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Malaysia’s political tussle returns to centrestage as COVID-19 situation eases

Malaysia’s political tussle returns to centrestage as COVID-19 situation eases

Malaysia's Prime Minister Designate and former interior minister Muhyiddin Yassin waves to reporters before his inauguration as the 8th prime minister, outside his residence in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, March 1, 2020. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s unresolved political drama - simmering on the sidelines since the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government as the nation focused on tackling COVID-19 - now appears to be back in the spotlight.

The upcoming one-day parliamentary session on Monday (May 18) will be the first sitting for Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) government, the informal coalition which took the reins in March.

Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad fired an initial salvo in the first week of May by sending in a motion for a vote of no-confidence against Mr Muhyiddin

This motion was accepted by the House speaker, but the government appeared to have blocked this proposed vote by limiting the one-day sitting to just the king’s opening speech, citing the COVID-19 situation as part of its consideration.

Meanwhile, it is rumoured that Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) may expel both Dr Mahathir, its chairman, and his son, Mr Mukhriz Mahathir, its deputy president who led the PH state government in Kedah until this week.

The political heavyweights - Dr Mahathir, Mr Muhyiddin, Parti Keadilan Rakyat's (PKR) Mr Anwar Ibrahim and United Malays National Organisation's (UMNO) Ahmad Zahid Hamidi - are facing different sets of challenges as people’s attention is once again trained on the power tussle.

Analysts told CNA that despite having performed credibly in the management of the pandemic, Mr Muhyiddin needs to prove that he commands a parliamentary majority to shake off the perception of helming a “backdoor government”.

For Dr Mahathir, he has lost his incumbency advantage, having caused the collapse of the PH administration through his resignation. 

Dr Mahathir Mohamad (right), Anwar Ibrahim (centre) and Muhyiddin Yassin leave after a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on Jun 1, 2018. (File photo: Mohd RASFAN / AFP)

The current situation appears to be bleak for Mr Anwar, whose attempts to ascend to the prime ministership were repeatedly dashedIt also remains to be seen whether UMNO, which is used to calling the shots, can accept playing a less dominant role in the federal administration led by a Bersatu prime minister.

The only way to break the political deadlock is to have a proper general election, opined Mr Nur Jazlan Mohamed, an UMNO Member of Parliament (MP) and a former deputy minister. 

“Right now, the parliament can’t even hold a proper debate on His Majesty’s speech this May 18, which is basically the government’s agenda for 2020, because of worries that it might not be approved by the parliament,” said the Johor UMNO deputy chairman. 

The problem would be magnified later on when it comes to reading and approving the 2021 budget, as a government failure to pass it's budget effectively means a loss of confidence as well, he explained.

“A hard reset, a general election to properly obtain a mandate would be the best. At the moment though, only UMNO and BN (Barisan Nasional) feel this is the best method,” noted Mr Nur Jazlan. 

READ: Malaysia reports 36 new COVID-19 cases, no new deaths


While the Muhyiddin administration has performed credibly in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, it now has to overcome the impression of being a backdoor government, say those interviewed by CNA.

Dr Lee Kuok Tiung from Universiti Malaysia Sabah, said the RM250 billion (US$57.5 billion) stimulus packages had won the Prime Minister public support.

“So far, his administration is acceptable because none of the politicians involved in ongoing (court) cases have been appointed. It’s still too early to judge them, but the selection or appointment seems to reflect criteria on integrity and accountability.”

After being sworn in, Mr Muhyiddin had pledged to lead a clean Cabinet.

“In addition, although the more well-off benefit indirectly through mechanisms such as the six-month debt moratorium, the stimulus package also penetrates different segments of society and those who need subsidies including students,” Dr Lee added.

Mr Muhyiddin may have circumvented his opponents in the Monday parliamentary sitting, leaving them trying again during the next session in July, he noted.

READ: One-day parliament sitting with no motions a possible sign of Muhyiddin not commanding the majority, says Anwar

However, Dr Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, a political science professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia, said that the prime minister needs to overcome the impression that he took power via a backdoor.

Mr Muhyiddin had in February led Bersatu out of PH and joined forces with the former ruling coalition to take power. 

