Malaysian politics for the last several decades have been largely dominated by the same figures, such as former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his one-time protege Anwar Ibrahim, whose feud in 1998 continues to shape the governing landscape until today, almost 25 years later.
These heavyweights remain deeply embedded in the nation’s politics, feeding a sense of cynicism among voters who until recently were hopeful of some change to the status quo after the makeshift Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance in the 2018 national election unseated the powerful Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition from some six decades of power.
Those hopes fell flat after a political coup two years later brought leaders from BN — in particular, those from coalition linchpin Umno — back into government.
Current Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob is an Umno vice-president and had held several different ministerial portfolios before their fall from power.
But the milestone election also marked a shift in political mores. Parties are now under greater pressure to meet voter demands, fuelled further by a shift in demographics as millions of new, younger voters are added to the electoral roll.
This has raised the stakes for political parties, which are scrambling to line their ranks with fresher — and younger — leaders to dazzle the new and reinvigorate the disillusioned.
Here are some figures who may end up reshaping the political landscape in Malaysia.
Rafizi Ramli, PKR
People’s Justice Party (PKR) president Anwar Ibrahim, 75, remains the top figure in the opposition camp. But lately, his deputy president Rafizi Ramli has been gaining attention from voters who see him as a true reformist that made his mark exposing corruption scandals.
A former chartered accountant for Malaysia’s state-owned energy firm Petronas, Rafizi is seen as a driving force behind the mobilisation of mass support for the opposition through social media.
The 44-year-old is often credited with being among the key architects behind the campaign that secured the popular vote for the opposition in the 2013 election.
“He is seen to embody the reform spirit among the urbanites in Kuala Lumpur,” said political analyst Bridget Welsh.
Left out of government in 2018, Rafizi retreated into the corporate world with his big data start-up Invoke, among other endeavours, before making a comeback into politics in March as PKR’s number two. Rafizi’s return helped to inject a team of younger politicians in PKR’s leadership structure.
With Rafizi, PKR distances itself from accusations of nepotism that have long beleaguered the party, which was once led by Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and also had his daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar as one of its vice-presidents.
Anthony Loke, DAP
One of Malaysia’s oldest-surviving political parties, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) was formed in 1966 as a splinter party of Singapore’s People Action Party and is now led by 45-year-old Anthony Loke.
Well-regarded by both his colleagues and critics, Loke had previously made a name for himself as a no-nonsense leader over the two years he served as transport minister during PH’s rule after the 2018 election.
His rise to DAP’s top administrative post was seen as a passing of the baton, as it also marked the end of the “Lim dynasty” following the decision by party co-founder Lim Kit Siang, 81, and his son Lim Guan Eng, 61, to step aside from active party leadership after decades at the helm collectively.
The challenge for Loke is to continue ongoing efforts to shift the party’s image from being a “Chinese party” to a multicultural one, while not alienating its core group of mainly ethnic Chinese supporters that see the DAP as an alternative to the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), a senior BN component party.
To that end, the DAP is set to field the likes of 32-year-old Pahang state assemblywoman Young Syefura Othman and 39-year-old lawyer and legal activist Syahredzan Johan for parliament, both popular names among the Malaysian public.
Khairy Jamaluddin, Umno
Despite having broad public approval and being seen as the architect of Malaysia’s successful Covid-19 immunisation efforts, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin is facing tougher odds within his own party.
The 46-year-old drew a line in the sand in 2018 when he launched an unsuccessful bid for the Umno presidency, losing to eventual winner and then-deputy president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, 69.
He now faces the prospect of losing the parliamentary seat that he has held for the past three terms, after being told to make way for the party’s number two, Mohamad Hasan, 66, who intends to contest there in his first-time bid to enter parliament.
“I was sent a message by [Mohamad Hasan] to get out of the way… worst-case scenario, I won’t contest [in the next election],” said Khairy, better known as KJ.
Instead, the party appears keen on fielding Nizar Najib, the son of disgraced former premier Najib Razak who was recently incarcerated after failing to overturn his corruption conviction linked to a former unit of scandal-tainted fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Should Umno decide to add the 44-year-old Nizar to the candidates’ list, he would likely take over the Pekan parliamentary seat from his father Najib, who in turn inherited it from his father, second prime minister Abdul Razak Hussein who died of leukaemia in 1976.
Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, Muda
The meteoric rise of Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman under the wing of political giant Mahathir saw him making history as Malaysia’s youngest minister when appointed into the PH cabinet in 2018 at just 26.
Following the political crisis in 2020 that caused the collapse of the PH government, Syed Saddiq, now 29, turned down an offer from his mentor Mahathir, 97, to join his new political outfit and instead formed his own youth-centric party, Malaysian United Democratic Alliance, whose acronym Muda means young in Malay.
Having been the face of the successful — and rare — bipartisan vote that amended the constitution to lower the voting age to 18 in 2019, Syed Saddiq is now hoping to tap support from some six million new voters to get his fledgling party into parliament come the next election.
But running a party campaign solely on the youth ticket without having any track record may not be the wisest of moves, according to long-time Malaysian political watcher James Chin from Tasmania University.
“Muda has a lot of spirit but no real machinery and they are totally inexperienced,” said Chin.
Syed Saddiq’s party is now seeking to join the PH coalition, of which PKR and DAP are members, though how far they can go will depend on how well they can navigate friction with the youth divisions of their prospective partners.