Key moments of PM Muhyiddin’s time in office, and what might lie ahead for Malaysian politics

CNA revisits the highlights of the Perikatan Nasional government over the last eight months.

KUALA LUMPUR: Mr Muhyiddin Yassin, 73, was all smiles as he stepped outside his home.

He told journalists: “I would like to thank everyone who have given their moral support to me … I hope all Malaysians will accept the decision that has been announced today.”

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin speaks during his cabinet announcement in Putrajaya, Malaysia March 9, 2020. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng/Files

It was Feb 29, the day King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah announced that after meeting all Members of Parliament (MPs), he found that the parliamentarian who likely commanded the majority was Mr Muhyiddin.

The Pagoh MP was sworn in the following day.

Looking back eight months since then, Mr Muhyiddin has had bigger issues on his plate than working to gain the support of Malaysians, as he oversaw the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Malaysia’s former interior minister Muhyiddin Yassin (C) and his family wave to the press outside his home in Kuala Lumpur on February 29, 2020. Muhyiddin was named as Malaysia’s new prime minister on February 29, royal officials said, signalling the end of Mahathir Mohamad’s rule and return to power of a scandal-plagued party. Mohd RASFAN / AFP

COVID-19 has not only been a health crisis, but it has also decimated the economy and hit livelihoods.

At the same time, the veteran politician has been clinging on to power through a razor-thin parliamentary majority.

This grip was again tested recently, as opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim claimed that he managed to garner enough support from parliamentarians to topple the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government.

Some of the MPs backing Mr Anwar were believed to be from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), a party within Mr Muhyiddin’s PN’s coalition. Some UMNO figures are perceived to have been seeking a fairer redistribution of government positions and ministerial posts, as UMNO has the largest number of lawmakers in the ruling coalition.

On Oct 23, the prime minister proposed to the king that a state of emergency should be declared amid rising COVID-19 cases and political instability. A state of emergency would have seen the upcoming parliamentary sitting on Nov 2 suspended.

His proposal was rejected by the king and the rulers’ council.

Now, all eyes will be on Mr Muhyiddin when he tables the 2021 budget on Nov 6. The question is whether it subsequently passes in parliament.

Ms Ariel Tan, political analyst and coordinator of the Malaysia programme from Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), told CNA that the prime minister has to assuage public unhappiness over the recent spate of “political machinations”, a spike in COVID-19 infections and economic hardship.

“There is overwhelming cynicism and fatigue on the part of the public with politicians, and a palpable desire for the country to focus on curbing COVID-19 and economic recovery,” said Ms Tan.

The budget could be a true test as to whether Mr Muhyiddin’s government has staying power or conversely, he could inch closer to the undesirable title of being the shortest serving prime minister in the history of Malaysian politics.

CNA looks back at the key moments of Mr Muhyiddin’s tenure so far, and explores what may be in store for Malaysia’s political scene.

“SHERATON MOVE” SPARKS POLITICAL EARTHQUAKE

In late-February, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition’s tenure in Malaysia’s government ended abruptly after a flurry of political activity.

The coalition had governed on the backdrop of the succession issue: When would then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad honour his promise to pass the baton to Mr Anwar, the leader of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)?

During a PH presidential council meeting in that month, politicians aligned to Mr Anwar were reportedly vocal in pressing for a transition date, but those aligned to Dr Mahathir maintained that he should serve out the full term.

Malaysian politicians Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim shake hands at a press conference in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Feb 22, 2020. (Photo: AP/Vincent Thian))

At the end of the meeting, a consensus was reached that the latter would get to decide when he would step down and Mr Anwar would support him in the meantime.

However, this did not stop a surprising turn of events two days later, when a group of PKR MPs, led by the party’s then deputy president Azmin Ali, and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) led by Mr Muhyiddin, had an audience with the king, along with four other parties not in the PH coalition.

Following that, more than 130 MPs from across the political divide showed up for a dinner gathering at Sheraton Hotel in Petaling Jaya.

The event, reportedly orchestrated by Mr Azmin, was dubbed the “Sheraton Move”. It was described as a major step for Mr Azmin and Mr Muhyiddin to coral support from parties like UMNO, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC).

While all this happened, Mr Anwar was hosting a prayer session at his residence. In a speech, he acknowledged that “treachery” had been committed and there were attempts to break up PH to form a new government.

“It involves our former friends from Bersatu and a small group from PKR who has betrayed us,” said Mr Anwar.

The next day, Dr Mahathir, who was not present during the Sheraton dinner, submitted his resignation as prime minister, triggering a political earthquake.

