KUALA LUMPUR: As political players from all sides in Malaysia plan their next moves amid a state of emergency, Bersatu information chief Wan Saiful Wan Jan acknowledges that his party’s leader, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, has taken a “huge gamble”.
While emergency rule could help Mr Muhyiddin buy more time to consolidate his position as head of government, the question regarding whether it could backfire on him remains.
“Tan Sri Muhyiddin … left his previous party, Umno, to fight kleptocracy, to protest against corruption (and) wrongdoing, to champion integrity in the last election. Suddenly, he took this huge step that’s very risky for him,” says Mr Wan Saiful.
“In terms of his political reputation, it’s a big gamble. It definitely is. But I think by (him) doing this, we can see (his) real character … He’s not thinking about politics (or) himself … (but) about what’s best for the country.”
The emergency decree issued on Jan 12 by the Malaysian king — on the advice of the PM — came a day after the government announced a second nationwide lockdown to help curb the soaring number of coronavirus cases in the country.
Since then, Malaysia’s fight against COVID-19 has shifted into high gear. The number of daily cases has fallen from a record high of 5,728 on Jan 30 to 1,575 yesterday, the seventh straight day below the 2,000 mark.
Last week, Kuala Lumpur and the last three states in lockdown exited the movement control order (MCO). All states are now on a conditional MCO or in recovery mode.
So might the prospect of containing the pandemic, and of an economic rebound going forward, be enough for Mr Muhyiddin to stave off the challenges from his political opponents?
The programme Insight explores whether his gamble looks likely to pay off, or not.
A week after the emergency declaration, the government unveiled its fifth stimulus package, worth RM15 billion (S$4.9 billion), to shelter people and businesses from the full impact of the pandemic and the lockdown.
This will have a positive economic impact and includes cash handouts to help vulnerable groups, though economists feel that it will not be sustained the longer the pandemic continues.
“It’s going to be very short-term, but it’s necessary,” says Dr Sulochana Nair, the vice-chancellor of the Binary University of Management and Entrepreneurship.
Business owner Brian Gomez, however, says the stimulus package has failed to address the financial problems faced by many businesses like his. He is co-founder of Merdekarya, a bar and live music venue in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.
“I don’t think the latest package is anywhere close to being enough,” he says. “Just on our row, I think that three lots have shut down … I’m pretty sure many businesses are going to go under.”
Back in November, the Finance Ministry forecast that the economy will grow between 6.5 and 7.5 per cent this year.
But just over a fortnight ago, Moody’s Analytics marked Malaysia’s outlook for this year as “at risk” of slower growth owing to MCO 2.0.
And the stimulus package provides only “temporary relief”, points out Adib Zalkapli, Malaysia director at consulting firm BowerGroupAsia.
“Government assistance can’t be a long-term solution. So there must be a proper action plan, especially post-lockdown, post-pandemic, post-emergency … clear economic recovery plans that can help those who are badly affected.”
The concern is that the government might not “act fast and fix this problem as soon as possible”, says Mr Ibrahim Suffian, co-founder and programmes director of the Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research.
This year was supposed to be a year of growth and recovery … With a high number of cases, that doesn’t look so promising.
‘THE WORST IS BEHIND US’
Finance Minister Zafrul Abdul Aziz, however, maintains that the gross domestic product growth figures are within reach, though MCO 2.0 makes for a “challenging” journey.
“We’ve shown even previously, in the year 2020, when there’s a need to add more fiscal injection into the economy, we’d do it. But I think we have to do it at the right time,” he says.
“When we announced Budget 2021 (in November), the amount was around 322.5 billion ringgit, which is the largest Budget we’ve ever announced. It doesn’t mean that we can’t adjust the Budget to prioritise the areas that we want to prioritise.”
Last year, Malaysia’s economy shrank by 5.6 per cent, its biggest contraction since the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis.
But as with many other countries, progress in vaccination rollouts — which began in Malaysia on Feb 24 — has now raised expectations on the economic front.
MCO 2.0 is also “very different” from last year’s lockdown, notes Mr Zafrul. About 90 per cent of economic activity this time was allowed to continue following strict standard operating procedures.
This resulted in an output loss of RM300 million per day compared with RM2.4 billion per day during the first MCO.
