Explainer: Dark Day(s) in Malaysia as the Empire Strikes Back

Muhyiddin Yassin - New Naratif

If you told experienced political observers just three days ago that Muhyiddin Yassin would be Prime Minister at the end of Malaysia’s recent political crisis, you’d have been resoundingly dismissed.

But that’s exactly what happened. On March 1, 2020, Muhyiddin Yassin of the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (BERSATU) was sworn in as the eighth Prime Minister of Malaysia.

How did this relatively unassuming politician outmanoeuvre political dynamos such as Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim for the coveted post? What does this mean for Malaysia, who, less than two years ago, made history after a landmark general election that turned the country into the region’s most promising democratic hope? We take a look in this second round-up of Malaysia’s latest political saga.

Missed our first explainer? Catch up here.

Our last explainer ended with Mahathir Mohamad appointed interim prime minister. What’s happened since then?

It’s only been a week, but Malaysians have been taken on an epic rollercoaster ride—largely against their will.

Just as people began feeling like some semblance of order had been established with Mahathir’s appointment as interim prime minister, they were reminded that there are always more twists and turns in Malaysian politics.

It’s been a confusing flurry of announcements, horse-trading, and shifting allegiances, as parties and politicians attempted to navigate themselves into desirable positions.

It’s been a confusing flurry of announcements, horse-trading, and shifting allegiances, as parties and politicians attempted to navigate themselves into desirable positions.

At one point, everyone backed Mahathir to officially return to the premiership. Then they changed their minds; some (Pakatan Harapan) favoured Anwar Ibrahim instead, while others (UMNO and PAS) called for a snap election.

Mahathir proposed an unprecedented unity government, comprising Cabinet members from all political parties. That idea was short-lived.

The Agong personally interviewed 222 parliamentarians in two days in an attempt to figure out who enjoyed majority support for the premiership.

Mahathir was reported to have remained chairman of BERSATU. Then it was reported that his resignation had been accepted, and he wasn’t the chairman. Then it was reported that he was still the chairman. At the time of publication, it’s since been reported once again that Mahathir is no longer the chairman of the party.

In a plot twist very few had expected (or asked for), 36 MPs from BERSATU (including 10 former PKR members who’d switched parties) nominated Muhyiddin Yassin for the premiership. It turned out that BERSATU had split into Muhyiddin and Mahathir camps.

You can see why many Malaysians are thoroughly exhausted and pissed off by a week that’s felt like years.

Hang on. Who’s Muhyiddin Yassin?

Muhyiddin served as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education under former Prime Minister Najib Razak, until he was given the boot for criticising Najib over the handling of the 1MDB corruption scandal. He later became a founding member of BERSATU with Mahathir and other ex-UMNO members.

Muhyiddin once courted controversy when he said that he was a “Malay first”, in response to a question over whether he considered himself Malay or Malaysian.

He’s also had trouble with his health. After the 2018 general election, Muhyiddin was diagnosed with an early-stage tumour in the pancreas and spent a month in hospital, during which he underwent successful surgery.

Right. Back to the jockeying for the prime ministership.

Once they realised that a Muhyiddin-led government would include UMNO and PAS, Pakatan Harapan and Anwar opted for (what they thought was) the more strategic tactic of nominating Mahathir for the top spot. It seemed like Mahathir would officially return to power (again), and that the past week of political drama would be an annoying blip in the long, gruelling project of building a new Malaysia.

The Palace then dropped a bomb on February 29: The Agong had decided to appoint Muhyiddin as Prime Minister. The swearing-in ceremony was scheduled for the next day, at 10:30am.

The announcement stupefied many who had, just hours ago, assumed that the numbers were in Mahathir’s favour. As the hour of Muhyiddin’s swearing-in crept closer, Mahathir and Pakatan Harapan insisted that they had 114 MPs on their side, and that it was actually Mahathir who enjoyed majority support. It was too late; the Agong refused to see Mahathir or change his decision.

The Agong’s decision to appoint Muhyiddin Prime Minister stupefied many who had, just hours ago, assumed that the numbers were in Mahathir’s favour.

At around 9am on March 1—the morning of Muhyiddin’s inauguration—Mahathir denounced his former colleague and claimed in a press conference that Muhyiddin is “not the rightful Prime Minister”.

It wasn’t enough to halt the ceremony. At 10:30am, Muhyiddin officially became Malaysia’s eighth Prime Minister. Less than two years after being voted out on allegations of grand corruption, UMNO is back in power again. It’s also the first time since 1974 that the conservative PAS is tasting federal power.

Wow, that was a lot. So what can Mahathir or Pakatan Harapan do now?

