By Hadi Azmi, Muzliza Mustafa and Noah Lee
Malaysia’s king dealt embattled Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin a blow on Sunday by rejecting his request to declare a national emergency amid a new COVID-19 crisis, after the monarch consulted with fellow Malay rulers over the issue, the palace said.
King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah declined to consent to what would have been Malaysia’s first state of emergency in 51 years, and which could have led to a suspension of parliament and increased powers for the executive branch.
“Al-Sultan Abdullah is of the opinion that there is currently no need for His Majesty to declare a state of emergency in this country or any part of Malaysia,” the National Palace (Istana Negara) said in a statement. “Even so, His Majesty would like to remind politicians to immediately stop all politicking that could disrupt the stability of the country’s government.”
The king strongly believed in the ability of Muhyiddin’s government to carry on with policies for containing a new wave of infections from the viral outbreak, the statement said.
“After deliberating on the application and discussions with the rulers, and seeing the situation faced by the country, Al-Sultan Abdullah felt that the current government has managed to tackle the pandemic well and effectively,” the palace said. The king had agreed to look into an “application” made by the prime minister for the implementation of an emergency proclamation, the statement said.
Palace officials issued the statement soon after the king met for three hours on Sunday afternoon with seven fellow sultans who sit on the Council of Rulers. This body of sultans and governors, who represent Malaysia’s 13 states, selects the king on a five-year, rotating basis.
The king summoned the other Malay rulers to the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur, two days after he granted Muhyiddin an audience to present his case for a declaration of an emergency under Article 150 (1) of the Malaysian constitution. The provision allows the Yang di-Partuan Agong (the king) to proclaim an emergency if he is convinced that “a grave emergency exists” whereby national security, economic life or public order is imperiled.
A national state of emergency was last declared in Malaysia as measure for containing race riots in 1969.
Muhyiddin met with the king at the monarch’s residence in Pahang state on Friday afternoon, hours after the prime minister convened a special cabinet meeting to discuss his plan to request that the Yang di-Partuan Agong declare a state of emergency, according to reports.
Late Sunday night, after meeting with at least two members of his cabinet at his home in Kuala Lumpur, Muhyiddin posted a statement on his Facebook page.
“The ministers acknowledged the statement from the National Palace on the King’s view that there is no need for His Highness to declare a state of emergency in the country or any part of the country,” Muhyiddin said, adding that his government’s priority now was to safeguard the Malaysian people from the pandemic.
“I accept the King’s advice that the government’s stability should not be threatened,” he said.
The administration led by Muhyiddin, an unelected prime minister who was appointed by the king after the Pakatan Harapan government collapsed over infighting eight months ago, is clinging to a razor-thin parliamentary majority.
Apart from the new wave of coronavirus cases and deep economic fallout from the pandemic, the PM is also contending with political uncertainty within his ruling alliance, and a recent challenge to his power from opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who claims he has the backing of a parliamentary majority to form a new government.
On Sunday evening, Anwar praised the decision taken by the king. The rejection of the prime minister’s request “strengthens the constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy” and ensures that Malaysia’s democratic system “is not tainted,” the opposition leader said in a statement.
Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the president of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party, an anchor party within Muyhiddin’s ruling alliance that has had a rocky relationship with the prime minister, hinted that he had not consulted with everyone in the coalition before seeking the king’s consent for an emergency proclamation.
“This really taught us that in any big step that the government wanted to take, it needed discussion and views from all concerned parties,” Zahid said.
Azmi Hassan, a political analyst at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, said the king’s decision was a “slap in the face to Muhyiddin” but it was better than the alternatives.
“The King did arrive at a just conclusion since the government can still control the pandemic even without the emergency powers,” Azmi told BenarNews.
News reports on Friday suggested that the special cabinet meeting and the prime minister’s meeting with the king were part of steps Muhyiddin was taking toward a declaration of an emergency, because he is danger of losing a parliamentary vote on his proposed 2021 budget when it comes up for debate in early November.
A loss on his spending plan would count as a vote of no confidence in Muhyiddin that, in turn, could lead to a snap election, Reuters news agency reported.
Sunday’s statement from the palace, however, emphasized the importance of helping the Malaysian people through the budget proposed by Muhyiddin’s government.
“His Majesty stressed that the National Budget 2021, which will be tabled in Parliament, is very important to the people in dealing with the COVID-19 epidemic and reviving the country’s economy,” the palace said.
Azmi, the analyst, noted that although the king had turned down Muhyiddin’s request for declaring an emergency, he was simultaneously displaying confidence in the prime minister’s handling of the public health crisis while urging politicians to give Muhyiddin enough room to lead the country through it.
“[T]he King … specifically reminded our MPs not to use the budget bill as a means to demonstrate a vote of no confidence in the PM since budget allocations are closely tied to the government effort to combat the virus,” Azmi said.
“If any politicians are seen to disobey the King, they will be at the mercy of the people who actively demonstrate their displeasure on the emergency issue. No doubt their displeasure will again be displayed if our MPs use the budget tabling as a means for a no confidence vote,” the analyst added.