“From one point of view, it is a government that didn’t come into power by being voted in as a bloc,” Prof Ahmad Fauzi said, adding that legally, however, all Mr Muhyiddin needed was the majority of MPs in the Lower House.

“To overcome this legitimacy impression, Muhyiddin’s government should be doing its best in all avenues, the most important of which is to be accountable to the electorate via parliament,” he said.

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and his Cabinet members. (Photo: Facebook/Muhyiddin Yassin)

Prof Ahmad Fauzi said the Mr Muhyiddin-led government was compounding its legitimacy issues by limiting the coming parliament sitting to one day.

“We are living in modern times, and many democracies, the latest being the United Kingdom, have gone online … What’s the problem with holding an online parliamentary session and showing accountability that way?” he said. 

To further strengthen his position, Mr Muhyiddin would have to reach out to MPs from the other side of the political aisle and induce them to join his camp, said political commentator Oh Ei Sun.

“Muhyiddin has certainly ensured that most of the MPs in his camp were somehow appointed to various positions in the government or GLCs (government-linked companies), thus consolidating his support base,” Dr Oh pointed out.

READ: Johor state government to establish company in Singapore for boosting trade ties


Although Mr Muhyiddin is Bersatu's president and holding the top post in Putrajaya, Dr Mahathir, the twice-former prime minister, also has his own supporters in the party.

However, it would be a long shot for him to topple Mr Muhyiddin, said analysts.

“Mahathir no longer enjoys the advantage of incumbency, even in persuading the MPs on his side to stay on with him - albeit with divided loyalty to Anwar - what more in calling MPs from the Perikatan side to join him,” said Dr Oh.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad attends a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on Mar 1, 2020, after Muhyiddin Yassin was appointed as Malaysia's next prime minister by the king. (Photo: AFP/MOHD RASFAN / AFP)

“What he needs to do is create a sort of irresistible political momentum, or ‘wind’ in local political parlance, that makes the MPs feel the political advantage is building up on his side, and it’s worthwhile to join him,” he explained.

Dr Oh added that this could be why Dr Mahathir had proposed the no-confidence motion.

This explicit move to bring down Mr Muhyiddin has in turn triggered defections in the Kedah state assembly, as a way of bringing down Mr Mukhriz, who is seen as Dr Mahathir’s proxy.

“Mahathir had always been coy about his real political position, dithering between his mild criticism of the Perikatan Nasional government, and his manifest detestation for Anwar. So both Muhyiddin and Azmin Ali harboured hopes of then winning Mahathir’s support for them.”

Former Kedah chief minister Mukhriz Mahathir. (File photo: Bernama) ​​​​​​​

“Now that he has been explicit in his intent to bring down the new government, the gloves are off and the two (Kedah) assemblymen were understandably instructed to defect to bring down Mukhriz and detract the political ‘wind’ from Mahathir’s camp,” Dr Oh observed. 

Prof Ahmad Fauzi said Dr Mahathir also suffers from legitimacy issues if he wants to style himself as a pretender to the throne, “given that he himself was a major, if not the main cause, for the downfall of the Pakatan government (via his resignation).”


Right after the collapse of the PH government back in March, Mr Anwar, the president of PKR, had announced his disappointment in Dr Mahathir in an interview with CNBC.

In addition, PKR has since been going through a round of housekeeping and defections, involving those aligned with former party deputy president Mohamed Azmin Ali, now a senior minister in the PN Cabinet.

The defections were bound to happen, said party communications director Fahmi Fadzil. The sacking of Mr Azmin on Feb 24 was a culmination of a series of insubordination acts trending back to 2014, when a Selangor political crisis saw Mr Azmin named as the state’s chief minister, he added. 

Politician Anwar Ibrahim reacts as he leaves his home in Kuala Lumpur on February 26, 2020. Malaysia's government has collapsed after the resignation of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, which followed a failed bid by rivals to form a new coalition aimed at stopping leader-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim from succeeding him. (Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan)

“I think for PKR, the situation is how do we rebuild after the worst spate of defections, sackings and suspensions that has happened?” said Mr Fahmi, who is also the Lembah Pantai MP.