This was swiftly followed by Bersatu, as well as a splinter faction from PKR led by Mr Azmin, withdrawing from PH.

The resignations and withdrawals toppled the PH coalition, less than two years after it romped to a historic victory in the 2018 General Election, breaking Barisan Nasional’s (BN) 60-year rule since the country’s independence.

The king accepted Dr Mahathir’s resignation, but also appointed him as interim prime minister to manage the country’s administration until a new Cabinet was formed.

Over the next two days, the king then summoned all MPs to the palace to declare their choice of candidate for prime minister.

At this juncture, Bersatu had declared that the party MPs backed Dr Mahathir to continue as prime minister. Meanwhile, the remaining three component PH parties – PKR, Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah) said they would back Anwar.

On the other hand, UMNO and PAS called for parliament to be dissolved to pave the way for fresh polls. 

Meanwhile, Dr Mahathir mooted the idea of a non-partisan unity government that cuts across party lines – an idea rejected by PH, UMNO and PAS.

Malaysia’s King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah hands out packages of fast food to reporters camped outside the National Palace. The king is currently meeting members of parliament to ask who they support as premier. (Photo: AFP/Syaiful Redzuan)

Following the two-day consultation with all MPs, the king then announced that he could not identify any parliamentarian who commands a majority. The monarch then met with all party leaders to present their preferred prime minister candidate.

During the period, intense political talks among senior Bersatu members ensued, as Dr Mahathir maintained that he would not work with UMNO, a party he felt was deeply entrenched in corruption, especially with senior members like former prime minister Najib Razak and party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi who were on trial for graft.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (left) receives documents from King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah (right) before taking the oath as the country’s new leader at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur. (Photo: Bernama)

In a twist of events, Bersatu, UMNO and PAS then backed Mr Muhyiddin to be their prime minister candidate, while PH, including Mr Anwar’s PKR, backed Dr Mahathir.

After a week of power struggle, the king found that Mr Muhyiddin was “the parliamentarian who likely commands the majority” in parliament, and elected him to be prime minister.  

MUHYIDDIN’S ROUTE TO POWER MEANT HIS ADMINISTRATION HAS “UNCERTAIN LONGEVITY”: ANALYST

RSIS’ Ms Tan noted that the manner in which Mr Muhyiddin came to power has affected his ability to lead a stable government .

“He began with an uncertain and publicly unproven majority, without the ​expected support of MPs aligned with Dr Mahathir and Parti Warisan Sabah’s Shafie Apdal. This in turn hampered his efforts to entice more MPs to join him, given his administration’s uncertain longevity,” she said.

There are 222 seats in Malaysia’s Dewan Rakyat, and Mr Muhyiddin would require at least 112 MPs to support him to garner a simple majority.

Although it has never been established how many MPs support him as prime minister, a one-day parliament session in May, which featured the king’s speech, saw 114 lawmakers on the government benches with Mr Muhyiddin, while 107 sat with the opposition bloc.

PN component party UMNO has 39 MPs, forming the biggest block in the alliance. Yet, UMNO had already been disgruntled that its numerical superiority has not translated into power in key Cabinet positions.

Among those who were not awarded posts were several senior UMNO figures who were embroiled in graft trials, including Najib, Ahmad Zahid and UMNO treasurer Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor.

Ms Tan noted that Mr Muhyiddin’s pledge to fight corruption and form a clean government gave him some “breathing space from angry voters” who had voted against BN in 2018 over the corruption scandals.

Malaysia’s opposition leader Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (L) was a close ally of Najib Razak (R), who suffered a shock election defeat in May over allegations he oversaw the plundering of billions of dollars from a state fund AFP/MOHD RASFAN

However, she outlined that the leaders, especially Najib and Ahmad Zahid, are also the “most influential leaders in UMNO who are now posing the greatest challenge to Muyhiddin”.

“All this contributed to a sense of insecurity in Muhyiddin’s camp. His lieutenants have led the effort to overcome this insecurity by ​seeking control of state and federal government positions, which in turn worsened relations​ with UMNO,” she said. 

“There are leaders in UMNO who see it as in their interest to support Muhyiddin​ ​for now, but they would find it hard to argue against any option whereby UMNO could take back the premiership again, ​including ​via another general election.”

During that special parliamentary session on May 18, the first time the Lower House convened since PN took over as federal government, the king warned lawmakers not to drag the country into another bout of political uncertainty. 

He said in his royal address that differences in opinion among the MPs should not end in enmity and personal attacks. 

