Commentary: Even if PM Muhyiddin steps down, few good options for Malaysia’s top role

Commentary: Even if PM Muhyiddin steps down, few good options for Malaysia’s top role

Malaysian political parties are each making secret moves behind the scene leading up to Aug 1 when the state of emergency ends, says James Chin.

Composite picture of Anwar Ibrahim, Muhyiddin Yassin and Zahid Hamidi. (Photo: Agencies)
Composite picture of Anwar Ibrahim, Muhyiddin Yassin and Zahid Hamidi. (Photo: Agencies)

HOBART: After tremendous pressure was applied by the Agong and the general public, the two houses of the Malaysian Parliament will now sit before 1 Aug.

Initially, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government had announced that Parliament will only sit in September, more than two months away, to give the government a chance to catch up on the vaccination programme and, perhaps more importantly, give Muhyiddin time to crunch the numbers to stay in power.

Other than Muhyiddin and his allies, everyone wants Parliament to sit as soon as possible and for the emergency to be lifted as planned on Aug 1.

Malaysians have been incredibly unhappy with the performance of the government towards mitigating COVID-19, the vaccination rollout and shutdown of the economy. Many are waving the white flag in a #BenderaPutih movement to seek help.

For Muhyiddin, there is the added pressure of UMNO, the most powerful party in the ruling coalition, wanting to pull out of the government to force a general election.

People are saying the political pressure became so overwhelming, it led Muhyiddin to check himself into a hospital on Jun 30.

READ: Commentary: Will Malaysian king take PM Muhyiddin’s government to task for huge COVID-19 mess?

THE AWKWARD RELATIONS BETWEEN UMNO AND BERSATU

So what is actually happening in Kuala Lumpur? Are we seeing the last legs of the Muhyiddin administration?

Like most things in Malaysian politics, opacity is the name of the game. All the key players are keeping their cards hidden but making secret moves to position themselves.

Let’s start with UMNO, the most important party in the current government. UMNO is now basically split into two blocs.

The first consists of Zahid Hamidi and Najib Razak, the current UMNO president and his predecessor. They want to pull out of the government and force a general election, unless Muhyiddin agrees to intervene in the corruption cases against UMNO leaders and give UMNO more powers in the government.

Malaysia's opposition leader Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (L) was a close ally of Najib Razak (R), who
Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was a close ally of Najib Razak, who suffered a shock election defeat in 2018 over allegations he oversaw the plundering of billions of dollars from a state fund (Photo: AFP/MOHD RASFAN)

This will probably mean more UMNO ministers including an UMNO member appointed to the deputy prime minister’s position, a position scrapped by Muhyiddin in favour of four “senior ministers”.

The second bloc in UMNO consists of those who want to stay in government but replace Zahid with a new leader such as Hishammuddin Hussein, the current foreign minister. This group thinks a corruption trial against Najib, Zahid and others will force them into political oblivion and thus allow a new, stronger UMNO to emerge.

They do not really want an early general election for fear that the voters will punish them for all the “monkey business” during the current emergency – including concerns over the high price of Malaysia’s vaccination programme and motivations behind the government’s agreement with China to produce Chinese-made vaccines locally.

One interesting thing about the second bloc is that they are not totally against working with the opposition, especially Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Amanah, in creating some form of “unity government” for the duration of the pandemic. But they have reservations working with the Democratic Action Party (DAP).

Muhyiddin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, meanwhile, is caught in the middle. Bersatu’s primary interest is to hold on to the prime ministership - the source of all power in Malaysian politics.

READ: Commentary: Little wonder why Malaysians are angry over celebrity Neelofa’s repeated COVID-19 breaches

This requires cutting deals left and right, taking in defectors from other parties and making sure he can hold on UMNO’s second faction and ensure they will stop Zahid and Najib from destroying his government.

The big problem here is that both UMNO factions think, sooner or later, Bersatu will have to give up the prime ministership to UMNO, or the best-case scenario, Bersatu merges with UMNO before the next general election.

