Muhyiddin and Malay Rights: Too Early to Call

A Muhyiddin government will push for Malay rights, but this is unlikely to be done in excess

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad (left) and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin. (Photo: Tasnim News Agency and US Embassy KL)

Norshahril Saat

2 March 2020

The Malaysian King’s appointment of Muhyiddin Yassin as the country’s eighth prime minister will calm the political storm in the country for now. The Malay-dominant Perikatan Nasional – which is led by the erstwhile opposition parties United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), and a segment of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) – will form the government with the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) and Sarawak’s Gabungun Parti Sarawak (GPS).

Meanwhile, Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) last-minute bid to thwart Muhyiddin from being appointed as PM has failed. In the end, however, the final showdown for the top post was between Bersatu’s top two leaders: its chairman Mahathir and its president Muhyiddin. Bersatu MPs are now split in their support for the two.

For close observers of Malaysian politics, the episode is full of labyrinthine U-turns and betrayals. When the polls come round again in three years’ time, the electorate will rue on the so-called Sheraton move. At a dinner meeting held at the eponymous hotel in Petaling Jaya on Sunday, a group had sought to install the Perikatan Nasional at the expense of PH. Until today, there is no indication whether the decision to name Muhyiddin as a candidate for prime minister was made in that meeting, since the public was told that the move was to prevent a coup against former Dr Mahathir Mohamad by Anwar Ibrahim’s supporters.

Two competing narratives emerge from this episode. The first is the fight against kleptocracy, and the second, the protection of Malay rights and Islamic supremacy. The first narrative is what the remaining PH leaders seem to stand for, to ensure that the truth about the 1MDB scandal emerges. The second narrative seeks to halt PH’s belittling of Islam and Malay institutions. This is the cause that the emerging Perikatan National is championing.

The fissures between Muhyiddin and Mahathir have become more apparent. Before Muhyiddin’s swearing in on Sunday, Dr Mahathir revealed his disagreements with his former comrade-in-arms. Dr Mahathir said he was not willing to work with Umno en bloc while the corruption trials involving some of its leaders were still in train. He preferred to work with Umno MPs who were cleared of corruption. Muhyiddin, on the other hand, was more open to working with Umno, because a segment of the electorate dislike the fact that Bersatu, when it was in the PH, was in the same coalition as the Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party (DAP).

Two competing narratives emerge from this episode. The first is the fight against kleptocracy, and the second, the protection of Malay rights and Islamic supremacy.

Since January 2019, Umno and PAS have cooperated and won in five by-elections: Cameron Highlands Semenyih, Rantau, Tanjung Piai, and Kimanis. The two parties played up anti-DAP sentiments, which went down well with Malay voters who were unhappy with PH policies on Islam and Malay identity. The DAP was said to have a dominant influence over PH. Some of these issues included perceptions that some DAP leaders are supporting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the party’s push for the ratification of the International Convention of the Elimination of All forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and its rejection of a PH proposal to implement Jawi in vernacular schools.

Ideally, a Malaysian government should look to the interests of all ethnic groups. Leaders from various ethnic groups should be represented in parliament and cabinet. For now, PH may project the image of a multiracial coalition. However, the electorate does not only vote based on ethnicity, but the ability to implement policies and promises. The new Muhyiddin administration must work on how to deliver its promises effectively to the masses.

Despite all the criticisms levelled against Muhyiddin, it is too early to appraise the capabilities of the veteran politician. He could well turn out to be the right person to address the concerns of the Malays as well as tackle corruption. First, he has yet to make a stand on the ongoing 1MDB and other corruption trials. Years ago, he was sacked by Umno for criticizing then-prime minister Najib Razak. The right thing for Muhyiddin to do is to follow what Dr Mahathir had wanted, to ensure that the rule of law is observed.

Second, fighting for Malay and Muslim rights is not necessarily antithetical to tackling corruption. In fact, the religion clearly upholds important values such as integrity and justice. Moreover, the promotion of Islamic values should emphasize social equality. Marginalized Malaysians – of which Malays form a huge component – need to be helped. Third, a Muhyiddin government will be unlikely to push the Malay and Islam rights agenda excessively. In doing so, it might lose the support of the Sarawakian parties, which are not interested in those issues. Muhyiddin knows well that the parties in Sarawak and Sabah in his coalition are the kingmakers, and that their support is required to form the federal government.

To be sure, Muhyiddin’s emergence resulted from the political impasse of Dr Mahathir’s own doing, after he resigned as prime minister, and the inability of parliamentarians to concur on a candidate for prime minister. Muhyiddin can address all criticisms against his appointment if he declares his intentions from the onset. On Malay rights, there are a raft of mechanisms to put them in check. The newly-minted leader only needs to demonstrate enough commitment to do so.

Dr Norshahril Saat is Fellow and Co-coordinator of Indonesia Studies Programme (ISP) at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He is the Principal Investigator for Islamic Studies Graduates in Singapore project funded under the SSRTG (Social Science Research Thematic Grant).

ISEAS Commentary – 2020/22

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