The sitting, which marked the opening of the third session of the 14th parliament, only featured the king’s speech. 

No motions, including Dr Mahathir’s proposed vote of no-confidence against the prime minister, were tabled.

LEADING THE RESPONSE FOR SECOND WAVE OF COMMUNITY INFECTIONS 

During the same weekend when Mr Muhyiddin was appointed prime minister, a mass religious gathering was being held at the Sri Petaling mosque near Kuala Lumpur.

The event, attended by 16,000 people, eventually triggered a second wave of COVID-19 infections across the country and formed what was dubbed the tabligh cluster.

The first wave which had happened between Jan 24 to Feb 15 had a total of 22 cases, but this second wave was relentless, boosting the number of cases to the thousands.

The attendees who contracted the virus during the event brought it back home to their respective states, resulting in a spike in infections nationwide.

Mr Muhyiddin, on the advice of the health ministry and other government officials, imposed the Movement Control Order (MCO), a partial lockdown, in March.

Malaysia’s movement control order came into effect since Mar 18, 2020. (File photo: Bernama)

The MCO meant that public gatherings and movements in the whole country, including religious events, sports meets, social and cultural activities was prohibited. Citizens were also barred from going overseas and foreigners stopped from entering the country.

The MCO, which first took effect on Mar 18, was then extended for three times, with Mr Muhyiddin making televised announcements urging the citizens to comply with health protocols to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

After six weeks of economic inactivity, Malaysia eased into a “conditional MCO” beginning May 4,allowing almost all economic sectors to reopen

Subsequently, controls continued to be lifted over time. Daycare centres, hair salons, beauty parlours, open markets and night markets were given the green light to reopen. 

Malaysia later entered the RMCO phase from Jun 10, where almost all social, educational, religious and business activities, as well as economic sectors reopened in phases, with standard operating procedures to be adhered to. Interstate travel was also permitted while the country’s borders remained closed.

Health workers perform a COVID-19 test in Malaysia. (File photo: Reuters/Lim Huey Teng)

Four months of effort seemed to have paid off as Malaysia began to report mostly single-digit increase in daily new cases – and even zero local transmission on a few days.

Malaysians could finally heave a sigh of relief and Mr Muhyiddin was lauded by some observers for leading the government through this phase of the pandemic.

On top of that, Mr Muhyiddin announced economic stimulus packages worth hundreds of billions of ringgit to help people and businesses weather the impact of COVID-19.

This included a six-month loan moratorium on loan repayments from April until September.

Some observers maintained that credit could also be given to the public servants in the health and economic ministries for advising on policies that were successful during this period.

Professor James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, told CNA that Mr Muhyiddin was aided by Malaysia’s “developed health system” and was working alongside capable Health Ministry director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah.

Malaysia health director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah. (File photo: Bernama)

So in a sense, he was lucky he inherited a good health ministry in Malaysia, capable of planning and implementing the lockdown. Muhyiddin took the advice of good specialists,” said Prof Chin.

However, he pointed out that whatever goodwill Mr Muhyiddin had earned from helping Malaysia overcome the second wave was eroded when Malaysia suffered the third wave of the pandemic.

“He knew that the cases in Sabah could eventually spread across the entire country, but they didn’t do anything about it and proceeded with the state election,” said Prof Chin.

In political terms, Mr Muhyiddin’s government faced little disruptions from April until August, as the country focused on overcoming the pandemic. 

A parliamentary sitting on Jul 13 was another indication that Mr Muhyiddin still had the support of the majority of MPs, albeit only by a small margin.

The sitting saw the appointment of a new speakerand deputy speaker in the Lower House now controlled by PN. 

Half of the 222 MPs backed the motion tabled by Mr Muhyiddin to remove Mr Mohamad Ariff Md Yusoff, a retired Court of Appeal judge appointed by the previous PH government, as speaker. 

A total of 109 others voted against the bid, while one MP was absent. Mr Azhar Azizan Harun, who was Election Commission chairman until his resignation on Jun 29, took over as the new speaker. 

MAHATHIR’S BERSATU MEMBERSHIP REVOKED 

Mr Muhyiddin also garnered a small political victory during this period, when the party memberships for five Bersatu federal lawmakers, including Dr Mahathir, the party chairman, were revoked in May. 

Bersatu said they acted against the party’s constitution when they sat with the opposition bloc during the parliamentary sitting on May 18, and not with the PN coalition led by Mr Muhyiddin. 

Dr Mahathir then filed a lawsuit against Bersatu for revoking his membership, but this was later dismissed. 

