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Commentary: The real question behind Anwar Ibrahim’s legal challenge over Malaysia Parliament suspension

Anwar Ibrahim’s multiple failed attempts to mount a challenge to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in recent months have shaken confidence in the former’s leadership. The biggest question regarding Muhyiddin’s fate lies not with Anwar but UMNO, says James Chin.

Commentary: The real question behind Anwar Ibrahim’s legal challenge over Malaysia Parliament suspension

Malaysia opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim speaks to media members outside Bukit Aman police headquarters, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Oct 16, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng)

HOBART: Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s forever prime minister-in-waiting, is on the move again to depose Muhyiddin Yassin.

After his failed attempt to remove Muhyiddin back in September last year, Anwar is now launching a campaign to remove Muhyiddin based on the belief that the proclamation of emergency in Malaysia has no legal basis.

Just two days ago, Anwar filed a lawsuit against Muhyiddin Yassin as prime minister and the Malaysian government in a bid to have the court declare that Muhyiddin gave unlawful advice to the Agong to suspend Parliament during the emergency. The suit does not challenge the legality of the emergency but the suspension of parliament.

In addition, he has claimed that about 114 Members of Parliament (MPs), which constitute more than half of the Malaysian Parliament, do not support the proclamation of emergency.

If this move succeeds, and when Parliament is reconvened, then Anwar will get his chance to “test” the numbers. He can move a motion that the MPs do not support the proclamation of emergency.

In addition to the court action, Anwar has also written to the King expressing the same, that the majority of MPs opposed the emergency.

READ: Commentary: Why Anwar Ibrahim’s longheld dream of becoming Malaysia PM keeps getting thwarted

READ: Commentary: Frustrated with tightened COVID-19 restrictions, Johor residents hope this MCO is the last


Many in the Malaysian intelligentsia think that the State of Emergency was called to halt efforts to unseat Muhyiddin and to give him a breathing space of six months, until the end of emergency in August. Until then, it is almost impossible to remove Muhyiddin since Parliament is suspended.

While Anwar’s move has the implicit support of the majority of the opposition, there are murmurs and questions.

Is Anwar trying to regain his battered reputation after last September’s fiasco? 

Anwar’s reputation among the English-educated middle class in Klang Valley, probably one of the most important segment of the Malaysia political class, were not only hugely disappointed that Anwar could not deliver the number of MPs he claimed to have support to topple Muhyiddin. 

They were simply flabbergasted at how many times he was defeated.

Anwar failed a second time in November when he failed to gather enough votes to defeat Muhyiddin’s Budget, which passed on a knife’s edge majority.

Malaysia's Finance Minister Zafrul Aziz, standing left, delivers the 2021 budget speech at parliament in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Friday, on Nov 6, 2020. (Photo: AP)

Those missteps shook the confidence of many Malaysians who began to entertain thoughts over whether it was time for Anwar, Mahathir Mohamad, Muhyiddin and the entire “old gang” to retire and allow a new generation of Malaysian politicians to take over.

The talk was not mere chatter in cyberspace and kopitiams. It led to some serious soul-searching in the Democratic Action Party (DAP), the biggest party in the Malaysian Parliament and Anwar’s biggest partner in the Pakatan Harapan coalition. If DAP pulls out of PH, PH is essentially dead.

Even Anwar’s close Pakatan Keadilan Rakyat supporters began to question his political acumen.

For some time, Anwar was seen as a political magician who managed to rise like a phoenix after two stints in jail. 

He was partly responsible for the defeat of the Barisan Nasional in 2018, then one of the longest political coalition in power in the world, having ruled Malaysia since independence. Within months of PH’s victory, he was pardoned by the king and released from prison.

READ: Commentary: Malaysian king steers a country through rough waters

From 2018 until the fall of the PH government in February 2020, Anwar had purposely kept out of the PH administration although he did come back as an MP.

He garnered a lot of sympathy when Mahathir reportedly refused to step down to hand over power to Anwar despite an earlier pledge.

When PH fell apart in February, Anwar was out-manoeuvred by Muhyiddin. Since then, he has been trying to remove Muhyiddin.

READ: Commentary: A convenient state of emergency amid challenging times in Malaysia

But he does not have the support of Mahathir, who has been working through Pejuang, Syed Saddiq’s new party, whose efforts to register itself as a political party has met with opposition by the Registrar of Societies.


Unfortunately, Anwar’s latest move will likely fail for several reasons. For one, he doesn’t have popular support or public interest on his side.

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was a leading member of the last government and seen by many as a prime minister in waiting. (Photo: AFP/Mohd RASFAN)

Most Malaysians do not see the proclamation of emergency as a deliberate political move by Muhyiddin to stay in office. They gave Muhyiddin the benefit of the doubt. They think there is a reasonable chance the imperative for the emergency is a spike in COVID-19 cases.

They do recognise that Muhyiddin benefited politically from the proclamation of the emergency but then again, most take a more practical, relaxed attitude about politics.

The reality is that daily life for them has not change since the proclamation of emergency. There were already restrictions in place under the Movement Control Order (MCO) to suppress the spread of COVID-19 and the proclamation did not add new curbs to businesses and workers.

READ: Commentary: Malaysia goes slow on COVID-19 reopening for good reason

Most Malaysians are more worried about their livelihoods. The Malaysian economy is in deep trouble. 

The Budget passed last year did not manage to resuscitate the ailing economy as many had hoped. Millions are still on track to lose their jobs and the manufacturing sector has not fully re-opened.

Many Malaysians take the view that the emergency, even if imposed for political reasons, is a game among politicians who are more flustered over it. 

They rather politicians concentrate on containing COVID-19 and restarting the economy but otherwise are less invested in the announcement. Hence the muted reaction from the ground.

READ: Commentary: Malaysia a kinder and stronger society six months into COVID-19 fight.

The courts is also unlikely to rule on this case to make an order for Parliament to reconvene. 

In fact the court may not even hear this case since most court cases as suspended. Priority will be given to cases in the public interest, such as corruption cases as criminal trials resumed this week, Chief Justice Maimun Mat said last week.


Muhyiddin and his gang might think they have been clever in dodging a bullet until the State of Emergency is lifted, but they would be wrong.

If Muhyiddin does not get COVID-19 under control and stabilise the economy, come August he will have to accept the full political consequences. The majority of Malaysians have given him one big chance and if he does not deliver, the mood will be unforgiving.

In the meantime, Anwar will try his best to use the emergency to stir up the political class against Muhyiddin. Unfortunately, Anwar does not hold the key to Muhyiddin’s political survival.

The only political players who can pull Muhyiddin down during the emergency are UMNO members who make up Muhyiddin’s government.

READ: Commentary: UMNO’s fear that Bersatu could destroy it does have some basis

UMNO was supposed to decide on its future with Muhyiddin at its general assembly later this week, but this meeting has been postponed to the second half of this year.

Emergency or not, UMNO will have to decide fairly soon if it will support Muhyiddin’s government in power. The proclamation of emergency has not altered its political unhappiness with Muhyiddin. At most, it has simply added another argument against Muhyiddin.

Thus, the real question is not what Anwar can do to muster opposition to the emergency but what UMNO is plotting during this period behind the scenes away from the public spotlight. 

Listen to Malaysians coping with a new wave of COVID-19 share their very different experiences of living through the pandemic in Johor, Kuala Lumpur and Sabah:


Professor James Chin is Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania and Senior Fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia.

Source: CNA/sl


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