By Noah Lee and Muzliza Mustafa
Muhyiddin Yassin, who resigned as Malaysia’s prime minister last month amid widespread discontent over his handling of the pandemic, has been appointed chairman of the government’s COVID-19 task force, the new government announced Saturday.
Separately, its top legal officer said there was no need to legitimize the appointment of Ismail Sabri Yaakob as Muhyiddin’s successor, an assertion that appeared to defy a decree by Malaysia’s ruler requiring the new prime minister to call for a vote of confidence in parliament “as soon as possible.”
In a statement, cabinet secretary Mohammad Zuki Bin Ali said that Muhyiddin’s new role was based on the government’s confidence in him “to lead the national recovery strategy to achieve the best economic impact and restore the lives of people badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
It said Malaysia’s king had been notified of the new appointment, which was agreed in a cabinet session on Wednesday.
In a brief statement on Facebook, Muhyiddin said he was honored to accept the appointment and would carry out the task without receiving any payment.
Malaysia is currently ranked as the sixth most COVID-impacted country in the world on a widely respected COVID-19 information dashboard that shows rolling totals for the past 28 days. Malaysia recorded 580,787 new infections and 7,342 deaths in that period, it shows.
Muhyiddin’s controversial 17-month term in office coincided with the pandemic, and his fragile political coalition crumbled as new infections soared in July. Many Malaysians – irate over confusing lockdown protocols, and suffering economic hardship – accused the government of failure.
The final blow for Muhyiddin’s government, however, was when the main party in his government – the scandal-ridden United Malays National Organization (UMNO) – withdrew support.
His resignation on Aug. 16 cleared the way for UMNO to take the reins of power again, after being ousted in national elections for the first time in Malaysian history in 2018.
On Aug. 20, Ismail Sabri was appointed prime minister by King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah, who announced that 114 of 220 members of parliament had privately declared support for the former defense minister.
Two days earlier, the palace specified that Malaysia’s next prime minister would have to call for a vote of confidence in parliament to prove that he controlled a majority in the legislature.
The PM nominee “shall submit a motion of confidence in the Dewan Rakyat as soon as possible to legitimize the trust that he gained from the majority of the members of the Lower House,” National Palace Comptroller Ahmad Fadil Shamsuddin said in a statement at the time.
The king’s decision marked a change from Feb. 2020, when he appointed Muhyiddin without requiring a confidence vote in the legislature.
But on Saturday, Malaysia’s new attorney general – the elder brother of the speaker of parliament – signaled an apparent unwillingness to put the new government to the test.
In a lengthy statement that did not use the words “vote of confidence,” Idrus Harun outlined the process by which Ismail Sabri was appointed, and underlined the king’s ultimate authority in the matter.
“Clearly the appointment of the Most Honorable Dato ‘Sri Ismail Sabri bin Yaakob as the 9th Prime Minister is valid and in accordance with the requirements of the Federal Constitution,” it said.
“If the appointment of a new Prime Minister still needs validation by any party other than His Majesty, it means that His Majesty’s absolute power can be overcome by other parties.”
Taking such measures would be inconsistent with Malaysia’s constitution, he said.
“[B]ased on the facts and position on above, there is no need to legitimize the appointment of the Honorable Prime Minister and a Government that has been formed in accordance with the letter of the law,” the attorney general concluded.
Parliament is due to resume on Sept. 13, after a national emergency declared by Muhyiddin’s government caused it to be shut for months.
Opposition members and netizens heaped criticism on Muhyiddin’s new appointment, while analysts warned that the attorney general’s statement could stir up trouble.
Saifuddin Nasution, secretary -general of People’s Justice Party (PKR), called the appointment “very disappointing.”
“While holding the reins of government, Muhyiddin failed to manage the country’s response to the Covid-19 epidemic, either in terms of health, economy or education. Muhyiddin is responsible for the suffering of the people at this time,” he said.
“He couldn’t do his job when he was prime minister. What’s the difference now?” asked a Twitter user under the name of Ho KH.
Netizens generally expressed disappointment over the cabinet’s decision to appoint Muhyiddin as NRC chairman, said Awang Azman Awang Pawi, a political analyst with University of Malaya.
“Re-appointing him as NRC chairman and giving him ministerial status is seen as the PM’s political interest – for political support and maintaining ties with Bersatu,” Muhyiddin’s political party, Awang Azman said.
As for the vote of confidence, veteran lawyer Salim Bashir Bhaskaran agreed with the attorney-general’s assertion that the process of appointing Ismail Sabri followed the tenets of the Malaysian Constitution.
“The reason for the motion of no confidence to be considered is simply to comply with the Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s request for the prime minister to test his support in Parliament,” he said, using the ruler’s Malay title.
A refusal to honor the palace’s request could have a negative impact on the government and strain relations with the royal institution, Awang Azman warned.
“It will cause the relationship between the Palace and the Ismail-led government to be cold, as it was during the Muhyiddin-led government,” the analyst said.
“This is not welcome, because the people want political stability. The government led by Ismail Sabri must respect the order of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, who wants legitimacy in Parliament,” he said.
Tunku Mohar Mokhtar, a political analyst from the International Islamic University of Malaysia, predicted that Saturday’s developments were likely to whip up public opposition to the government.
“With public dissatisfaction with the recently appointed line-up of cabinet members, and now the attorney-general’s uninvited media statement as well as Muhyiddin’s appointment, a new wave of rejection is likely to ensue,” he said.