Differing interpretations of palace statement
In overruling Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s bid to delay the reconvening of parliament until September with a statement that was at best ambiguous. Malaysia’s king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad, has left the country in the midst of a 16-month political crisis that shows no sign of abating.
Muhyiddin’s government Covid-19 recovery plan, on the eve of the Council of Rulers meeting, called for parliament to be recalled only when daily cases fell below 2,000, that intensive care capacity would be sufficient and that 40 percent of the population would be vaccinated. Opposition MPs claim no health issues prevent the parliament sitting, as all MPs have been vaccinated, and many other parliaments around the world have continued to sit during the pandemic.
Pundits regarded the king’s message as a warning for Muhyiddin which was pounced on by the opposition. Parti Keadilan Rakyat President Anwar Ibrahim, Amanah president Mohamed Sabu, and the Democratic Action Party secretary general Lim Guan Eng called on Muhyiddin to immediately recall parliament or resign for not following the king’s advice, although constitutionally the king must act on the advice of the prime minister.
The three leaders further claim Muhyiddin fears a parliamentary sitting because he is not confident of holding a majority of support on the floor of the house, should there be a forced vote of no confidence.
The Dewan Rakyat or lower house speaker, Azhar Azizan Harun has fallen behind Muhyiddin, like most of his ministers, saying the timeline set by Muhyiddin in his national recovery plan address is correct and falls within the gamut of the king’s wishes.
The effect of the palace statement Wednesday night is to continue the political instability that has wracked the country since the Pakatan Harapan government led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad fell in February 2020. Both sides are using the palace statement to support their respective positions. The phrase “as soon as possible” is being interpreted differently by opposing political adversaries. If one understands the culture of “Titah Tuanku”, meaning, a “message from his majesty,” a certain ambiguity sets into the phrase.
Division has gone far beyond any ability to bridge any form of unity agreement, unless imposed. All parties are working very hard to tempt defectors from opposing camps and bolster numbers on the floor of parliament.
The best hope for stability would be some form of pseudo-unity government encompassing the majority of parties. One could be a coalition based on parties and splinters of parties led by Muhyiddin, if he can save his Perikatan Nasional government. The other could be a shaky coalition headed by Anwar Ibrahim, if he could muster enough defections from the United Malays National Organization, which led the country for 70 years before it fell from power in 2018 amid a welter of corruption charges. A third, more remote possibility is a “dark horse” from within UMNO, with a few names mentioned, rising to the task of bringing together a group to form a government. In this case PAS and Sarawak’s GPS would play the kingmaker roles.
The next government, if there is to be one before the next general election, would be based on personalities, rather than parties. Anwar with the DAP solidly behind him, has another chance of getting the office he had long desired. However, among the Malay polity, there is a group that would support “anyone but Anwar for PM.”
The king’s message has done nothing to clear the nation of political instability. Looking at local media, the issue of recalling parliament is being hotly debated. Muhyiddin’s survival hinges on not having parliament recalled. The Covid Recovery Plan presentation on the eve of the Council of Rulers meeting was a great tactical move. Whether parliament sits or not is now totally dependent upon the daily Covid case numbers and success of the vaccination drive. Muhyiddin’s narrative is that the phrase “as soon as possible” falls within the gamut of his Covid Recovery Plan.
Malaysia is still in crisis, people are feeling the economic pain, and the country is still politically unstable. Expect politics over governance.
Over the past week, the king interviewed all political leaders for their views on recalling parliament in the face of the call by Mahathir and others for a unity government under a National Operations Council (NOC) government, with total parliamentary suspension, similar to what was formed after the May 13 race riots in 1969.
In his attempt to remain in power, Muhyiddin prevailed on the king to suspend parliament last January 11 until August 1 in what was widely considered to be a desperation measure to stave off a vote of no confidence after indications that UMNO would withdraw support from his shaky Perikatan Nasional coalition, which would have almost certainly led to its ouster. The best option for the Muhyiddin government is to extend the emergency, but the palace narrative appears to indicate a reluctance to grant any extension of the emergency.
The key strategy in restoring the country to normality is totally dependent on the vaccination program, which has been hamstrung with setbacks and accusations that it is benefitting certain businesses with political connections. The delays almost guarantee the National Recovery Plan to reconvene parliament will not be met. According to Our World in Data statistics only 4.6 percent of the country’s population had been fully vaccinated at the time of writing.
The third EMCO has devastated many businesses which have been struggling to survive. The SME sector is critical as it directly creates 39.9 percent of GDP, and employs 7.1 million people, 58.4 percent of the total workforce, and many more within the informal sector. This has been largely ignored by the government, after repeated representations by a number of stakeholders.
This has led to growing unemployment, and the dramatic increase in the under-employed who are unable to make ends meet. According to an Informal Sector Workforce Survey, by the Department of Statistics Malaysia, this effects 17.4 percent of the total workforce in Malaysia, where 0.62 million have lost work and are unpaid. Wage subsidies have excluded this group, which in addition have dependents to provide for.
Although economists predict a modest 6 percent GDP growth rate this year, an extended MCO will erode this. This figure doesn’t count the contribution from the informal sector, which supports many people, and has been severely hit by the MCO, receiving very little assistance.
The Muhyiddin government is under heavy criticism for its handling of the pandemic. The government has so far been reluctant to borrow more from overseas to fund more comprehensive relief packages to those in desperate need.
With 6-7000 cases per day and with outbreaks all across the country, the success of the Muhyiddin’s government Covid19 strategy is very important. However, the opposition has not come up with viable alternative strategies, focused on just criticizing the government for perceived mistakes. If the opposition did actually become the government, it would most probably follow the same strategy, as most of the covid work is under the ministry of health, directed by the director general Nor Hisham Abdullah, who is a permanent civil servant and not a politician.
Originally published in the Asia Sentinel
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