Mahathir and Pakatan Harapan can present statutory declarations, or any other evidence, to show the Agong that Muhyiddin no longer commands the confidence of Parliament. There’s precedent for this, legitimised by the courts: There was a similar episode in the Sabah State Government in 2018, where Barisan Nasional’s Musa Aman had to resign as Chief Minister to make way for Warisan’s Shafie Apdal after six Barisan Nasional assemblymen signed statutory declarations in support of the latter.

Alternatively, a court challenge can be mounted against the Agong’s decision. However, this option seems less likely at this juncture.

Can Pakatan Harapan table a vote of no confidence against Muhyiddin?

Mahathir and Pakatan Harapan can call for a vote of no confidence against Muhyiddin at the next parliamentary sitting, scheduled for March 9, but they’ll need at least 112 MPs to vote against Muyiddin to succeed.

If they do succeed, Muhyiddin will have two options, according to Article 43(4) of the Federal Constitution:

  1. Resign and allow the Agong to choose another Prime Minister.
  2. Advise the Agong to dissolve Parliament, paving the way for another election. (In this scenario, it’s possible for the Agong to refuse and instead choose to appoint another premier.)

But, if the past week is anything to go by, a lot can happen between now and March 9, and it’s not a given that a no-confidence motion will succeed.

There’s a chance that there might not even be a parliamentary sitting in March: According to Article 55(1) of the Constitution, which stipulates a maximum limit of a six-month gap between two parliamentary sessions, the prime minister could potentially delay the convening of Parliament to May 2020 (six months from the last sitting in November 2019).

Does this mean Muhyiddin’s government could be in power for another five years?

No. Under Article 55(3) of the Constitution, elections must be held every five years. A new government doesn’t restart the clock, so to speak. This means a general election must be called in three years’ time, by the year 2023. To stay in power, Muhyiddin and his coalition will have to win at the ballot box then.

What’ll happen to all those 1MDB and other corruption charges levied against former and current politicians?

In the midst of all the commotion last week, Attorney General Tommy Thomas resigned from his position. Muhyiddin has yet to appoint someone to replace him. Theoretically, the new Attorney General may exercise their discretion to review these cases and even drop charges.

While Muhyiddin had previously fallen out with former Prime Minister Najib Razak after he spoke out on the 1MDB corruption scandal, Malaysians aren’t confident that this is enough to ensure the continued pursuit of justice—particularly since UMNO, the party from which many of those charged have come from, is back in power.

What has the reaction been among Malaysians?

There are many who are just relieved that the drama seems to have come to an end. But others are absolutely furious that the leaders they’d voted out in 2018 are back in power.

Many Malaysians are feeling dejected and defeated, and questioning the value of the votes they’d cast in 2018.

Many Malaysians are feeling dejected and defeated, and questioning the value of the votes they’d cast in 2018. The mood is sombre as Malaysians come to terms with this painful betrayal of the people’s mandate. Hashtags such as #NotMyPM and #TolakPenghianat (which translates to “reject the traitors”) have popped up on social media in protest, although you’ll also find tweets urging people to accept the Agong’s decision.

The authorities haven’t been idle either. An activist, Fadiah Nadwa, is being investigated for sedition and improper use of network facilities, after she sent out a tweet urging people to attend a demonstration on February 29 following the Agong’s appointment of Muhyiddin. Two other cases are also being investigated under the Sedition Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act, over social media content deemed to have insulted the Agong.

What does this mean for Malaysia?

The Muhyiddin administration will face an uphill task governing amidst a weak economy, global trade tensions, fragile race relations and the COVID-19 outbreak. He’ll also be leading a fragile coalition in Parliament, and will have the arduous task of constantly ensuring he has enough support to actually pass laws and monetary budgets.

Many Malaysians fear the return of tainted politicians and a revival of the culture of corruption which has plagued other administrations. The country’s civil society is keeping a close eye on whether this administration is going to adopt old habits of using repressive laws like the Sedition Act to quell dissent.

Ethno-nationalist policies which curtail the rights of minorities are also a concern. UMNO and PAS’ rhetoric about Muslim rights and privileges have been a cause for worry, especially among minority communities. In 2019, PAS President Hadi Awang, in an opinion piece, advised Muslims to place their trust in Muslim leaders regardless of their wickedness, claiming that believers will end up in hell if led by non-Muslims. In a more recent column, Hadi said that it was forbidden for those of the Islamic faith to surrender power to non-Muslims.

Is this the end of the road for Mahathir?

One should never count Mahathir out when it comes to Malaysian politics. While some may prefer that Mahathir make a graceful exit and allow the young the space to spearhead change, he’s unlikely to give up that easily.

Will Malaysians find a new hope? After all this, will Anwar ever be able to work with Mahathir again? Will Muhyiddin be able to work together with UMNO and PAS, and get along with those who’d previously thrown him out of UMNO for his comments on the 1MDB issue?

Only time will tell. And, if these past week is any indication, a lot can happen in a very short period.

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