In Malaysia’s constant crisis, conditions are perfect for Muhyiddin the politician

  • Covid-19 is untamed, Mahathir is circling, there are rumbles of royal discontent and he has a razor thin majority in parliament. Yet despite his rocky boat, the prime minister is maintaining his course
  • Not only have people underestimated Muhyiddin Yassin, but he has used this to his advantage to deceive his adversaries and exploit the weaknesses of a disorderly opposition

An unusual series of meetings held last week between King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and the leaders of other key parties created an avalanche of rumours and scenarios for Malaysia, after more than a year of political crisis.

Muhyiddin, who took power in March last year, has never had a strong majority, relying instead on a fragile alliance with the Islamist PAS and two Borneo-based parties. Together they form a majority Malay political front known as Perikatan Nasional. Perikatan Nasional, supported by the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and a few others, is opposed by the vestiges of the former ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim, and Pejuang – the party founded by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in late 2020. 

Last week was a succession of power-positioning from every side of the political spectrum. Mahathir proposed the formation of a special council (Mageran) to take over the management of multiple crises – health, economic, social and political – echoing the National Operations Council created in the aftermath of the 1969 racial riots (the first and only time prior to the coronavirus pandemic that a State of Emergency had been declared in Malaysia). Despite previous promises to not take the leadership again Mahathir offered to coordinate the council.

A mural depicting Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin at government clinic in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: EPA
A mural depicting Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin at government clinic in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: EPA

Rumour has it Hishammuddin Hussein, the minister of foreign affairs, tried to get Umno MPs’ to support him in a bid for the prime minister’s post while other members of the cabinet have already been eyeing which direction to jump in anticipation of a possible change of government.

Currently, Umno is tiptoeing around the question of its support for the government but is facing internal disagreements. Meanwhile, Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan has not proposed any new plan but to reopen parliament. Once again though, like in late 2020 when he tried to take over parliament, Anwar assured the king he had the numbers, in vain.

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin receives the first dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at a government clinic in Putrajaya. Photo: AFP
Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin receives the first dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at a government clinic in Putrajaya. Photo: AFP

Meanwhile, the king met his royal counterparts. This meeting was a prelude to the Conference of the Rulers to be held on June 30. While the Conference of the Rulers includes state chief ministers and the prime minister, this reunion was exclusively for royals. After the meeting, two statements were published separately, one from the king and one from the rulers. While both said there was a need for an urgent sitting of parliament and questioned the government’s management of the coronavirus pandemic, the king’s statement seemed not as strongly worded as the rulers’. In an interview with this author, Mahathir said that while “the king may be reluctant to remove his own appointee … the rulers pointed clearly at the failure of the cabinet. It is a condemnation of the present government”.

Since appointing Muhyiddin as prime minister, the king has carved out a more prominent role for himself in the country’s politics – and this despite the criticisms he and the queen have faced in recent weeks. The State of Emergency declared this year gives extended ruling powers to the prime minister while parliament is suspended. In this extraordinary setting, legal experts do not agree on the nature and extent of the king’s powers over the cabinet.

However, the latest moves by the palace are not just symbolic and have shaken the political scene. While some politicians expect the king to solve the rivalries between government and opposition, others hope His Majesty will ensure the government’s stability. Some argue that the king has gone beyond his prerogatives, though Mahathir argues “this is inevitable”. “When the problem is actually the government … we need to resort to an authority above the government … even if this authority is not supposed to be political,” Mahathir said.

Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. Photo: Reuters
Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. Photo: Reuters

Muhyiddin has acknowledged the royal statements but maintained his plans under the prerogative given to him by the State of Emergency and has proposed a National Recovery Plan. According to the plan, the reopening of parliament could occur in September or October if the number of Covid-19 cases drops below 2,000 infections per day. If so, Malaysian politicians have only a few months left to play their cards. There is one thing we can be sure of though: if the country remains at this political impasse, societal and economic breakdown may not be far behind. 

These last few months before the State of Emergency ends are an opportunity for Muhyiddin to build a stronger majority before parliament reopens to avoid a no-confidence vote (or win an election should one be called). Not following the royals’ opinions could provoke a backlash and cost the prime minister popularity among the Malay majority who are attached to royal traditions.

Muhyiddin is proving again that he is a resourceful politician who thrives in a crisis. The former deputy prime minister has had a long career serving leaders and had always been perceived as a loyal number two until he was appointed prime minister to the surprise of many observers.

While most people may have underestimated the man, this has in fact served him to deceive his adversaries.

Over the past few months of constant crisis, Muhyiddin has carefully exploited the weaknesses of a disorderly opposition. The prime minister is successfully maintaining his course, despite being on a very rocky boat, as he navigates the challenges of both a fragile majority and a global pandemic.

In Mahathir’s words: “Muhyiddin is an astute politician who knows how to play politics.”

By : Sophie Lemière (A Visiting Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, University of Nottingham, Malaysia) – SCMP

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