Coronavirus strikes Malaysian parliament, but glimmer of hope for budget

  • Parliamentary sittings in final meeting of the year may be cut short after several officers test positive for Covid-19
  • Some opposition members claim real motive is to stifle no confidence motions in Muhyiddin’s leadership

Malaysia’s parliament opened on Monday with a glimmer of hope that a federal budget with bipartisan support could be agreed, albeit with stringent conditions, despite increasing doubts about Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s grip on power. However, the sitting was cut short when it emerged several officers had tested positive for Covid-19, raising questions over whether the rest of the year’s sittings would also be curtailed.

Malaysia’s King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah with Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. Photo: AFP

The nation’s de facto law minister, Takiyuddin Hassan, told the lower house a decision on whether sittings would end at 1pm or 5.30pm would be made on a daily basis, except for the November 6 sitting during which the 2021 budget is expected to be tabled.

“The longer we are here the higher the risk,” said Takiyuddin, explaining that sanitising the building would take more than two hours a day.

Opposition politicians reacted with frustration, with some speculating the real reason for the limits was because 25 of the 64 motions submitted for the 27-day meeting involved votes of no confidence in Muhyiddin’s leadership.

Grappling with a razor-thin majority in the 222-member lower house as well as threats to his administration from warring factions within his Perikatan Nasional coalition and claims of MPs switching allegiance to opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Muhyiddin is battling to hold on to power.

A mural depicting Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in Kuala Kumpur. Photo : Reuters

Having become prime minister in March following a political coup that toppled the Pakatan Harapan administration from power, Muhyiddin recently proposed a political emergency be declared to prorogue parliament but was rebuffed by the nation’s king, who deemed it unnecessary.

“The shortened hours work to Perikatan Nasional’s advantage since it means less time for other business, specifically these votes of no confidence. There might even be fewer readings of the budget bill, which will speed up its passing,” said academic and political scientist Azmil Tayeb.

With parliament structured so that parliamentary questions and government business consume mornings, ending the next four days by lunch time before the budget discussions would ensure “no surprises of any non-governmental businesses like motions of confidence and no-confidence”, said political scientist Wong Chin Huat of Sunway University.

Following a call by the king for an end to the bickering, the finance ministry has met opposition politicians to discuss the budget bill in the hope of gaining bipartisan support.

“Both Pakatan Harapan and the United Malays National Organisation [Umno] have raised several suggestions on the budget. If the budget unveiled this Friday shows that these calls all fall on deaf ears, then these would be the battleground points during the budget debate. If the minister of finance is adamant about not making concessions, then the opposition would have legitimate grounds to vote down the budget,” said Wong.

A doctor collects a sample for a coronavirus test from a baby in Subang on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo: AP
A doctor collects a sample for a coronavirus test from a baby in Subang on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo: AP

“Falling short of that, the opposition can at least put forward some motions to change the budget plans during the committee stage, which if the government resists, would be passed by force and Muhyiddin’s parliamentary majority would be called into question.”

A bipartisan approach, however, would be far less disruptive and “an optimal way to ensure the recovery momentum and the fight to suppress the coronavirus resurgence are not derailed”, said economist Yeah Kim Leng, also of Sunway University.

Given the sluggish economy – a direct consequence of a months-long national lockdown in which businesses were closed – the government’s fiscal deficit and debt levels were likely to hit the higher end of the expected range, said Yeah, due to more business relief, job and income support measures. He said these measures were unlikely to be excessive as the government would not want to alarm rating agencies.

Pakatan Harapan has put forth six “key fiscal and financial measures” required for a unity budget, including expanded social protection, the extension of bank loan moratoriums, and more spending on development.

“This budget consultative process is not an expression of support or acceptance of the political and moral legitimacy of the present federal government,” said opposition stalwart Lim Guan Eng.

“If any of the key six measures proposed by Pakatan Harapan are rejected, then there will be no unity budget that can work to benefit the nation, our national economy and the people.”

Meanwhile, the scandal-tainted former prime minister Najib Razak was appointed chairman of Barisan Nasional Backbenchers’ Club, meaning that he will be able to instruct Barisan Nasional members on topics to raise during debate.

Malaysian budget airline AirAsia aims to shrink fleet size by returning planes to lessors
Malaysian budget airline AirAsia aims to shrink fleet size by returning planes to lessors

The Barisan Nasional coalition, of which Najib’s Umno was lead party, had administrated the nation for over six decades until its shock loss in the 2018 general election. Soon after that loss, Najib was slapped with a litany of charges related to his role in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, and has since been found guilty of seven.

Najib’s appointment to the backbench club, said analyst Awang Azman Awang Pawi of University Malaya’s Institute of Malay Studies, showed the leader was “still relevant” despite facing at least 12 years in prison pending his appeal.

“It is difficult for Barisan Nasional to set aside Najib when facing big issues such as the 2021 budget,” the analyst said.

As the head of these backbenchers, said Wong Chin Huat, Najib could officially command the action of Umno lawmakers. “This will give him a lot of bargaining power.”

Umno has recently been the nexus of renewed power tussles as the party deliberated its support for Muhyiddin.

Najib had warned Umno that it risked defeat at the next election if it continued to cooperate with Muhyiddin, although it ultimately decided to continue backing the ruling Perikatan Nasional government for now.

By : Tashny Sukumaran – SCMP

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