By S. Adie Zul and Noah Lee
Malaysia’s new prime minister offered a slew of institutional reforms on Friday in a bid, an analyst said, to ensure opposition support for his government that has a slim majority in parliament.
The opposition has been demanding many of the reforms offered by Ismail Sabri Yaakob, including laws to prevent members of parliament from switching parties and to limit the PM’s term to 10 years.
“This [offer] is in line with the decree by the king … on the importance of having a stable administration that could function normally as the nation is facing multiple crises,” Ismail Sabri said in a statement.
“This government is of the view that focus and priority should be given by all parties to political stability and national administration in fighting COVID-19 and reviving the economy.”
Other proposed changes include allowing equal representation for the opposition in special parliamentary committees, having bipartisan agreement on bills – including the budget – before they are presented in the legislature and implementing the lowering of the voting age amendment as soon as possible. He did not provide a time frame to introduce the reform legislation.
His offer was “meant to create a new political landscape,” Ismail Sabri said, amid Malaysians’ disenchantment with politics and politicians. The country has seen three changes of government in three years, the two latest ones establishing unelected administrations.
Ismail Sabri was named PM by the king last month after former leader Muhyiddin Yassin resigned because members of the largest party in his ruling coalition pulled support.
Muhyiddin had been named PM by the king after the elected government of veteran politician Mahathir Mohamad collapsed in February 2020 because of infighting following a historic victory in 2018.
Between the collapse of Mahathir’s government and the establishment of Ismail Sabri’s, many lawmakers have switched parties amid accusations of support being bought to shore up numbers in parliament.
Muhyiddin’s coalition government – which included the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) – was beset by infighting throughout its 17-month tenure. Since UMNO’s Ismail Sabri was sworn in Aug. 22, the parties in his coalition – which now includes Muhyiddin’s Bersatu party – have traded barbs.
Ismail Sabri, like his predecessor, has a narrow majority in parliament, with 114 of 220 lawmakers supporting him. If just four MPs pulled their backing, he would lose majority support.
PM’s ‘insurance scheme’
It is in this context that the new PM proposed reforms demanded by the opposition, said Tunku Mohar Mokhtar, an academic at the International Islamic University of Malaysia, adding Ismail Sabri wants to ensure he has enough support in the event a confidence vote becomes necessary.
“Ismail’s is an insurance scheme. He may have sensed that there will probably be mutiny even from within the loose coalition that forms the current government,” Tunku Mohar told BenarNews.
Muhyiddin offered similar reforms toward the end of his tenure when it became clear UMNO intended to pull support.
“Just like Muhyiddin, he realizes that support from the 114 MPs is still uncertain in the long run. The difference is Muhyiddin’s offer was a last-minute rescue plan when he lost the majority,” Tunku Mohar said.
Ismail Sabri was supposed to hold a confidence vote when parliament reopens on Monday, but his law minister said earlier this week the king had agreed there was no need to hold such a vote.
That statement is contrary to King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah’s decree last month when he said the person named PM had to poll lawmakers to ensure majority support.
Two days before the law minister’s statement, Ismail Sabri appointed Muhyiddin chairman of the government’s COVID-19 task force.
The move shocked some Malaysians and analysts because several MPs in in ruling coalition, in addition to citizens, had accused Muhyiddin’s government of mishandling the pandemic.
Political analyst Awang Azman Awang Pawi had told BenarNews that Muhyiddin’s appointment was intended to be in the new PM’s interest – “for political support and maintaining ties with Bersatu,” Muhyiddin’s party, which supports the UMNO PM.
Soon after the Muhyiddin announcement came news that the government had nominated UMNO member Ahmad Maslan – said to be anti-Ismail Sabri – to be deputy speaker of the lower house. That, too, was seen by observers as Ismail Sabri’s move to ensure support from within his own party.
Now, the new PM’s has offered reforms as he hopes to achieve the same goal with the opposition, Tunku Mohar said.
The analyst said he expects the opposition to evaluate the offer with caution and may demand that the reforms be fast-tracked.
“The opposition, of course, may also ask for more, but it may be a good starting point to ensure that what it has been championing for a long time can now be carried out,” he said.
New role for Najib?
Amid this flurry of appointments and the offer, came media reports that Ismail Sabri was planning to appoint another former PM, Najib Razak, as his economic adviser. Administration and other government officials did not confirm the reports.
Najib, who is appealing a corruption conviction and a prison sentence of 12 years in his first trial linked to the multibillion dollar 1MDB scandal, is considered influential within UMNO. His backing, observers have said, would be useful in preventing unhappy UMNO elements from withdrawing support for Ismail Sabri.
If Najib is named PM’s economic adviser, Ismail Sabri may have gone a bit too far, jeopardizing any chances of cooperation from opposition parties, noted Lim Kit Siang, opposition Democratic Action Party leader.
The “unilateral announcement” of Muhyiddin as the COVID-19 task force head had already raised the stakes, he said in a statement.
“Now there is talk that a former prime minister responsible for turning Malaysia into a kleptocracy would be appointed with ministerial rank as economic adviser to the prime minister,” he said.