For the second time in 18 months the Yang di-Petuan Agong, or King Al-Sultan Abdullah Sultan Shah has summoned the nation’s members of parliament to the palace to affirm their support for prime minister. Eighteen months ago, Muhyiddin Yassin was affirmed prime minister, but after his resignation earlier this week, his heir apparent is his former deputy prime minister and UMNO vice president Ismail Sabri Yaakob.
It is apparent the Sabri has been able to sure-up the PN/BN coalition numbers with all MPs from UMNO supporting him for prime minister. Sabri has also kept Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, or Bersatu fully intact, with no defections, along with the rest of the coalition. This takes his support to 114, three more than the 111 MPs he needs to become prime minister and form a government.
Mahathir Mohamed, with his four member Pejuang party will fall behind the BN/PN coalition, and expressed the desire to serve in the cabinet, should they be invited. This would take Sabri’s support to 118, a comfortable majority in the Dewan Rakyat, or lower house to conduct government business.
It appears Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan was only able to muster 101 members to support him, with two seats currently vacant. This is another one of the numerous occasions Anwar has just fallen short of the necessary numbers to become prime minister. To many, this is a deep emotional blow, especially for those who strongly believe that Anwar should be given an opportunity to show what he can do in government.
Ismail Sabri Yaacob is a Malay-centric politician, who has not been without controversy over the years. During the last general election. Sabri said that a vote for the DAP (Pakatan Harapan) is a vote to eliminate the special rights of Malays and the uniqueness of Islam. Sabri also caused controversy back in 2015, where on his Facebook page, urged Malay consumers to boycott monopolizing and profiteering Chinese businesses that discriminate against non-Chinese entrepreneurs. Sabri also set up a Malay-only electronics mall “Loy Yat 2”, to compete with the Chinese dominated Low Yat Plaza, although it didn’t get off the ground.
Sabri, from Pahang, the same state as the king, began his parliamentary career as the member for Bera in 2004, after being involved in the UMNO party machinery since 1987. He became a cabinet minister under Ahmad Abdullah Badawi, as minister for youth and sports, in 2008. In 2009, under prime minister Najib Razak, Sabri became the minister for domestic trade, cooperatives, and consumerism, and after the 2013 general election, was appointed minister for agriculture and agro-based industry. In 2015, he was appointed minister for rural and regional development, until the 2018 general election, where Pakatan Harapan defeated the Barisan Nasional government.
After Najib Razak’s electoral defeat, Sabri in hard fought UMNO polls became a party vice president. After the Sheraton putsch, where Muhyiddin came to power, with his Perikatan Nasional government, Sabri became a senior minister with responsibility for defence. In July, he was appointed deputy prime minister, after criticism by Zahid and his supporters. This led to Zahid, president of UMNO to declare that UMNO will with immediate effect withdraw support for Muhyiddin and the PN government. However, no UMNO cabinet ministers resigned from cabinet in support.
Sabri is closely aligned with the Hishammuddin Hussein group in the old Muhyiddin cabinet. Hishammuddin is also well known for his “kris” waving and Ketuanan Melayu, or Malay Supremacy rhetoric at past UMNO congresses. Sabri has also been a staunchly loyal party apparatchik for over 35 years, and knows the Najib Razak mafia very well. His party pedigree was probably the reason he was able to persuade MPs like Shamsul Anuar Nasarah, Mohd Nizar Zakaria, Ahmad Nazlan Idris, Noh Omar, Noraini Ahmad, Azalina Othman Said, Ahmad Maslan, Bung Moktar Radin, and Shahidan Kassim to support him. This would have forced his nemeses Ahmad Zahid Hamidi to follow suit, or split the party mortally.
One would expect the first Sabri cabinet to include more UMNO members, including some of his past critics. So, instead of a PN/BN government, this will be a BN/PN government, which will fulfil the aspirations of many UMNO members, who wanted to see UMNO as the dominant party in government, once again.
For Anwar Ibrahim and his Pakatan Harapan, this means taking a back seat until the next election. With the current Covid-19 and economic crises now starting to affect the very survival of many Malaysians, any political antics could be seen as going against the king’s advice he gave to all party leaders earlier in the week.
This doesn’t mean that Anwar should do nothing. This is a time for Anwar to rebuild his own torn apart PKR, after the Azmin Ali exit, and that of the coalition. PH needs to look at their narrative to the Malay heartland, and perform well as an opposition. Anwar, may well consider forming a shadow cabinet, to better hold ministers in the new Sabri government accountable. PH has around 12-18 before the next election, and needs to build campaigning capacity on the ground, where it weak. Next election, PH doesn’t have Mahathir on the hustings in the Malay heartlands, so this needs to be taken account of. In addition, Anwar, could bring some of his younger members forward as future leaders, and take on more of a mentor role.
Anwar as a mentor will be much more marketable, than an Anwar perceived to just wanting to be prime minister. With the future Sabri cabinet primarily being made up of old wine in new bottles, a young and hungry PH line-up may be formidable. The DAP has been doing this, and within PKR there is lots of young talent. Party Amanah under Mohamad Sabu must rekindle the old Nik Aziz approach, which has been lost from PAS today. Amanah must show the Nik Aziz approach to Islam, which non-Muslims grew to respect.
For the upcoming Sabri government, the realization must quickly set in, that power is not for power’s sake, and Malaysia is in the deepest crisis the country has ever been in. The events of the last week have given the new government a potential window of opportunity without politics. At least until the next election.
If this occurs, then Westminster system Malaysian style, where the king plays a major role as an umpire has been shown to work well in the nation’s case. Now is the time for executive government to get back to serious work.