At Sheraton Hotel in the early hours of 10 May 2018, the mild-mannered Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin pulled me and Lim Kit Siang aside to ask DAP to support a Bersatu candidate for the post of Johor Menteri Besar. He needed the favour to acknowledge his contribution in swinging the state votes to Pakatan Harapan.
Despite DAP winning the largest number of seats, 14 in total, compared to Amanah with 9, Bersatu 8 and PKR 5 in the state assembly, DAP was not claiming the post of Menteri Besar. Kit Siang was open for discussion. After DAP Secretary-General Lim Guan Eng consulted Amanah President Mohamad Sabu, DAP agreed to support Muhyiddin’s nominee for Menteri Besar.
On 11 May 2018, Sultan of Johor sent an aircraft to pick up Muhyiddin from Kuala Lumpur. I tagged along. It was my first-ever experience on a private jet.
Three months earlier, on 8 February 2018, Muhyiddin and I travelled together on a Malindo low-cost flight after a Pakatan Harapan Johor meeting. He told me that when he was Deputy Prime Minister, he was travelling on a government jet dedicated to him.
As an opposition leader without any privileges, Muhyiddin said he felt good that people appreciated our struggle. When he was in Barisan Nasional, he had not experienced random public paying for his meals at coffee shops or warung just to show support. The public enthusiasm was very encouraging.
On that May 2018 flight, Muhyiddin’s aide told me this was the team’s first experience in a private jet since their boss was sacked as DPM in July 2015. They felt great with GE14 because we created history by doing the right thing for the nation, albeit Muhyiddin’s personal sufferings between 2015 and 2018.
The next day, on 12 May 2018, Pakatan Harapan decided Muhyiddin as Home Minister, Mat Sabu Defence Minister, and Guan Eng Finance Minister.
And the next day 13 May 2018, I was at Muhyiddin’s house, just me and him. He was feeling dejected. He told me he wanted to resign from all positions the night before, because his request to be appointed as Finance Minister was turned down by Dr Mahathir. He was persuaded to stay on.
He also told me that in 1995, being the UMNO Vice-President with the highest votes, and after serving as Johor Menteri Besar for 9 years, he moved to Federal expecting to hold a senior economic portfolio. But Dr Mahathir as the then PM, only appointed him to the most junior position of Youth and Sports Minister. He informed me that Anwar told him to be patient and wait for 1998, hinting that Muhyiddin would be his choice of Deputy Prime Minister.
In deep reflection during that tranquil morning, Muhyiddin said to me that after more than 20 years, after he had served as Deputy Prime Minister for six years (2009-2015), was he still going to serve as Anwar’s deputy should the transition of power between Dr Mahathir and Anwar were to happen? Between us, there were no answer.
Muhyiddin was diagnosed with cancer in July 2018. I visited him twice at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, Singapore. Once by myself and the second time I accompanied Guan Eng. I considered Muhyiddin an elderly friend and was really worried about his health.
In the months after his gradual recovery, in many of our meetings, he confided to me that he was thinking of calling it quits. The illness changed his perspective on life.
The Johor quandary
On 24 April 2019, after Muhyiddin and Dr. Mahathir clashed on the choice of Mazlan Bujang as Johor Bersatu chief, I was with him at his Home Ministry office. He told me he was thinking of throwing in the towel as Dr. Mahathir wouldn’t listen to his views even though Johor was his home state. Muhyiddin was the chairman of Pakatan Harapan Johor Council.
Muhyiddin was upset but would still sign Mazlan’s appointment letter. He told me that Bersatu’s constitution dictated that as president he had to consult and accept the decisions of his Chairman, Dr. Mahathir.
In the subsequent meetings over the next several months, he repeatedly told me that he was still bitter with the Bersatu Chairman over the choice of Mazlan Bujang.
On 2 Syawal (6 June 2019), Muhyiddin told me he has mostly recovered from his illness. His doctor who sat with us at the open house of Muhyiddin’s son also said he was recovering very well. I was relieved to hear the good news.
Fast forward to October 2019. The attempted national political coup put together by the troika of Azmin Ali, Hishammuddin Hussein and Hamzah Zainuddin kicked up huge racial sentiments on both the Malay and non-Malay ends. It was an attempt to form a new Malay unity coalition government without the participation of DAP and Amanah.
Muhyiddin was very concerned that “divergent views among us because of different ideological beliefs are becoming more pronounced now”. The viability of the Bersatu-DAP coalition relations was being seriously questioned and there were huge pressures from the hawks in Bersatu on him to act against DAP.
He hosted a small dinner between top Bersatu and DAP leaders on 29 October 2019 to find ways to save the coalition. Both parties agreed that the extreme narratives on both Malay and non-Malay fronts are resulting in us suffering in the middle. We should do more to hold the coalition together.
The meeting effectively but temporarily fended off the attempted October coup by the troika of Azmin, Hishammuddin and Hamzah using DAP as a bogeyman.
