Malaise in Malaysia: Politics and the Pull of Power

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In this July 13, 2020, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin attends a Parliament session at lower house in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Malaysia's government announced Monday, July 5, 2021 that Parliament will resume July 26, caving into pressure from the king to lift the legislature's suspension under a coronavirus emergency imposed in January. File Photo: AP/UNB

For Malaysia and the Malaysians, problems over the last few months are not just raining; they are pouring. Exacerbating the pains of the pandemic, the nation has been gripped by a political uncertainty that is tending to threaten the country’s economy and stability. For now, the Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who heads the coalition named Perikatan Nasional (PN) is hanging on to power by the skin of his teeth. But his capacity for survival may be put to the test very soon. This might happen just a few weeks down the line, after the 222-member Parliament reopens. That fateful day will be 26th of July.

Unsurprisingly, and tenaciously battling to remain in power, the Prime Minister was hoping to postpone the test for as long as possible. This is because his government actually has a razor thin majority in Parliament, and is currently engaged in expanding his support base by enlisting MPs from other parties, even if only on the basis of ‘’confidence and supply agreement”(An arrangement , which has also been tried out in recent years in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom Parliament , whereby support is accorded to the government by other non-Treasury members only when during voting on its confidence, in return, of course , for favours). But a spanner has been thrown in the wheel by the King, Sultan Abdullah Ahmed Shah, who supported by the eight other hereditary rulers of Malaysian States, has called for the Parliament to be convened before the 1st of August.

Malaysia usually follows the Westminster model of governance. The King, who holds office for five years on a rotational basis among rulers for five years, normally does not interfere in the running of the country except to nominate Prime Ministers, like in the case of the British monarch. This is usually not fraught with difficulties since it follows elections, thus rendering the identification of the leader of the majority party fairly easy. But unlike the British monarch who stays on the throne till death, which may sometimes be a very long time (as now), the limited time-period of the Malaysian counterpart enhances the propensity for a bit of meddling in order to ensure a legacy of sorts, a common human aspiration. Also, Malaysian rulers take their headship of the Faith more seriously than the British Crown. Traditionally they have a say in Islam-related issues, which in Malaysia, is serious business, implying more public contacts and roles. This is one of the reasons why Sultan Abdullah Ahmed Shah had stepped in to cut the Gordian knot of a political impasse in February /March of last year to appoint Muhyiddin without testing his majority in a vote of confidence.

Whatever majority the Prime Minister enjoyed, began to erode with desertions of supporters since. It became perilously low when two MPs from Umno, the Party that ruled Malaysia for six uninterrupted decades till its surprise defeat in the last polls, withdrew their support in January this year. The logical exercise aimed at demonstrating a clear majority for Muhyiddin was to persuade more MPs to join his camp. For that to come about, more negotiations and hence mor time, were needed. The pandemic situation came in handy, and he declared a State of Emergency, accompanied by a total ‘’lock-down”, to handle the health situation, postponing Parliamentary sittings to August when the Emergency would run out. The King went along. But the combination of the King’s appointment of Muhyiddin as Prime Minister in the first place, and then the backing of the State of Emergency thereafter, were beginning to cost the royals in terms of popularity without any substantive return. There is only so much of political insularity most modern monarchs can live with (The British Queen being a most notable exception)! So, Sultan Abdullah and the rulers have now demanded that the Prime Minister demonstrate his majority in a session convened now. After a bit of initial foot-dragging, the Prime Minister has now given in.

So, the session of the Parliament is now inevitable, and the Muhyiddin is in no position to relax and enjoy. His government had the support of Umno’s 38 MPs till recently. But now its Supreme Council President Ahmed Zahid Hamidi has withdrawn support. He has asked for an interim Prime Minister temporarily to lead Malaysia out of the present Pandemic, and though he did not name who it should be, it can easily be guessed! Particularly, as with many Malaysian politicians, he is also confronting corruption charges in courts, and being Prime Minister could prove a fair bit of help in tackling those! Indeed, he has made his ambitions clearer by affirming that he would not support Anwar Ibrahim, the man for whom the Prime Ministerial office has come so close so often, and yet always remained so painfully far! Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) has 88 MPs and it clearly the largest opposition bloc, but he has been failing to prove his majority to the King, despite his public claims for it. So, the uncertainties continue to deepen.

Muhyiddin Yassin is 74. But that is not at all an age for dampened interest in politics in Malaysia, where Mahathir Mohamad, a political player who, some say remains an aspirant for office, is 96! As to the capacity of the nation to fight the Pandemic effectively, it is being increasingly called into question. During the current month, the journal The Economist published its Global Normalcy Index, which seeks to show how close or far away countries are from returning to pre-pandemic norms. Of 50 nations surveyed, Malaysia ranks last. At this writing, Malaysia’s Covid fatalities have hit a daily record number of 9180, and keeps rising. This, together with the messiness of the country’s current political culture would leave many wondering as to why anyone would want to be Prime Minister at this time. It just goes to show that the lure of power in politics, circumstances notwithstanding, beggars belief, and often logic!

Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President & Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg

  • President Ahmed Zahid Hamidi
  • Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin
  • Perikatan Nasional (PN)
  • Politics and the Pull of Power
  • Malaise in Malaysia
  • Malaysia

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