PM Ismail Sabri undecided on timing of Malaysia general election, says political situation still unstable
In an interview with foreign media including CNA to mark his first anniversary in office, the prime minister said that pushing back the timing would mean that Malaysia may be facing a tough global economic environment, especially in terms of inflation.
But holding the polls earlier would mean he will be faced with the growing public displeasure and a possible backlash over the procurement scandal involving the littoral combatant ships (LCS), said the prime minister.
The Malaysian parliament's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the project to construct the six warships at a cost RM9.14 billion (US$2.05 billion) was awarded by the Ministry of Defence to Boustead Naval Shipyard Sdn Bhd (BNS) through direct negotiation during the Barisan Nasional rule. The government has paid RM6.08 billion or 66.65 per cent of the cost so far.
Five LCSs should have been completed by August 2020 - the first was due in April 2019 - but none has been delivered. Current and former defence ministers have denied responsibility.
While Mr Ismail Sabri said that he will continue to hold talks with top five leaders in the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) on the election timing, he noted that ultimately the king has the final say.
He added that the country is not politically stable yet after the last general election in 2018.
"We have three prime ministers in a term of five years. I think it is not something to be proud of. That shows that our political scene is not stable."
The five-year mandate of the current government will expire in July 2023, and GE15 must be held within 60 days of the dissolution of parliament.
It is the prerogative of the prime minister to decide when the election is called, although the king must first give his consent to dissolve parliament.
In May, Mr Ismail Sabri said during an interview with Nikkei that he would wait for "the right time" to call an election, given inflationary pressures partly stemming from the Ukraine conflict.
However, UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has been very vocal and persistent in calling for the general election to be held immediately.
Over the weekend, Mr Ismail Sabri told Malaysian media that the timing of the next general election requires more detailed and careful consideration before any decision to dissolve parliament can be made.
He said that GE15 can be called if the two factors - current issues and economic uncertainty - are first tackled and stabilised.
“We are concerned with the projected economic uncertainty next year, but the longer we wait, the more difficult the situation will be, so maybe we can have it (GE15) this year.
“But if we say this year, there are just too many ongoing issues that need to be solved. That’s why it is quite a tough decision to make,” he was quoted as saying by Bernama on Sunday.
On Monday, a majority of UMNO division chiefs gathered at the party headquarters in Kuala Lumpur for a meeting.
According to Malaysian media, the division leaders were given a briefing on preparedness for the 15th general election and they reportedly asked for the general election to be held as soon as possible.
Commenting on the gathering, the prime minister said during the Monday interview: “The party (UMNO) can give its opinion (but) whatever happens outside will not disturb my concentration to work for the country. Because I have a job to do here, which is to handle the welfare of the nation and the country.”
“If I am affected by what happened, I don’t think we can achieve 8.9 per cent GDP growth or reduce unemployment rate from 4.3 per cent to 3.8 per cent … These are achievements, a testament (that) whatever happened out there will not disturb my focus.”
When asked if he will be vying for UMNO presidency in the upcoming party polls, he said that the focus is on ensuring that UMNO will lead Barisan Nasional to victory in the next general election. Mr Ismail Sabri is currently one of the three vice presidents of UMNO.
“I have not thought of whether I will contest or not, I have not started going to the ground to campaign. For me, the main focus is to win GE15, that’s more important. If the party loses, there is no point contesting in party polls. That’s the same for all the other parties too.”
The role of prime minister has always been held by UMNO’s party president. Presently, Mr Ismail Sabri is the third highest ranking leader in UMNO.
The Registrar of Societies has approved an UMNO constitutional amendment to postpone its party election no later than six months after the general election.
SINGAPORE-MALAYSIA LEADERS’ RETREAT POSSIBLY IN OCTOBER
On bilateral ties with Singapore, Mr Ismail Sabri said he looks forward to meeting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during the next leaders’ retreat.
“It should be in October. Based on the agreement between me and PM Lee, we agree that the retreat will continue as usual. Our suggestion is October.”
“Based on the schedule, yes (it will go ahead), but anything can happen,” he said.
The last leaders’ retreat was held in Putrajaya in April 2019 between Mr Lee and then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Mr Ismail Sabri also said on Monday that he hoped to speed up discussion on reviving the high speed rail project linking Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
“Currently, our minister of transport is in discussions with the Singaporean minister for transport. (It’s an) ongoing process, ongoing discussion. God willing,” he said.
“If possible, we want to be faster, as at the same time, Malaysia is also planning to create an HSR between Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. If can, we want to link Kuala Lumpur-Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur-Singapore.”
He added: “In the future, based on our plan, perhaps it can be linked to China. Progress for a train (route) from China to Bangkok is ongoing, so if possible, we link straight from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, and maybe until China. That’s why we want to hasten the planning.”
The HSR project, which aimed to reduce travel time between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to about 90 minutes, was discontinued after the agreement lapsed on Dec 31, 2020.
In September 2018, both sides agreed to postpone the construction of the HSR until end-May 2020, after Dr Mahathir told reporters he had considered Malaysia's financial situation and how it would not benefit from the project.
Malaysia later requested a further seven-month extension to allow both sides to discuss and assess Malaysia’s proposed changes to the project.
But both sides could not agree on new terms, including Malaysia's request to remove an assets company that would run the railway, and the agreement lapsed. Malaysia paid more than S$102 million in compensation to Singapore for the terminated project.
Last year, Malaysia suggested reviving discussions on the terminated project. At that time, Mr Lee said that Singapore is open to fresh proposals from Malaysia on the project.