In August, Dr Mahathir founded a new party, Parti Pejuang Tanah Air (Pejuang), which included his son Mr Mukhriz Mahathir, Dr Maszlee Malik, Mr Amiruddin Hamzah and Mr Shahruddin Salleh.

Dr Mahathir said that the party, which has yet to be registered with The Registrar of Societies (ROS), is focused on fighting corruption and defending the rights of the Malays and bumiputras.

Politicians who pledged their support for Mahathir Mohamad’s new party include (from left) Amiruddin Hamzah, Mukhriz Mahathir, Marzuki Yahya, Maszlee Malik and Shahruddin Salleh. (Photo: Facebook/Dr Mahathir Mohamad)

A month later, Mr Muhyiddin received a further boost when he led the Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) coalition to victory in the Sabah state elections, toppling the Warisan-led government led by Mr Shafie.

VICTORY IN SABAH STATE POLLS A DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD

The polls had been triggered after former state chief minister Musa Aman’s announced in July that he had a simple majority to form a new multiparty government for the state, after he was acquitted and discharged of 46 criminal charges involving corruption and money laundering.

Mr Musa said he would seek an audience with the Sabah’s head of state Juhar Mahiruddin, but Mr Shafie pre-empted the takeover attempt and successfully persuaded the governor to dissolve the state assembly in September.

However, Mr Muhyiddin and his Cabinet garnered criticism because the polls were conducted during a period when COVID-19 clusters started to form in the southern part of the state – in Semporna and Lahad Datu.

The election meant that there was a surge in travel of voters and politicians between the peninsular and Sabah, and this accelerated the spread of the virus across the country.

Health ministry staff collect samples for COVID-19 testing from a resident in Bandar Utama, Malaysia on Oct 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

The COVID-19 pandemic situation had been under control in Malaysia between June and August, but following the election, the number of cases soared to 4-digit daily record highs.

Malaysia was then truly in its third wave of tackling the coronavirus, as various locations across the country, including Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur, had to be placed under CMCO.

However, the Sabah election victory was also seen as a political victory for Mr Muhyiddin.

Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) president Muhyiddin Yassin (third from right) praying together with Sabah Bersatu chief Hajiji Noor (third from left, in red), and Sabah United Malays National Organisation leader Abdul Rahman Dahlan (second from right) during nomination day of Sabah’s state elections on Sep 12, 2020. (Photo: Facebook/Muhyiddin Yassin)

Mr Muhyiddin spent many days campaigning in Sabah on behalf of GRS. He urged Sabah residents to vote for GRS byunveiling a manifesto that promised more jobs, funds to develop infrastructure and more support for the poor.

During the middle of the campaign, Mr Muhyiddin also announced the “Kita Prihatin” package, which would provide financial help worth RM10 billion (US$2.4 billion) in the form of cash aid, assistance for small businesses and a wage subsidy scheme to help Malaysians across the county get through the pandemic.

Observers said that the victory indicated that Sabahans endorsed Mr Muhyiddin’s leadership and cemented his position as prime minister.

However, it also drove a wedge between the prime minister and UMNO. Mr Muhyiddin’s allies in the GRS coalition won 17 seats while Barisan managed just 14, and this paved the way for Bersatu’s Hajiji Mohd Noor to be appointed the next chief minister, ahead of UMNO’s choice, Bung Moktar Radin.

The unhappiness between UMNO was exacerbated by the fact that in July, UMNO’s Najib Razak was sentenced to 12 years in jail and fined RM210 million (US$49.38 million), after he was found guilty in his first corruption trial involving millions of ringgit linked to state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

ANWAR SAYS HE HAS THE NUMBERS

To complicate matters for Mr Muhyiddin, during the campaigning stage in Sabah, Mr Anwar made an announcement in Kuala Lumpur that sent shockwaves across the country.

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim speaks during a press conference after meeting the nation’s king in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. Anwar met the king Tuesday in a bid to form a new government after claiming he had secured a majority in Parliament. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

In a press conference, Mr Anwar announced that he had garnered a “strong, formidable, convincing majority” of MPs to overthrow Muhyiddin government. He neither specified how many MPs were behind him nor the identity of the MPs who had crossed over from PN.

Mr Muhyiddin, who was campaigning in Sabah, cast doubts on Mr Anwar’s claim, by pointing out that the PKR president did not name the MPs who were supposedly backing him.

Mr Muhyiddin later dismissed his claims as mere allegation. “Until proven otherwise, the Perikatan Nasional government still stands firm and I am the legal prime minister,” said Mr Muhyiddin.  

