A tale of 3 kings and a prime minister

Emmanuel Joseph

PM Anwar Ibrahim (right) bows to Cambodian King Norodom Sihanomi at Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 27, 2023. The writer says Anwar seems to be performing better at handling PR, politics and conservatism than his critics, and even many of his supporters, expected. – PMO handout pic, March 29, 2023.

LAST week, the opposition persistently raised an issue – on Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s purported failure in his recent Saudi Arabia trip.

The key issue? His failure to meet with the Saudi king, or his son. 

Is this a valid concern, or scraping the bottom of the “issues” barrel? 

The issue of “reception” by a foreign government isn’t a new one. Indeed, Pakatan Harapan (PH) itself used this against Muhyiddin Yassin’s very first foreign visit as prime minister, in Indonesia. The comparison then was between the “warm” welcome of President Joko Widodo for Anwar. 

Beneath the polemics, is Anwar really being snubbed by the Saudis? The logical answer should be no.

If 1Malaysia Development Bhd is the reason for the cooling of relations, Muhyiddin should be even more liable as the flag-bearer against it, while Najib Razak, who had excellent relations with the Saudis, is now technically on Anwar’s team as well. 

Whatever the reasoning, there can be no winning in this case.  

Had Anwar extended his visit, the critics would hammer on the fact he had to, making him appear desperate to curry favour with people who don’t really want to entertain him.  

In addition to that, they would have played it up as a sign of disrespect to a second king – our own – who had an iftar session planned with Anwar and his cabinet.

Further, had the extension gone beyond the reported two days, he could have offended a third – the Cambodian king whom he visited the day after, and he could have been seen as offensive against three palaces for the price of one. 

The reality is Anwar seems to be performing better at handling PR, politics and conservatism than his critics, and even many of his supporters, expected.

Selecting his battles and building his ally base and relationship with Umno particularly, while placating his old friends in PH, has not been easy, but the time he bought with his balancing act has allowed wounds to heal, bridges to be built, and the notion of an “unstable” government, to be silenced. 

The rare but tacit endorsement from not just Istana Negara, but individual state palaces has helped burnish his credentials as an effective administrator and sets him apart from the past two prime ministers, who were perceived to be managing politics within more than the country. 

PAS and Bersatu know this, and understand the decreasing distrust between Anwar and the Malay-Muslim electorate would shift the discourse from Malay politics to the economy, where control of the national coffers and policy would give the prime minister and his team the ultimate edge that could significantly reduce their relevance on the political stage. 

They also realise they will need to keep the momentum strong enough to make a strong showing in the upcoming state elections.

In the best-case scenario, they would make enough inroads to unseat one or two PH states, but in the worst case, they could instead stand to lose seats, especially in Terengganu and maybe Kedah, states more sensitive to economic realities.  

The shift of Malay politics from the middle ground to the left is incidental to this, as well, but comes with a risk. 

The royal institution, being the rulers of all Malaysians, are firmly rooted in a non-political centre.

To attempt to shift the focal point of politics too far left could risk estranging the people from the royal institution. 

The rulers, being heads of religion in this country, should be also respected in that role, as attempts to share or usurp that would be a ticket to disharmony not only between communities, even within the Malay electorate as well. 

The three Rs – royals, religion and race – in Malaysia are intertwined, and cannot be split asunder. – March 29, 2023.

* Emmanuel Joseph firmly believes that Klang is the best place on Earth, and that motivated people can do far more good than any leader with motive.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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