays. Anwar’s coalition, which includes multi-ethnic parties, opposes these policies, which is part of the reason conservative parties mobilised in 2020 to block his route to power. In contrast, PN is firmly in favour of continuing to privilege Malays.

There are powerful currents seeking to defend the status quo. In 2018, the new government came to power promising to respect various United Nations human rights agreements. But it quickly backtracked on a commitment to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination after this caused backlash, including protests organised by UMNO and the Malaysia Islamic Party, which saw it as a threat to the special status of ethnic Malays and Islam. Parties on the right have increasingly emphasised religion as a key component of Malay identity.

It’s against this backdrop that the rise of an Islamist party that could potentially enter a future government is cause for concern. Malaysian Islamic Party officials have expressed support for the Taliban in Afghanistan and defended child marriage, and in Kelantan state, which the party governs, it has introduced gender segregation and head-covering rules.

These very different perspectives on Malaysia’s multicultural reality made calls for PH and PN to work together in a national unity government futile. It therefore fell to Malaysia’s king to intervene. The country has a unique system, with nine state-level monarchs, from which the federal head of state is drawn by rotation every five years. Abdullah of Pahang, the current king, exercised his constitutional duty to appoint a prime minister in the event of no party having a majority, choosing Anwar.

The king’s decision brought an end to the immediate post-electoral uncertainty, but continuing volatility can be expected. Anwar apparently has the support of BN – a potentially uneasy alliance given his past criticism of its corruption – and some smaller parties, including regionally based ones. But he has been challenged by PN’s leader, former prime minister Muhyiddin, to prove he has majority backing in parliament. Muhyiddin has claimed he can command a majority. Anwar will face an early test when parliament reconvenes on 19 December. Malaysia’s era of rapid turnover of prime ministers may not be over yet.

Time to act

If Anwar’s spell as prime minister isn’t cut short, he faces a big agenda. He’s earned a reputation as a reformer, supporting calls for democratic change, good governance, judicial independence and inclusion. Now Malaysia’s civil society will be looking for him to act accordingly, including by repealing laws that restrict fundamental rights, which were increasingly misused under recent prime ministers, including in the context of the pandemic emergency.

While PN and BN made no mention of civil society or civic freedoms in their campaigns, PH made a manifesto commitment to repeal several laws that hinder freedom of expression and improve media regulations. The challenge now will be to stick by these, and civil society will also keep calling for the country’s heavy restrictions on protest to be reversed.

As well as bridging across ethnic divides, the government should address inclusion in other key areas. One is the country’s treatment of migrant workers and refugees, who were marginalised and victimised in the government’s pandemic response.

Another is the ongoing discrimination against and criminalisation of LGBTQI+ people. Anwar should have more incentive than most to change the sodomy laws. In the past he’s described these laws as archaic, but more recently, perhaps to try to garner conservative votes, called on religious people to rise up against the recognition of LGBTQI+ people.

Things are getting appreciably worse for Malaysia’s LGBTQI+ people. In October, 24 people were arrested when police raided a gathering and were charged with crimes such as ‘indecent acts’ and ‘encouraging vice’. The rise to prominence of the Malaysia Islamic Party threatens to make life for LGBTQI+ people even harder.

Having come to power without a majority and in contested circumstances, Anwar might be expected to proceed cautiously. He will need to build and maintain alliances. But it would be a mistake to do so at the cost of pulling back from his commitments to improve civic freedoms. He should instead unlock support for the promised reforms by enabling civil society to organise, mobilise and speak out. There’s room for a reformist coalition that combines his parliamentary support with a mobilised civil society – but this can only if work if civic space is sufficiently open.


  • Malaysia’s new government must repeal laws that restrict the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.
  • The government should restart the process to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination.
  • The government must commit to respecting the fundamental rights of Malaysia’s LGBTQI+ people.

Cover photo by Annice Lyn/Getty Images