“We have many reasons to believe that the worst is behind us. I’m certain that Malaysia will emerge stronger by the end of the year,” he told Bernama this week.
This is also the reason for the emergency ordinance, he tells Insight.
“The emergency declaration is really focused on our fight against COVID-19,” he says. “We want to allow the nation to continue and … we want to secure the economic recovery path.”
UMNO BIDING ITS TIME
Two months on, what the state of emergency has effectively done is to also keep a lid on a political rebellion against Mr Muhyiddin’s one-year leadership.
The suspension of Parliament has made it impossible for his political opponents to push through a motion of no-confidence against him.
A week before the emergency decree, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) was threatening to pull out of his Perikatan Nasional coalition government — a plan of sorts to force a snap election.
Now, with the state of emergency scheduled to last until Aug 1, the party is just biding its time, according to Umno Supreme Council member Tajuddin Abdul Rahman.
“Once it’s lifted, what’s going to happen? We’re back to normal life, and there’s Parliament sitting,” he says. “Then we have to call for a vote: Who has the majority? Who has the command of the House?”
Party members like him and Johor Umno deputy chief Nur Jazlan Mohamed allude to the fact that Umno is Malaysia’s largest political party and thus should not play second fiddle to Bersatu.
“This government is prone to failure,” says Mr Nur Jazlan.
“Umno is worried that in the longer term, if we’re tied up with this government — which is unstable, which doesn’t have the majority at the moment — we also might lose (public) support.”
According to a survey by think-tank Emir Research, conducted at the end of last year, only 35 per cent of respondents saw Mr Muhyiddin’s government as viable, down from 43 per cent in August.
And however the pandemic or the economy goes from here, the politics seem unlikely to change.
“We deserve to lead the (coalition) government because we have more … Members of Parliament,” says Mr Tajuddin. “Umno isn’t part of Perikatan Nasional, politically. Umno has made a stand … We’re not going to be with Bersatu in the next election.”
MUHYIDDIN ‘WILL BE CAUTIOUS’
In the same nationwide survey, almost half of the respondents expressed uncertainty over the economy, the future and the government’s ability to lead. This was even before lockdown fatigue set in among Malaysians following MCO 2.0 and the emergency proclamation.
While there is no curfew, Mr Nur Jazlan feels that suspending Parliament could have consequences in the general election. “Usually, governments that use emergency (powers) will face a backlash from the voters,” he says.
Mr Muhyiddin’s political opponents have repeatedly argued that the state of emergency is but an attempt to strengthen his grip on power.
But the concern that he may use his wide-ranging powers for political purposes appears to be unfounded, at least for now. Apart from additional powers to combat the pandemic, the emergency declaration has not changed the status quo fundamentally.
“There are some measures to try and mitigate this concern,” notes Mr Ibrahim.
“There’s an end date … there hasn’t been a usurpation of power by members of the ruling coalition in states that are controlled by the Opposition, (and) third, there hasn’t been any real curtailment of freedom to express oneself.”
To be sure, Mr Wan Saiful knows “the people will punish us” for any wrongdoing or abuse of power during this period.
“I’m sure Tan Sri Muhyiddin will be very cautious,” he says. “He promised to have an election as soon as possible after (the emergency ends). So I’m sure he doesn’t want to lose the election.”
Without Umno’s support, it is unclear how Mr Muhyiddin can still gain enough to form the next government.
But Mr Wan Saiful sees a stronger Perikatan Nasional as the solution to Malaysia’s political instability because “it’s very risky for any political party today to claim that they have the right to be the most dominant”.
WATCH: The full episode — Saving the nation or desperate move? Muhyiddin's political gamble with state of emergency (47:35)
“That era has ended,” he says. “Do (parties) want to prioritise themselves and let the public see how selfish that decision is, or … make some sacrifices like what Bersatu is doing now?
“Take some risk and say that ‘we’re willing to share’, so that we can work and govern … in a peaceful and harmonious way.”
He feels that in the end, Mr Muhyiddin’s gamble on a state of emergency will pay off, and “all the criticisms will start to subside because people will realise that this is being done for the good of the nation”.
Watch this episode of Insight here. The programme airs on Thursdays at 9pm.