This may sound ludicrous but it is useful to remember that all of Bersatu’s top leaders were once UMNO leaders and UMNO and Bersatu have no ideological differences.

THE OPPOSITION DOES ITS CALCULATIONS

On the opposition side, the two big players are PKR and DAP, both part of Pakatan Harapan (PH). Anwar is still on his quest to be prime minister and in fact, late last year collected a dozen declarations from sitting UMNO MPs supporting him for the top role.

While Anwar is the official PH candidate to be prime minister, outside PKR, there is a growing sentiment among younger Malays he ought to simply retire and hand PKR over to a younger generation. Potential next generation leaders include Nurul Izzah, Rafizi Ramli and Shamsul Iskandar.

Many are angry Anwar’s highly publicised three previous attempts over the past four years to be PM turned out to be non-events and damaged the party’s political credibility.

Anwar Ibrahim and Malaysia's King
Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim and Malaysia's King, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, pose for pictures before their meeting at National Palace in Kuala Lumpur on Oct 13, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Malaysia National Palace/Handout)

DAP, the largest bloc in parliament, is in an even more politically difficult position. 

As the main Chinese-based party in the country, it desperately wants to be in government to represent minority races and more importantly, to promote multi-racialism. Its greatest fear is that Anwar will come to deal with UMNO and abandon or marginalised DAP in a “unity government”.

I wouldn’t be surprised if DAP opens a backdoor channel to UMNO. 

DAP will be hoping to convince UMNO that DAP will be better “inside than outside” any new government given that Chinese voters are throwing their lot behind the DAP and leaving out the Chinese in any unity government can create instability for the ruling coalition.

READ: Commentary: Malaysia's government rests on an uneasy pact

READ: Commentary: Political infighting hampers Malaysia’s COVID-19 response

SMALL PLAYERS

The two minor players here are Mahathir and PAS, the Islamic party. Mahathir is still sulking after losing the prime ministership to Muhyiddin. His Pejuang party could be registered soon. Mahathir is hoping that if the key players cannot agree on anything other than kicking out Muhyiddin, they will turn to him again.

But this is very unlikely as the Malay ground has become cynical over his legacy. The consensus is if he had not resigned in February 2020, all the mess we are seeing in Malaysia today would not have happened. Mahathir is thus lying low for the present moment.

PAS is in a rut as well. Hadi Awang, PAS’s ultra conservative leader, is sick most of the time and most of its ministers in the government have come under criticism in the social media for “double speak”.

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

Officially PAS has said it is behind Muhyiddin but in private, it is willing to work with UMNO as long as the next government does not include DAP.

FOUR SCENARIOS

There are four scenarios on which parties could form the government going forward.

First, Muhyiddin could be cast out while a new government comprising of UMNO and PKR (with or without DAP), Amanah as well as the Sabah and Sarawak parties is formed.

Second, Bersatu together with the second UMNO faction, PKR (without DAP), PAS, Amanah and the Sabah and Sarawak parties. Muhyiddin stays on temporarily as a face-saving measure until the general elections.

Third, Bersatu, the second UMNO faction, together with PAS, the Sabah and Sarawak parties along with defectors from other parties. Muhyiddin stays but the government is paralysed.

Fourth, UMNO’s Zahid/Najib faction gets what it wants and the Bersatu administration stays intact. UMNO then becomes the most powerful force in government.

READ: Commentary: Resurgent pandemic sparks unemployment crisis among Malaysia’s most vulnerable workers

On course the ideal solution is for the government to promise to hold a general election once the pandemic is under control and the bulk of the population is vaccinated.

My reading of the political temperature in KL is such that something “must happen” after the emergency is lifted.

In a month’s time, the sands of public opinion could otherwise shift contingent on the vaccination programme progress, the infection numbers and the state of the economy. The direction however remains unclear.

(Listen to Malaysians in Sabah, Johor and Kuala Lumpur share how they have been coping fighting a new wave of COVID-19 infections in Heart of the Matter podcast.)

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