Malaysia’s embattled Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who holds parliament by a mere two-vote majority after months of political squabbling, is now likely to survive a threat to defeat the Nov. 6 tabling of the RM305 billion 2021 Budget, which opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was attempting to turn into a no confidence vote and usurp the premiership.
The prime minister appears to have been saved by the Agong, Sultan Ahmad Shah, who has made several requests that members of parliament vote to pass the fiscal plan after an extraordinary turn of events in which Anwar claimed to have the votes to oust Muhyiddin by turning to two of the most corrupt figures in Malaysia – former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is free on appeal against a 12-year sentence for his part in looting the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd, which collapsed with US$3.4 billion missing due to corruption and mismanagement, and current United Malaysia National Organization President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is currently standing trial for looting his own charity.
Events that have taken place since the end of January, when then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad suddenly resigned, are all seen by the public as blatant attempts to seize and/or hold onto power and little else. The result is that very few politicians carry the respect of the public, and those who do either succumb to graft and corruption over time or are sidelined by other ruthless politicians. Even a number of members of the former Pakatan Harapan government, which promised reform prior to the May 2018 general election, have lost respect for behaving differently in government as opposed to how they behaved in opposition.
Muhyiddin Yassin shrewdly gained the premiership after Mahathir abruptly resigned last February, taking over Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia — the party the 95-year-old Mahathir had formed as a vehicle to lead the Pakatan Harapan coalition to drive Najib from power. Through a deal with the discredited UMNO and the rural, Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, along with the bulk of Parti Pribumi and the wing of Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat led by Azmin Ali, who had turned on Anwar, Muhyiddin was able to convince the Agong that he had the numbers to command a majority in the Dewan Rakyat, the lower house of Federal Parliament. With no affirmation by a parliamentary vote, Muhyiddin’s cobbled-together coalition was universally criticized as a backdoor, unelected government.
Muhyiddin shored up his support by appointing a massive cabinet of 37 ministers, 40 deputy ministers and high-profile board positions on government-linked companies (GLCs) and government agencies all there for the pickings. According to one academic source, he also promised leaders of UMNO that he could engineer the charges against Najib and Zahid downward on appeal so that the two would serve a minimum of prison time. When that didn’t happen, the source said, the UMNO leaders have been threatening to pull their support.
The premier’s razor-thin majority has only been tested once, in a close vote 111 to 109 to remove former Federal Judge Mohamad Ariff Yusof as speaker and replace him with Muhyiddin’s candidate Azhar Azizan Harun. Any action to move a motion of no confidence in the Muhyiddin government has been met with parliamentary procedures and adjournments.
In September, Anwar called a press conference stating he had the numbers to form a government. After his meeting with the Agong was postponed, he was finally granted an audience was finally granted in mid-October, where he presented evidence that he commanded the confidence of a majority of MPs.
The Agong remained publicly silent after his audience with Anwar, but an explosive letter leaked from Ahmad Zahid Hamidi giving support to Anwar, countersigned by former prime minister Najib Razak, while at the same time Zahid was telling Muhyiddin the prime minister had their support. That caused argument and friction within the fragile parliamentary alliance.
That brought on a rift within UMNO, with Zahid reportedly demanding that Muhyiddin sack four UMNO ministers within his cabinet, Hishammuddin Hussein, Adham Baba, Khairy Jamaluddin, and Halimah Sadique.
With support for the Muhyiddin government appearing to be crumbling, the PM made a widely criticized move to seek a state of emergency decree from the Agong on the pretext of rising Covid-19 cases – although Malaysia ranks a mere 99th among world countries in deaths with only 246 fatalities while many other countries rank in the tens of thousands. A state of emergency would have suspended the parliament, thus safeguarding the government and allowing the government to rule by decree. The attempt to seek emergency powers could have been considered a coup by another name if the Agong had gone along with it.
Sources have told Asia Sentinel the attempt to seek emergency powers was well planned and thought to we well along, with evening meetings scheduled with state government leaders and top civil servants, immediately if the Agong had granted consent.
The Agong astutely referred this to the Supreme Council of Rulers, who unanimously advised the Agong to refuse the request. Royal insiders have told Asia Sentinel that the members of the Royal Council believed that the government was already doing a good job on the Covid epidemic and that extra powers were unnecessary. They were said to be suspicious of the motives for seeking the emergency decree, and advised against the economic repercussions and threat to the stability of the ringgit, Malaysia’s currency.
The increase in Covid cases since state elections in the Eastern Malaysia state of Sabah on September 16, however, also signaled the need to avoid any general election lest gatherings at the polls spread the disease. With Anwar rattling sabers about potentially blocking the budget – in effect a vote of no confidence – the Agong countered with statements requesting all MPs to support it, thus securing Muhyiddin’s tenure.
The actions of Muhyiddin and his senior ministers in seeking a state of emergency have shown that the Agong has reserve powers within the constitution which he, in collaboration with the Council of Rulers, isn’t hesitant about using. Overriding Muhyiddin’s request for emergency powers was regarded in many quarters as a slap in the face for the zeal by the prime minister and his allies in maintaining power.
The Agong’s call on all MPs to support the budget, however, has also ensured that Muhyiddin will survive in the short term. The call also certainly thwarted Anwar’s move to take power on the floor of parliament through an attempt to block the budget bills. For this the Royal institution won some respect from the public.
At this time, most within UMNO actually want to see Muhyiddin continue as prime minister given the power struggle for control. UMNO is effectively without a strong leader at the helm. Two prime candidates — Najib and Zahid have not got the assistance they expected from Muhyiddin. This is partly why the Najib-Zahid block is fluid.
Power, ego, and greed have divided Malaysian political parties for decades. Political party fractures have been about personalities and favor, rather than policy. This has now led to a national leadership crisis with no one politician able to control a coalition. Muhyiddin tried to manage his Muafakat Nasional coalition by providing perks jobs for support, which hasn’t worked.
Malaysia faces a crisis of governance caused by politicians seeking power to manage a potentially lucrative administration, rather than running their administration based on any deep-seated ideology. There is a great disregard to the sovereignty of parliament. The antics of politicians from all parties in 2020 have greatly strengthened the resolve of the monarchy to use reserve powers.
Originally published in Asia Sentinel