The Malay power play that brought the reformist Pakatan Harapan coalition government to an end after a mere 22 months threatens human rights, democracy and good governance in multi-racial Malaysia.
The government that took power on March 1 is dominated by parties that believe in the supremacy of the Malay Muslim majority. Politicians from constituent parties in the new ruling bloc have argued that Pakatan Harapan (the Alliance of Hope) gave the country’s minorities too much power through key cabinet appointments and sought to reverse the privileged position of ethnic Malays, who for decades had benefitted from affirmative action programs and quotas.
The government of newly sworn-in Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has also placed the conservative Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) into a position of power where it can influence public policy.
On Feb. 23, Azmin Ali, a member of the then-ruling Pakatan Harapan bloc, met with Malay political leaders, both in the opposition and from within the government. Not invited was his rival in the People’s Justice Party (PKR), Anwar Ibrahim, who was chafing to succeed 94-year-old Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister.
Azmin Ali reached out to the leaders of the disgraced and corruption-laden United Malays National Organization party, UMNO’s Islamist ally PAS, factions of Mahathir and Muhyiddin’s own Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), as well as some of the Borneo-based parties that had backed Pakatan Harapan.
Mahathir refused to join them, arguing that he would not work with UMNO. Mahathir resigned, putting into play a week of scrambling among contending political factions to cobble a minimum of 112 seats required to form a ruling coalition.
Although Mahathir and Anwar agreed to work together in the final days of the crisis, and claimed to have as many as 114 supporters in parliament, the Malaysian King – no friend of Mahathir – invited Muhyiddin Yassin to form a government.
The backdoor power grab disenfranchised the electorate. Pakatan Harapa’s manifesto had sufficient appeal to dislodge a coalition that had governed for 61 years. Pakatan had a clear electoral mandate, winning 5.5 million votes, or 45 percent of the electorate.
Even though UMNO clawed back, winning five by-elections since 2018, Pakatan’s supporters now have every reason to feel that they lost power through elite backroom dealings.
UMNO back in power
Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance) government could be very short-lived. If Pakatan commands the at least 112 votes it claims to have, the bloc may move quickly to bring down Muhyiddin through a no-confidence vote.
Even if Muhyiddin holds on to power, he will have a razor-thin majority in parliament and will be leading a coalition of defectors from PKR and Bersatu, UMNO, PAS, and bumiputera parties from Sabah and Sarawak.
While coalition partners today, these parties are all competing for the votes of Malays, who make up 60 percent of the country’s 31.6 million people. That’s very different than putting together a multi-racial coalition.
The parliamentary coup, which installed Muhyiddin as Malaysia’s eighth prime minister, returned the disgraced and corrupt UMNO to power.
It led to the resignation of the respected Tommy Thomas as attorney general. In turn, this could also potentially end the prosecution of former Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, who are on trial separately for alleged corruption linked to the embezzlement of billions of U.S. dollars from the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund. Najib, alone, faces 42 separate counts.
The president of UMNO, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, himself is under investigation by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and faces 87 counts of corruption, abuse of power, money laundering and breach of public trust. Expectations are that those charges will be dropped if Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance) coalition holds on. In a stunning display of defiance, Zahid failed to show up for his court appearance on Monday.
Islamists share power
PAS, the Islamist party, is now empowered as a constituent party in the new government. In the one year of its alliance with UMNO, PAS was the ideological driver. With 18 seats, PAS will comprise around 15 percent to 16 percent of the ruling bloc.
PAS will make maximalist demands in pushing forward its Islamist agenda. And the party is uncompromising when it comes to its agenda. Do not forget that ahead of the 2018 general election, PAS was willing to jettison its working coalition with the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party and PKR, for the sake of pushing through its hudud bill.
Since UMNO’s post-election alliance with PAS, it all but jettisoned its albeit diminished former coalition partners, the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress, which got routed in the 2018 polls and together hold only three seats. UMNO has now adopted a strategy based on Malay supremacy. The days when it made some attempt to protect the rights and privileges of the country’s minorities are over.
Leaders of the main Malay-based parties in the new government have blamed Pakatan for giving too much power to the ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities by placing members of those communities in positions of authority.
In particular, it galled them that Mahathir appointed Tommy Thomas, a non-Muslim, as attorney general, giving him purview over the country’s sharia court system.
Likewise, they feared that the DAP’s Lim Guan Eng, who held the finance portfolio, would use his position to roll back the subsidies and special privileges that a majority of Malaysians – mostly Malays – had grown to depend on.
A Malay-first coalition augurs very poorly for the country’s minorities. It is clear that religious zealots, such as the televangelist cleric Zakir Naik, will have a much freer hand in calling for policies that will impact religious minorities.
The new government, too, has wasted no time in exacting retribution from political opponents, civil society and journalists who, unfettered since the 2018 election, had used their newfound freedoms to unearth corruption and abuse by the former UMNO-led government.
Muhyiddin’s government immediately moved against two prominent civil society leaders, Marina Mahathir and Ambiga Sreenevasan, opening investigations into a public protest they held. Authorities launched a sedition probe into another protest led by lawyer Fadiah Nadwa Fikri.
A step backward
It is hard to emphasize what a setback the collapse of Pakatan and the sudden rise of Perikatan Nasional promises to be for Malaysia.
A government made up of parties that pander to the idea of Malay supremacy will only exacerbate race relations and give Islamists a prominent role in shaping public policy. It brings discredited and corrupt elites back to power, while returning to a period of unaccountability by targeting civil society and the media.
Even if Pakatan Harapan is able to fight back and retake the government, the dizzying developments that took place in the six days between Mahathir’s resignation and Muhyiddin’s installation as PM have shown just how fragile and precarious Malaysia’s democratic gains are.
A handful of politicians have shown that self-enrichment, self-preservation, and a quest for power, trump all.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews.