Desperation Debases Democracy in Malaysia

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has not got the emergency powers he had asked for. His government has lived to fight another day. Still, the constant horse-trading and bickering among the country’s political class has only subverted the country’s democracy.

A protester holds a sign that reads “Reject traitors” across an image of Muhyiddin Yassin during a demonstration to protest the ejection of the democratically elected government in Kuala Lumpur on 1 March 2020. (Photo: Mohd Rasfan, AFP)
Lee Hwok Aun

Lee Hwok Aun

27 October 2020

If one had thought that Malaysia’s political intrigue and turmoil peaked in February 2020, October came along to match and even supersede it. The ruling coalition’s desperation in clinging on to power has almost subverted democracy in an unprecedented way. Yet, the country’s democracy received a shot in the arm on Sunday (Oct 25), when the Agong stunningly rejected Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s advice to declare an emergency.

The Agong’s decision, however, has only bought some time. In reality, the political roller-coaster of October is essentially a reprise of February.

Eight months ago, defections from Pakatan Harapan coalition members Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia and Parti Keadilan Rakyat overturned Pakatan’s 2018 electoral mandate. The two parties ran into the arms of the United Malays National Organisation and Parti Islam SeMalaysia. Together with Gabungan Parti Sarawak and a smattering of smaller parties, this new coalition captured the corridors of power in Putrajaya.

Muhyiddin emerged on top in the new Perikatan Nasional coalition, becoming Malaysia’s eighth prime minister, albeit not as originally plotted. The plan was for the seventh Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to retain office, but he refused to work with UMNO en bloc. In his mind, UMNO was led by its corruption-tainted top brass.

Mahathir had also inflamed discontent within Pakatan, by packing Bersatu members in state governments and the federal cabinet. He also sought to cling on to power and refused to abide by a deal to hand over power to Anwar Ibrahim after two years. In theory at least, the country’s top political job was Anwar’s for the taking, given that he led the largest party in the Pakatan coalition by parliamentary seats.

Muhyiddin similarly overplayed his hand, stacking positions of power with Bersatu members, and side-lining UMNO. UMNO had ample reason to feel offended; after all, it is the largest party in Perikatan and the dominant political force throughout Malaysia’s history, with an established grassroots presence and enduring popularity in the Malay heartland. Back in government, but deprived of the top reins, UMNO enjoyed a resurgence in confidence, ambition and impatience. Like Pakatan, the greatest threat to Perikatan resides within, not without.

All this transpired amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. It must be acknowledged that the Muhyiddin administration ably and empathically handled the pandemic and provided economic relief and stimulus. His approval ratings hovered handsomely at 70 per cent in August.

All this means that Muhyiddin will scramble to mitigate the damage and to survive the upcoming parliament sitting. The upshot is that the Agong’s decision, having upheld the government while rebuking the overstep, is both a boost and a bane.

That seemingly smooth ride abruptly hit three bumps. First, on September 23, Anwar announced that he had the support of a strong and formidable majority of parliamentarians. Twice thwarted as PM heir apparent, and with the window closing, this desperate lunge was greeted with incredulity. A disgruntled pack in UMNO, including President Zahid Hamidi and Najib Razak, apparently supported Anwar’s gambit. Still, this was not tenable, since working with the likes of UMNO was anathema to the Democratic Action Party, the largest party in Pakatan. Anwar’s audience with the Agong on 13 October failed to get him the desired political result. Still, the cracks in Perikatan widened.

Second, the Sabah elections of 26 September – triggered by another failed power grab and the premature dissolution of the state assembly – delivered a Pyrrhic victory for Muhyiddin. A Perikatan-aligned state coalition won and his choice of chief minister prevailed over UMNO’s claims for the post, despite the latter’s position as the party with the most state assembly seats. This, of course, fanned UMNO’s fury.

Third, Muhyiddin’s popularity dipped and he came under pressure from multiple fronts. The country’s number of Covid-19 cases spiked in the wake of Sabah’s elections. Muhyiddin incurred the public’s ire – while they had to contend with the the health and economic fallout, the prime minister was letting rule-flouting politicians off the hook.

This was not the end of it. Some in UMNO suggested a ceasefire between the country’s founding Malay majority party and Bersatu. But UMNO is deeply factionalised, and animated by its share of mavericks like Tengku Razaleigh, who have publicly questioned why Mahathir’s no confidence motion against Muhyiddin was precluded from parliament’s July proceedings.

A bigger twist occurred last Friday, when Muhyiddin emerged from an extraordinary cabinet meeting with a proposal for the Agong to declare an emergency, purportedly to combat Covid-19. The call was widely received with shock, disdain and anger.

Malaysia has managed the pandemic thus far without such draconian measures. Absurdly, under this emergency, pandemic-related regulations continue unaltered; the only difference is parliament will be suspended. Legal luminaries like former Attorney-General Tommy Thomas condemned the declaration as unconstitutional. The only conceivable reason to invoke emergency powers would be to forestall a parliamentary challenge – a situation that will arise if Perikatan fails to pass the next federal budget in early November.

On Friday afternoon, a Muhyiddin-led entourage raced to see the Agong in the east coast city of Kuantan, in his home state of Pahang. The Agong withheld a decision, electing instead to convene a Conference of Malay Rulers meeting on Sunday. In perhaps the greatest twist of all, the Agong rejected the prime minister’s emergency declaration.

The monarch expressed confidence that Muhyiddin’s administration can pull the nation through the pandemic, and admonished politicians to handle the Covid-19 pandemic, revive the economy and cease the “politicking” that destabilises government.

All this means that Muhyiddin will scramble to mitigate the damage and to survive the upcoming parliament sitting. The upshot is that the Agong’s decree, having upheld the government while rebuking the overstep, is both a boost and a bane. Reports indicate Muhyiddin contemplated resigning, but was persuaded to stay. His Bersatu acolytes need his protection. UMNO holds the trump cards, ready to pounce when the pandemic passes. Opposition leader Anwar, already rebuffed by the Agong, faces the same unviable path.

Talk of a “confidence and supply” deal has amplified, in which the opposition agrees to cooperate on the budget but not on other parliamentary matters. Neither side will come out looking good if the budget fails. These circumstances may induce a truce. After the budget, though, the political games will probably resume.

Malaysia’s old guard, desperately craving power or clinging to it, keeps debasing its democracy. It is no wonder then, that scepticism and even cynicism about the country’s political class is growing among Malaysians.

Dr Lee Hwok-Aun is a Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/168

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