Malaysia’s Political Standoff – What Now?

Malaysia’s Political Standoff – What Now?

By Edika Amin | June 2 2020, 12:40 AM SGT 

 

On 29 February, The King appointed Bersatu President, Muhyiddin Yassin as the new Prime Minister of Malaysia. This came as a shock to many as at that time we all thought he was in support of the Party’s Chairman, Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. This decision was made after the King interviewed Members of Parliaments (MPs) on earlier in the week and further consulted with party leaders in the morning of the appointment before making is the final decision.

What seemed strange from the onset was that the Palace did not reveal the numbers of MPs that are in support of Muhyiddin. Given this, the following was concluded on 29 February 2020:

  1. The King’s Announcement could be premature: It is essential to note that the statement was crafted cautiously in a way that stipulates that it is the opinion of the King that Muhyiddin Yassin is the MP that is likely to enjoy majority confidence among the Dewan Rakyat (Parliament) members. Deciphering the message above: Keyword ‘likely’ means it does not necessarily mean a majority. It may also indicate that the King believes Muhyiddin will eventually have a majority.
  2. Conflicting Numbers: The Palace has not revealed numbers of MPs backing Muhyiddin. As a result, Bersatu Deputy President Mukhriz Mahathir has questioned how 36 MPs of Bersatu are in support of Muhyiddin Yassin, if at least four of them are backing Mahathir. Further, Fahmi Fadzil from the People’s Justice Party claimed at that time, Pakatan Harapan have declarations stating that up to 114 MPs are supporting Mahathir as the next Prime Minister.
  3. This is a backdoor government: Without a doubt, this is a backdoor government because it bears no resemblance to the government that was originally elected. There will be some public backlash with this decision, and MPs under investigation for corruption such as Former Prime Minister and Former Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak and Zahid Hamidi may have their charges dropped. They may also be in line to return as full Ministers in the future.

Since assuming office, Muhyiddin Yassin has been quick to consolidate his power. Amongst key initiatives conducted in the last two months include:

The right Cabinet choices:

  • No Deputy Minister: Understanding that his new Coalition may be shaky from the onset, the Prime Minister broke the mold by appointing four Senior Ministers[1] (from key parties) rather than a Deputy Minister and thus providing everyone with equal visibility.
  • A Technocratic Finance Minister: The Finance Minister post came under fire during the Pakatan Harapan rule and would likely remain a contentious issue if given to the wrong party in the coalition. Therefore, the appointment of Tengku Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz was a masterstroke by the Prime Minister. Zafrul was previously, CEO of CIMB, one of Malaysia’s largest bank with a wealth of experience. He had no political affiliation as he needed to be sworn in as a Senator to take up the post, therefore, giving no party in the coalition the rights to the Finance Minister post. Furthermore, appointing an outsider would also mean Zafrul will more likely listen to Muhyiddin rather than being influenced by other parties. Lastly, he’s family (well sort off…) Tengku Zafrul is related to Muhyiddin’s family through his younger brother Tengku Zuhri Tengku Abdul Aziz. Tengku Zuhri is married to Fara Nadia Abd Rahim, whose elder sister Fara Ikma Abd Rahim is married to Muhyiddin’s eldest son Fakhri Yassin.[2]
  • A Clean Cabinet: One of the key criteria that the PM placed on his new Cabinet is to be clear on all corruption charges. A sigh of relief is that none of the main UMNO three facing court charges – former PM Datuk Seri Najib Razak, Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, and Umno secretary-general Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Mansor – have been given Cabinet Posts. This takes significant pressure off the PM.

 Making the best of the COVID-19 Pandemic:

  • The Prime Minister needed to go through a baptism of fire when he took office having to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, he was able to make the best of the situation to further consolidate his power via a people-centric stimulus package[3]. Total spent was 17% of GDP, one of the largest stimulus packages in the region (although numbers are questionable[4]). The PM secured political mileage by a getting his cabinet to forgo two months’ salary for the COVID-19 fund and special development programs for East Malaysia to further consolidate power.

Silent replacements:

  • In the past few weeks, the PM has been quick to remove Government Link Companies and Government Agency heads with MPs in exchange for support in case a no-confidence vote is activated when Parliament meets this month

 

Events of the May 18 Sitting

Earlier this month, Speaker of the House of Representatives (Dewan Rakyat) has accepted a motion by Former PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad that the present PM Muhyiddin does not command the confidence of the majority of the Dewan. Therefore, a no-confidence vote can be ushered in when Parliament sits. But, here’s the twist. Parliament will only be sitting for one day in May (May 18) due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, due to ‘health concerns,’ the proceedings on May 18 ended immediately after the King delivered his Royal Address.

During the May 18 sitting, The King reiterated that Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin holds the majority support from members of parliament. He said Muhyiddin was appointed the eighth prime minister after the political parties were given ample time to name their candidates. The 14th Parliament opening was a clear indication of the support – 114 out of the 222 MPs were seated in the government’s bloc. The King also took the opportunity to explain the events in February in which he tried to convince former Prime Minister Mahathir to not resign however, the old statesman remained firm in his decision. At this juncture, it remains to be seen if a no-confidence vote can continue to be pushed to a later seating.

 

Analysis

Eventually, the no-confidence vote must be tabled. PM Muhyiddin can take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to consolidate power before that day comes. In my personal opinion, there will only be two potential scenarios for this:

Scenario 1: By the time the no-confidence vote rolls around it is likely by then he will command a majority of Parliament based on the sittings on May 18. (Even if it is a simple majority)

Scenario 2: In the case that he doesn’t, the PM must tender his resignation together with that of his Cabinet. The PM may also, instead of tendering his resignation, request the King to dissolve Parliament and call for a snap-elections. King will not call for a snap election. He may instead:

  • Make PM Muhyiddin interim Prime Minister and allow him more time to garner support or see out the current term until Malaysians go back to the polls in 2023’ or
  • Invite a new leader who has the numbers. IF he or she has the numbers.

Either way, it doesn’t look like this political standoff will clear out anytime soon…

 

Sources:

[1] Azmin Ali – Senior Minister for International Trade and Industry; (BERSATU) Ismail Sabri Yaakob – Senior minister for Defense (UMNO) Fadillah Yusof – Senior Minister for Public Works (GPS); and Mohd Radzi Md Jidin – Senior Minister for Education (BERSATU)

[2] https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/513968

[3] https://www.pmo.gov.my/2020/03/speech-text-prihatin-esp/

[4] https://ps-engage.com/how-covid-19-has-strengthened-an-unlikely-malaysian-governments-position/

Image credits: Pixabay

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