On one hand, he explained, the party needs to restructure itself at the grassroots level, and also set the party to rights. “It’s an opportunity to ensure the transgressions of the ‘cartel’ are corrected, and no one repeats building such an unchecked power base in the party that it jeopardises the reform movement,” he said. 

For now, Mr Anwar has essentially no choice but to wait, as the “wind” is not necessarily even with Dr Mahathir, what more him, Dr Oh opined. 

“The party will survive, as it did even when Anwar was in jail and only had one MP.  But it’s future in government again is uncertain.” 

READ: Malaysian couple opts for Skype wedding amid COVID-19 curbs - in their respective homes

Meanwhile, Prof Ahmad Fauzi said it is quite disappointing for Anwar to keep putting his trust in Dr Mahathir despite the broken promises. The analyst was referring to a May 9 joint statement by the two opposition figures that PH was not giving up the fight.

Mr Anwar’s move to work with Dr Mahathir now, would have the effect of preventing further defections of elected PH representatives to the prime minister’s camp.

"However, this gives the image of impatience and desperation for Anwar. In turn, that image of impatience is a mark against Anwar and his style of politics ... (This) made him unpopular, thus costing him some long-time loyalists," said Prof Ahmad Fauzi.


UMNO has the largest number of MPs in the new PN government. 

In the past weeks, the party has made several statements which some say have undermined Mr Muhyiddin’s political ground as prime minister.

Ahmad Zahid, UMNO's president, had issued a letter to Mr Muhyiddin pressing for more government posts. UMNO's deputy president Mohamad Hassan also declared that PN is just an understanding instead of a formal coalition.

Later, in what appeared to be a u-turn, Ahmad Zahid warned party members that UMNO was not in a dominant position, and should not make demands of the current government. On the same day, he declared en bloc support for Mr Muhyiddin should a no-confidence vote take place in parliament.

Malaysia's former deputy premier and UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (C) in Kuala Lumpur on Oct 25, 2018 (Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan)

Prof Ahmad Fauzi noted that UMNO’s role in any coalition has always been the “big brother”, the controlling factor, since the Alliance days pre-independence until Barisan Nasional.

“As it shows now, the loyalty of the UMNO ministers is more to the party, than the prime minister they nominally serve, such as when the health minister was caught on video mistakenly saying 500 countries, he was reporting to Ahmad Zahid, not Muhyiddin,” he said.

Prof Ahmad Fauzi was referring to an incident on social media, where Health Minister Adham Baba said he had spoken to 500 countries in a World Health Organisation (WHO) conference call about Malaysia's COVID-19 measures. He was said to have been reporting to Ahmad Zahid and not the prime minister.

Dr Adham later clarified that he had meant to say 500 participants, and that were about 50 participating countries in that conference call.

READ: Malaysia to recover US$107.3 million after settling 1MDB case against Wolf of Wall Street producer

Playing second fiddle, Prof Ahmad Fauzi explained, is an abnormality that UMNO could not face for long, hence a factor for a potential implosion. 

Concurring, Dr Oh said Ahmad Zahid would like to see UMNO firmly in the driver’s seat, and not as a fellow passenger with Mr Azmin as some sort of elevated conductor.

Currently, Ahmad Zahid, as party president, is an ordinary MP, which is at odds with the tradition in Malaysian politics that senior party figures are given senior Cabinet positions.

United Malays National Organization (UMNO) President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party President Hadi Awang hug during Ummah Unity Gathering in Kuala Lumpur on Sep 14, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng)

“Muhyiddin would have to doll out more political largesse to the UMNO crowd to solidify their support, or to at least firm up PAS' (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia) support for him, as for example with the chief ministership of Kedah,” Mr Oh said. 

UMNO's Mr Nur Jazlan admitted that UMNO could hardly return to its pre-2018 heights. “We won’t reach the same dominant level before GE14, but we will still remain the most influential."

For now, UMNO will throw its support behind Mr Muhyiddin until the next general election. 

"The party will support Muhyiddin as long as he shows he can survive," he said. 

Source: CNA/tx(aw)


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