Malaysia’s Muhyiddin Yassin wins draft budget vote, overcoming leadership test

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, under fire on multiple fronts and grappling with weak parliamentary support, on Thursday won a crucial victory as lawmakers greenlit a draft 2021 budget.

The budget bill moved past the so-called policy stage following a voice vote in the 222-seat parliament.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin waves to reporters before his cabinet announcement in Putrajaya, Malaysia, March 9, 2020. -Reuters

It can still be defeated in upcoming debates in the committee stage of deliberations.

Before Thursday, the prospect of Muhyiddin suffering an embarrassing defeat loomed large, with no clear indication if he commanded the support required to pass the bill.

Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz made last-minute tweaks to the bill following three weeks of debate but did not fully accede to six demands by the opposition Pakatan Harapan alliance led by Anwar Ibrahim.

The expansionary budget included a 20 billion ringgit (S$7 billion) top-up to an existing fund for Covid-19 aid packages as well as an allocation of one billion ringgit to combat an ongoing third wave of the disease in the country.

Mahfuz Omar, an MP from Pakatan Harapan, had sought individual balloting on the bill but the move did not materialise, with less than the req

Among the 12 MPs who backed Mahfuz was the 95-year-old former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who was ousted by Muhyiddin in March.

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (right) exchanging a fist bump with International Trade and Industry Minister Azmin Ali after the parliamentary session in Kuala Lumpur yesterday. The PM is barely holding on to a majority, with just the needed minimum of 112 MPs.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The 2021 budget had served as a sticking point for Muhyiddin, who has yet to decisively show that he has the backing of a majority of MPs eight months into the job.

Political scientist Wong Chin Huat told This Week in Asia that the vote’s outcome suggested the country’s main parties – including the three constituent parties of Pakatan Harapan – had “struck a deal for the budget to be passed”.

“I think the opposition has made a major misstep by arousing and then letting down their ground,” Wong said, referring to earlier intimations from Pakatan Harapan that it would vote down the bill if its demands were not met.

James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, said he believed Thursday’s vote meant Muhyiddin’s position as prime minister was “quite safe” for the foreseeable future.

A handout photo. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin commands a slim majority in Malaysia’s parliament.
PHOTO: Reuters

The prime minister came to power in March by inducing a self-coup of the Pakatan Harapan government led by the elder statesman Mahathir, to which Muhyiddin had belonged.

The country’s king Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad subsequently determined that Muhyiddin commanded majority support of parliament – with the help of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) – and appointed the 73-year-old as prime minister.

Since then however, the newly forged Perikatan Nasional coalition has struggled to govern as Umno piled on fresh demands in exchange for propping up the new government and as Pakatan Harapan leaders plotted to swiftly unseat Muhyiddin and retake power.

Amid the turmoil, Muhyiddin in October sought the suspension of parliament on the pretext that a state of national emergency was required to deal with escalating Covid-19 cases.

The move was fiercely opposed by Pakatan Harapan, which claimed the under-fire prime minister was seeking to suspend the legislature to avoid a defeat of his budget. Sultan Abdullah vetoed the plan.

Subsequently, Muhyiddin changed tack and promised to seek bipartisan support for his budget.

“If we love our country … we will try to save it in any way possible,” he said in a televised address, explaining that the budget would target the vulnerable as well as addressing the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent national lockdowns.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin poses for a picture at the parliament after won the budget vote in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Reuters

However, when unveiled, the budget did not fulfil several of the formidable Pakatan Harapan opposition coalition’s demands, including subsidy extensions and an increase in education spending.

The budget aims to spend 322.5 billion ringgit (about US$78 billion) in 2021 – which would be a 2.5 per cent increase from the 2020 budget – even though the country faces a deficit crunch. It also extended debt relief measures for the country‘s low-income groups.

The budget also includes several Covid-19 measures including increased spending on Health Ministry supplies such as protective gear and expanding tax relief to include immunisation expenses for when a vaccine is developed.

The government planned to channelled millions of ringgit into mental health measures, social centres to address the issue of rising domestic violence, and the establishment of childcare centres to assist frontline workers and women.


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