Meanwhile, UMNO’s Ahmad Zahid said he received information that many UMNO and BN lawmakers have stated their support for Mr Anwar to form a new government. 

Ahmad Zahid, who is also BN chairman, said UMNO and BN were not component parties of PN, so any support for the PN government comes from individual MPs.

Mr Anwar met with the king on Oct 13 to present his claim of parliamentary majority, but the palace later pointed out that the opposition leader did not produce a list of names of those backing him.

FAILED BID TO DECLARE STATE OF EMERGENCY

Meanwhile, as COVID-19 cases in the country increased to record daily highs, Mr Muhyiddin was granted an audience with the king on Oct 23, during which he suggested that a state of emergency be declared across the country.

In a statement released subsequently, the king rejected this proposal. However, the king’s statement was also seen as an endorsement of the government’s ability to lead the country out of the pandemic.

“His Majesty strongly believes in the ability of the Government under the leadership of the Prime Minister to continue to implement policies and enforcement actions to curb the symptoms of the COVID-19 epidemic from continuing to spread,” said the statement.

The statement also called for political parties to refrain from excessive politicking and not do anything that will jeopardise the stability of the government.

File photo of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak walking beside his deputy Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. (Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin)

UMNO’s supreme council subsequently held two meetings over the next week. After the first meeting on Oct 26, UMNO said will maintain its support for Muhyiddin’s government and agreed that the party would not cooperate with PKR and the Democatic Action Party.

After the second meeting on Oct 29, UMNO said that all its ministers will stay in the Cabinet for now, amid talk of a possible Cabinet reshuffle, with some suggesting that there might be a deputy prime minister from UMNO. The party also reiterated calls for a general election to be held once COVID-19 was under control.

ANWAR’S TAKEOVER ATTEMPT ON HOLD, BUDGET WILL LIKELY PASS: ANALYSTS

Ahead of the tabling of the budget, analysts said that the threat of a government takeover by Mr Anwar seems to be over for the time being.

Prof Chin said: “Anwar’s challenge to take over Muhyiddin government is based on UMNO MPs jumping over, and that threat has been neutralised based on what has been announced in the Supreme Council meetings.

“So UMNO has decided to move forward with status quo and because the whole episode has scared Muhyiddin, he will probably be more willing to negotiate with UMNO to give additional influence,” he added.

Political analyst from Sunway University, Wong Chin Huat, said that Mr Muhyiddin has been able to contain the challenge of Mr Anwar because those who support the latter’s claim for parliamentary majority have not publicly come out, possibly for fear of retaliation if Mr Anwar’s attempt fails.

He added that quelling the dissatisfaction from UMNO will prove to be more difficult.

“Meanwhile, containing UMNO for Muhyiddin is a trade off between immediate and delayed threat – an expansion of the the frontbench will strengthen UMNO, allow UMNO ministers to gather more resources to fight take on Bersatu when GE15 can be forced upon Muhyiddin,” said Dr Wong.

On the tabling of the national budget and subsequent vote, analysts predicted the budget will be passed with parliamentary approval.

On Saturday (Oct 31), Mr Muhyiddin called on all MPs to set aside their political differences to ensure that the budget is passed to tackle the pandemic. 

“A form of understanding can be framed among MPs to ensure budget 2021 is passed with both government and opposition MP support,” he said.

Malaysia’s budget for 2020 is tabled on Oct 11, 2019. (File photo: Bernama)

Prof Chin said: “My prediction is that the budget will be passed without much problem and Mr Muhyiddin will survive the budget process. But after that, Anwar and UMNO may start to feel restless, and the political issues will resurface.”   

Although she agreed that the budget will likely pass, RSIS’s Ms Tan added that a key question to consider is whether Mr Muhyiddin will be able to continue as prime minister, as he would need to accept terms for support from various sides – the opposition as well as parties within his coaltion.

“The terms now reportedly include demands for new positions from UMNO leaders, and the removal of certain ministers and interesting​ly​, ​reforms to strengthen parliamentary checks on the executive branch, from opposition leaders,” said Ms Tan.

“The Perikatan Nasional government may remain in power even with a different PM, until the next general election, for which there appears to be little enthusiasm right now among the various parties except for UMNO, perhaps,” she added.

All in all, Mr Muhyiddin’s future may continue to shrouded in uncertainty, regardless of what happens over the next few weeks.

The political veteran will need to call on his experience and grit to overcome the potentially challenging times ahead.

By : Amir Yusof – CNA

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