Malaysia gets new PM with history of controversial comments on Jews, Israel

Malaysia’s perennial opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was sworn in as prime minister before the king in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday, ending a five-day political impasse after inconclusive polls.

The ceremony at the palace closes the chapter on one of the most dramatic elections in Malaysia’s history, after no party managed to secure a majority to form a parliament for the first time since independence in 1957.

Anwar’s ascension to the premiership caps a turbulent political life, which has not only propelled him into the corridors of power but also landed him inside a jail cell.

“I, Anwar Ibrahim, after being appointed to hold the position of prime minister, solemnly swear that I will honestly fulfill that duty with all my efforts and that I will devote my true loyalty to Malaysia,” the 75-year-old said while dressed in traditional Malaysian clothing.

Malaysia is often seen as one of the world’s most antisemitic countries. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad notoriously said he was glad to be called anti-Semitic, and alleged that “hook-nosed” Jews run the world.

In the late 1990s, Anwar served as finance chief and deputy prime minister under Mahathir, although the two later became political enemies. He has also been accused of making antisemitic remarks, including alleging while opposition leader that Mossad spies were controlling the Malaysian government and that Jews controlled a public relations firm hired by then-prime minister Najib Razak.

Then-Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, during a press conference in Putrajaya, Malaysia, February 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

In 2012, he was suspended by the Malaysian parliament for suggesting that a government campaign pushed for by Razak was inspired by a 1999 Israeli election campaign.

Malaysia has no formal ties with Israel, and is considered notably hostile to the Jewish state. Last year, a World Squash Federation championship in Kuala Lumpur was canceled after Malaysian authorities refused to allow entry to Israeli athletes.

In 2012, Anwar told The Wall Street Journal that “I support all efforts to protect the security of the State of Israel,” comments which sparked outrage in Malaysia, which strongly identifies with the Palestinian cause.

Anwar was forced to respond to the comments as they resurfaced during his recent electoral campaign, saying last month that he is “the number one fighter for the Palestinian people in our country.”

He also had to disavow any ties to Israel or the Mossad after Malaysian operatives — one of whom was allegedly affiliated with his party — purportedly working on behalf of the Mossad took part in a botched operation to interrogate a Palestinian man allegedly affiliated with Hamas.

Campaigning on an anti-graft message, Anwar’s multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan coalition won the most seats in the weekend’s election with 82. But it still fell short of the 112 required for a majority.

Malaysia’s newly appointed Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim signs documents at the swearing-in ceremony at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Nov. 24, 2022. (Mohd Rasfan/Pool Photo via AP)

In an attempt to break the deadlock, the king summoned Anwar and former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, whose Perikatan Nasional bloc came in second place with 73 seats. But no deal could be struck.

The king held a special meeting with other royals earlier Thursday before the palace announced Anwar as the new premier.

For Anwar, the premiership is the culmination of a 25-year rollercoaster. The firebrand former student activist was first poised to take the reins in the late 1990s, after serving as finance chief and deputy prime minister under Mahathir.

But the two had a bitter falling-out over how to handle the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. Mahathir sacked his former protégé, who was also expelled from his then-party the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and charged with corruption and sodomy – charges Anwar said were politically motivated.

Anwar was sentenced to six years in prison for corruption in 1999, and was given an additional nine years on a sodomy charge the following year. Street protests erupted and evolved into a movement for democratic reforms, with Anwar stringing together an opposition coalition from behind bars.

The Mahathir-Anwar tussle has dominated and shaped Malaysian politics over the past four decades, “alternately bringing despair and hope, progress and regression to the country’s politics,” according to Oh Ei Sun of the Pacific Research Center of Malaysia.

Then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, right, raises the hand of reform icon Anwar Ibrahim during a rally in Port Dickson, Malaysia on Oct. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian, File)

The Malaysian Supreme Court overturned Anwar’s sodomy conviction in 2004 and ordered him freed. Anwar re-aligned with Mahathir during the 2018 elections, when his former enemy came out of retirement to challenge incumbent Najib Razak, who was mired in the billion-dollar 1MDB financial scandal.

Their detente scored a historic victory against UMNO and Najib, who is now serving a 12-year jail term for corruption.

Mahathir became prime minister for the second time, with an agreement to eventually hand the premiership to Anwar. He never fulfilled that pact, and their alliance collapsed after 22 months.

In his most recent bid to lead Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy, Anwar once again pledged to end corruption and cultivate multi-ethnic harmony.

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