The fall of the Kedah state government led by Mukhriz Mahathir will change the country’s political map, and the fortunes of the various players involved.
18 May 2020
After Perikatan Nasional (PN) wrestled control of the Malaysian federal government from Pakatan Harapan (PH), three other state governments also moved in the same direction. Like a series of dominoes, PH governments in Perak, Johor, and Melaka fell to PN after several assemblymen from Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) defected. One is left wondering why the Kedah state government did not falter along with the three.
Currently, the Kedah state assembly has 36 seats. After the 2018 election, PH won 19 seats, Umno (United Malays National Organization) two and Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) 15. On 12 May, the Mukhriz Mahathir government lost its majority support in the Legislative Assembly after two PKR assemblymen – Azman Nasrudin (Lunas) and Robert Ling Kui Ee (Sidam) – left the party to become independent and PN-friendly MPs. Four PPBM assemblymen declared support for PN. To be sure, this latest development demonstrates the extent of the split in PPBM at the national and state levels, now with the battle lines between Mahathir and his former loyalist Muhyiddin clearly demarcated. Who are the winners and losers in this battle?
Why Muhyiddin Initially Left Kedah Untouched
At the federal level, the PH government fell after a number of PPBM MPs left the coalition along with several PKR members. One would expect a similar trend to happen in the Kedah state assembly, but a gentlemen’s agreement kept Mukhriz Mahathir as the state’s chief minister. He continued to have the support of seven PKR, six PPBM, four Amanah (National Trust Party) and two DAP (Democratic Action Party) assemblymen. That is, until the defection of the two PKR and four PPBM assemblymen.
There are three reasons why PN delayed the toppling of the Mukhriz government. First, Muhyiddin had wanted to make amends with Mahathir. Needless to say, the way he toppled the Mahathir government breached an unwritten code of gentlemanly conduct. The PN coalition is legal, as it is endorsed by the Malaysian King; that said, it is a backdoor government formed on the back of an alliance with Umno and PAS. Muhyiddin had wanted PPBM to leave PH, as he objected to the call, made by PH leaders, for Mahathir to determine a timeline to hand over power to Anwar Ibrahim. Yet, it was Muhyiddin who ended up as prime minister. Muhyiddin tried to reach out to Mahathir in his first address as prime minister, by apologising to Mahathir and offering to meet. Mahathir rejected the request.
With Muhyiddin repeating the 2016 episode, some Malays consider the move as tidak mengenang budi (ungrateful), an essential value in Malay culture. Was it not for Mahathir and Mukhriz, Muhyiddin’s political career would have suffered a setback.
Second, toppling Mukhriz – a son of Mahathir – is tantamount to a slap in face of the latter. Kedah is Mahathir’s home state, and he had served as MP for Kubang Pasu from 1974 to 2004. He is also the key architect behind the Langkawi island’s transformation into a tourist attraction, and currently serves as its MP. The collapse of the PH government in Kedah means that Mahathir will effectively be serving in enemy territory.
Third, after Muhyiddin was sworn in as prime minister, Mahathir seemed to be sitting on the fence. While he did not endorse the PN government, he also criticised Anwar for being too impatient to become prime minister. Moreover, in numerous occasions Mahathir said he no longer has the majority support in parliament after Muhyiddin offered his supporters ministerial and government positions. He sounded resigned to accepting defeat. Furthermore, when PH named Anwar as leader of the opposition, one expected Mahathir to finally embrace the Muhyiddin government, or to stay neutral. Instead, Mahathir filed a vote of no confidence against the prime minister, and vowed to work with Anwar to restore the PH government.
The Gloves are Off
By undermining the Mukhriz government, Muhyiddin has made his intentions for a straight fight with Mahathir crystal clear. How will society judge their narratives? Mahathir wants to fight kleptocracy and corruption – the very reasons why he brought down the Najib Razak government in the first place. He also denied that the Democratic Action Party is undermining the Malays and Islam. By contrast, Muhyiddin is tapping support from the Malay/ Muslim ground who felt marginalised by the previous PH government. This does not mean he is less committed in tackling corruption. To illustrate, he did not appoint Umno leaders with ongoing court cases into his cabinet.
Nevertheless, the manner in which Muhyiddin brought PH down may not go down well with some Malaysians, who remembered what happened to him in 2016. He was removed as deputy prime minister, sacked from Umno, and summarily sent into the political wilderness for calling for more transparency over the long-running 1MDB issue. Likewise, Mukhriz was removed from Umno and his Kedah government toppled. With Muhyiddin repeating the 2016 episode, some Malays consider the move as tidak mengenang budi (ungrateful), an essential value in Malay culture. Was it not for Mahathir and Mukhriz, Muhyiddin’s political career would have suffered a setback.
The biggest beneficiary in this latest episode is PAS, which regains control of the state for the first time since 2013. The party will also consolidate its control of the peninsular by forming the state governments in Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu. But PAS should not be too pleased with this latest gift. First, PN prevented it from immediately taking over the state after Muhyiddin’s prime minister appointment on 1 March, even though it has the largest number of assemblymen. The move demonstrates that PAS’ rights are secondary compared to political calculations at the national level. Second, being awarded the Kedah government is merely a consolation, for it is being denied the bigger prize. It remains a junior partner in Muhyiddin’s cabinet appointments. Third, PAS should not underestimate Kedahans’ deep respect for Mahathir. What the Najib government did to the statesman in 2016 led to Kedah falling to PH. Muhyiddin may well be punished in the next election, and PAS may not retain its fingerhold on the state for long.
Dr Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
ISEAS Commentary — 2020/63
The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.