Why Malaysia needs a ‘confidence and supply’ government, not a state of emergency

  • If PM Muhyiddin Yassin can get the support of 40 or more opposition MPs, coalition partner Umno’s 39 seats would lose their blackmail power
  • A confidence and supply arrangement would produce a stable government scrutinised with the strongest ever opposition, argues Wong Chin Huat

When Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin went on Friday to seek an audience with Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, the nation’s king, he was expected to announce the proclamation of a state of emergency in the name of fighting Covid-19.

His cabinet had made the decision that morning in a special meeting attended by security chiefs, but at the National Security Council meeting with the king, Muhyiddin failed to obtain royal consent.

Instead, Sultan Abdullah will meet his eight fellow sultans – representing Malaysia’s nine Malay states – to take a collective decision on the matter.

While constitutional experts say that the king has no discretionary power over emergency proclamations and must follow the executive’s advice, the sultans do enjoy vast informal powers and command much respect – especially among ethnic Malays. This has increased significantly since the long-dominant United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and its ruling Barisan Nasional coalition began their electoral decline starting in 2008.

Barisan Nasional supporters pictured in Malaysia before the 2018 elections. Photo: Handout

A state of emergency has been proclaimed in many countries in their fight against Covid-19, but it would be naive or deceptive to compare Malaysia with Spain, which imposed a state of emergency on Madrid earlier this month, or France, which is considering extending its emergency until February.

Muhyiddin does not want a lockdown as extensive or intensive as those examples, and indeed the country – which has recorded triple-digit daily increases in cases since Sabah’s state elections in September – has already reintroduced lockdown measures in the hard-hit states of Sabah, Selangor and in Kuala Lumpur.

In fact, Muhyiddin’s officials were at pains to explain that it would be business as usual under the state of emergency, “without politics getting in the way of dealing with a health crisis”.

More fitting comparisons to Malaysia’s current predicament would be Israel, which has used a state of emergency to stop anti-government protests, and Thailand, which attempted to do the same.

Malaysia has been embroiled in a political crisis since February, when Muhyiddin brought down the reformist Pakatan Harapan government by pulling 26 of his Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu) MPs out of the ruling coalition, who were joined by 10 more from the People’s Justice Party led by Anwar Ibrahim – then the promised successor of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

This was part of a worsening trend of party-hopping and coalition-switching in Malaysia that now threatens Muhyiddin himself, as head of an ad hoc coalition comprising Bersatu, Umno/Barisan Nasional, the Malaysian Islamic Party and regional parties from Sarawak and Sabah that commands a wafer-thin majority of 113 in the country’s 222-member parliament.

While the new parliamentary speaker installed by Muhyiddin in July has intimated that he will keep motions of no-confidence at the bottom of agenda, the prime minister is fearful of an ambush during the five week-long budget debate set to begin on November 9.

If every opposition MP were to turn up to vote against his budget, the absence of a mere six government parliamentarians would see the budget defeated and Muhyiddin ousted, as a failure to pass such a “supply bill” is equivalent to a loss of confidence under Malaysia’s parliamentary system.

The biggest threat to Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, centre, could come from within his ruling coalition. Photo: Reuters

His biggest threat comes from within, as Umno – the coalition’s largest partner with 39 seats to Bersatu’s 32 – has long been resentful of the disproportionate division of spoils among the bloated 72-member frontbench: Bersatu having 26 of the ministerial-level jobs while Umno has only 17.

More fundamentally, Bersatu and PAS – both of which began life as Umno splinter organisations – compete with their progenitor party for the same Malay-Muslim nationalist constituency, and so make ill-suited permanent coalition partners under Malaysia’s “first-past-the-post” electoral system.

Because suitors of the same love interest cannot be sincere friends, the three parties which overthrew the multiethnic Pakatan Harapan government in the name of Malay unity earlier this year are now busy plotting how to outplay one another in the next election.

Unless the electoral system is changed, Umno and Bersatu are like conjoined twins who cannot both survive as separate entities in the long run. The thorniest question between them: does Bersatu get to contest the 15 constituencies that were brought into the fold by Umno turncoats?

People queue outside a polling station to cast their votes during the 2020 Sabah state election. Photo: Bernama/DPA

Last month’s state elections in Sabah proved a bitter lesson. Umno had forced the polls by orchestrating the defection of Pakatan Harapan lawmakers, and allowed Bersatu to keep six constituencies brought over by Umno turncoats – only to be repaid for its generosity by Bersatu’s local associates challenging it in six other constituencies.

To add insult to injury, Bersatu also grabbed the chief minister’s job for one of its members even though it won three fewer seats than Umno.

Anwar tried to capitalise on this anger towards Bersatu by assembling a new alliance – including Umno – in September to replace Muhyiddin, but his plan fizzled out without the king’s blessing.

And just two days before talk of an emergency began, Muhyiddin managed to secure a political ceasefire with Umno, which many expect to be followed by a reshuffle of the cabinet to include more Umno ministers.

How can this political stalemate be resolved in such a way that both the government and opposition are functioning? Muhyiddin, and Malaysia, have four options …

Wong Chin Huat

Malaysia is paying a heavy price as the country’s politicians – amid a global pandemic and looming recession – compete for top jobs by breaking and reforming alliances rather than focusing on policy.

How can this political stalemate be resolved in such a way that both the government and opposition are functioning? Muhyiddin, and Malaysia, have four options.

First is fresh elections – the option favoured by Umno and the Malaysian Islamic Party, which are expected to do well at the expense of Bersatu in such a scenario. This option has been completely ruled out after the Sabah state elections were blamed for the country’s recent spike in coronavirus cases. – but even if the polls were to go ahead, party-hopping may still continue afterwards.

The second option is an expansion of government to include more Umno ministers, or to form a government of national unity – both of which would merely postpone its inevitable implosion as supposed allies continue to sabotage each other while awaiting the next general elections.

Third on the list is a state of emergency, which would rule out fresh polls and be tantamount to an open admission by the prime minister that he has lost control of his own government. Such a “self-coup” would not only be economically costly as markets panic and investors withdraw, but would likely trigger mass protests such as those seen in Thailand and Indonesia.

The fourth option is a “confidence and supply agreement” with the ousted Pakatan Harapan coalition, which has failed to gather a new majority and also does not want fresh polls.

As long as Muhyiddin can get support from 40 or more opposition MPs on confidence and the budget, Umno’s 39 seats would lose their blackmail power. To secure such an agreement, Muhyiddin would have to concede to some key reforms, but why not if this can let him complete his term?

A confidence and supply government would be a completely new chapter for Malaysia’s democracy: a stable government scrutinised with the strongest ever opposition in an empowered parliament.

Muhyiddin should act rationally, even if just for his own self-interest.

By : Wong Chin Huat – SCMP

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