However, Pakatan Harapan’s image did not improve, especially when abused racially by its opponents.
On the night of 16 November 2019, I was in the operations room with Muhyiddin and his inner circle watching the results of Tanjong Piai by-election streaming in. The demoralised Muhyiddin commented that “this was worse than a tsunami.”
Peculiar moves, stranger motives
A special Majlis Presiden of Pakatan Harapan was held on 23 November 2019 with the sole agenda of discussing the presentation by Muhyiddin as chairman of Pakatan Election Campaign Committee.
He outlined the following political challenges:
- Racial sentiments resulting in negative effect on Pakatan’s standing (Isu sentimen perkauman memberi kesan negatif terhadap PH)
- Malays perceived that Pakatan was controlled by DAP (Orang Melayu menganggap PH dikuasai DAP)
- The Chinese perceived that PH was controlled by Bersatu and Dr Mahathir (Orang Cina mengganggap PH dikuasai Bersatu dan Dr Mahathir)
- The question of transition between the 7th PM and 8th PM caused perception that the PH government was not stable (Isu peralihan kuasa antara PM7 dan PM8 menyebabkan rakyat beranggapan kerajaan PH tidak stabil)
- PH Cabinet was perceived as incompetent (Kabinet PH dilihat tidak cekap).
He proposed that Pakatan:
- To handle race and religion issues wisely by taking a more moderate and cautious approach (Tangani isu kaum dan agama secara bijaksana dengan mengambil sikap yang lebih moderat dan berhemah)
- To change the image of DAP being anti-Malay, Bersatu anti-Chinese (Kikis imej anti-Melayu DAP ; anti-Cina Bersatu)
- To discipline party members who criticised own party or criticise leaders of another Pakatan component party (Kuatkuasakan tindakan disiplin terhadap ahli parti yang mengkritik sesama sendiri atau mengkritik pimpinan parti anggota yang lain)
- To handle the transition between the 7th PM and the 8th PM wisely (Tangani isu peralihan kuasa antara PM7 dan PM8 secara bijaksana)
- To reshuffle cabinet to show that Pakatan has a high performance cabinet (Rombak kabinet supaya kabinet PH dilihat berprestasi tinggi)
Muhyiddin proposed that Pakatan should work towards recovering to a level of 60% approval rating within a year’s time.
After the special meeting and as Parliament went into recess, Muhyiddin went for a year-end overseas trip in late December and parts of January. He returned looking very fresh, and he was in very good health.
Mat Sabu met Muhyiddin on 22 January. Their meeting left Mat Sabu with a very strange feeling. The then Defence Minister confided to me that he was worried that Muhyiddin had a new idea that was against the basic principles of Pakatan Harapan.
It seemed that Muhyiddin was thinking of some form of Malay unity government, and he was no longer keen on Anwar becoming the next PM.
On 31 January 2020, I attended a Chinese New Year event with Muhyiddin in Grisek in his Pagoh constituency. Subsequently, I visited Muhyiddin at his house for a long chat on 5February 2020.
He was very friendly to me, as always. But I detected a change in his view. For him, if nothing was changed in Pakatan, then Bersatu would lose badly in the next general election. I gave him a counterview that Bersatu would be eaten up alive by UMNO and PAS in any form of Malay unity coalition, hence the best partner for Bersatu was DAP as there would be little competition in seats.
That day I went away with a feeling that something strange had happened, something that had changed in him but I believed he was still weighing his options.
I thought that the honourable Muhyiddin who always saw the larger picture and was prepared to concede to Dr Mahathir in 2017 would probably still be there. I hoped that the Muhyiddin who repeatedly thought of quitting would not be tempted by worldly positions but would think about his legacies.
But he is only human. Perhaps the temptation was so great he couldn’t resist anymore. Perhaps his frustration with Dr Mahathir, the prompting of the Malay troika of Azmin, Hishammuddin and Hamzah, and his own ultimate ambition of becoming PM finally tilted him towards the Sheraton political coup on 23 February 2020.
I am sad that my elderly friend Tan Sri Muhyiddin has chosen this path. His good deeds in the epic fight against Najib’s kleptocracy are now giving way to an image of power grabbing without a legitimate cause. Perhaps Dr Jekyll has been transformed into Mr Hyde.
Some leaders and supporters of the Muhyiddin-led loose coalition Perikatan Nasional are back with their old nasty tactic of vilifying DAP in their attempt to inflame racial hatred.
Let me just say this to my elderly friend Tan Sri Muhyiddin. I am a DAP member. In four years between 2016 and 2020, each time you asked DAP for help, we never failed you, we did everything possible to assist you. Playing the anti-DAP card to justify the existence of the Perikatan Nasional coalition would only make you seem hypocritical.
Part 1 : The Strange Case of Muhyiddin Yassin
By Liew Chin Tong – a Senator in Dewan Negara, and served as the Deputy Defence Minister, Malaysia from 17 July 2018 to 24 February 2020