By Hadi Azmi
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin narrowly passed his first parliamentary test as Malaysia’s new leader on Monday, succeeding in a motion and vote to remove the house speaker who had approved a potential no-confidence vote against him pushed by the opposition.
Meeting for its first full session since his government took power nearly five months ago and a coronavirus outbreak hit the country soon after, a razor-thin margin of votes handed Muhyiddin his first win on his motion to remove House Speaker Mohamad Ariff Md. Yusoff.
MPs voted 111-109 to oust the speaker. One MP was absent and another abstained from voting.
“[T]he motion is approved, with one absentee,” said Deputy House Speaker Mohd Rashid Hasnon, who oversaw the voting to remove Mohamad Ariff.
The vote, which drew jeers from lawmakers in the opposition, was also the first on the parliamentary floor since Muhyiddin came to power as an unelected prime minister in the wake of the Pakatan Harapan government’s collapse in late February. The vote unfolded amid questions about whether the prime minister and his Perikatan Nasional coalition truly commands a majority of parliamentary seats.
In his motion, the prime minister did not state a reason for why the speaker, a holdover from the Pakatan government, should be changed.
After a break, controversy followed when the prime minister introduced a motion to replace the ousted speaker with Azhar Azizan Harun, who until recently chaired the nation’s Election Commission.
The opposition demanded that a vote be held on the replacement but Azhar was sworn in without one, according to reports. It was not immediately clear whether his appointment required a vote and had followed parliamentary procedure.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim questioned the need to vote Mohamad Ariff Md Yusoff out as speaker.
“If we already have a speaker with credibility and good track record, a motion to remove him must have a strong reason … to replace him on the ground that there is a new candidate is unreasonable, very unreasonable,” the state-run Bernama news agency quoted Anwar as saying.
Muhyiddin also introduced a motion to remove Nga Kor Ming as one of the two deputy speakers but, moments after the vote to oust the speaker, Nga announced he was resigning from the post. Azalina Othman was appointed to replace Nga as deputy speaker.
Speaking to reporters after his removal, Mohammad Ariff said he accepted the outcome and that he had vacated his post in accordance with the Standing Orders and the Malaysian Constitution.
“I have [said] from the beginning that I will only leave the position if the Malaysian Constitution is complied with, and it’s the members of parliament who decide. Not the prime minister. Not the cabinet,” said Mohammad Ariff, 71, who served as a judge before entering politics following his retirement.
He added that it is vital for each branch of the government to be independent and for Malaysia to continue as a thriving democracy.
“The executive has a role to play, the legislature has a role to play. They might as well work together – one cannot control the other, it is wrong,” he said.
Muhyiddin later congratulated both the new speaker and the deputy speaker.
“I pray that the Dewan Rakyat (sittings) will be conducted in a fair manner, in accordance with the Constitution of Malaysia,” said Muhyiddin at the end of today’s sitting of the Dewan Rakyat [Lower House],” the prime minister said in an official Facebook post, according to Bernama.
‘Very safe’ vote
In May, the now ousted speaker had approved a motion by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad for parliament to hold a confidence vote on Muhyiddin. A half-day sitting of parliament followed on May 18, but that was taken up with a speech by Malaysia’s king and there was time set aside for debate that day.
The appointment of Azhar as the new speaker is a move to block Mahathir’s motion – which is on the schedule for the current session that runs over 24 more days until Aug. 27 – according to one analyst.
“Muhyiddin will try his best to forestall Mahathir’s motion of no confidence which Muhyiddin can do because he’s the government and the government sets the legislative agenda by Westminster’s tradition,” Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, told BenarNews.
The vote on the speaker’s position was a risk-free way for Muhyiddin to test his support without it being construed as a referendum of his command of parliament, the analyst said.
“The vote to replace the house speaker is very safe because by constitutional tradition this is not considered a motion of confidence and therefore, even if he loses this vote, he will still be the prime minister,” Oh said.
Meanwhile, James Chin, a political scientist at the University of Tasmania, said that the speaker commands full power in the parliament even though the manner in which the new one was appointed on Monday may have caused controversy.
When asked whether Mahathir’s motion would see the light of the day, Chin said this about Azhar: “His position is beholden to Muhyiddin, so his priority is to protect Muhyiddin from getting a vote of no confidence.”
Under the standing orders of parliament, the speaker’s decision is final, Chin said.
“So even if they don’t like it, they cannot do anything about it,” Chin told BenarNews, referring to the opposition.