Scandal-marred UMNO Returns to Power in Malaysia Unelected

Muzliza Mustafa, Hadi Azmi, S. Adie Zul and Noah Lee
Kuala Lumpur
Scandal-marred UMNO Returns to Power in Malaysia Unelected Ismail Sabri Yaakob (center), Malaysia’s incoming prime minister, arrives at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Aug. 20, 2021.

Updated at 2:20 p.m. ET on 2021-08-20

UMNO, Malaysia’s graft-tainted party that lost the last polls, returned to power Friday without having to fight an election when the king appointed party lawmaker Ismail Sabri Yaakob to be the next prime minister.

King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah will swear in Ismail Sabri, 61, as Malaysia’s ninth prime minister on Saturday, palace officials announced four days after former PM Muhyiddin Yassin resigned.

In line with the Federal Constitution, “His Majesty has consented to appoint Ismail Sabri Yaakob (Bera MP) as the ninth prime minister of Malaysia,” the palace said in a statement.

The king hoped the appointment would end political tussles and parliament would work together to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, the statement added.

The palace announced the appointment after the king met with Malaysia’s nine other royal rulers at the National Palace earlier on Friday. Ismail Sabri had been nominated by a majority of MPs – 114 of 220 lawmakers – the palace said.

The prime minister-designate did not issue a statement on Friday.

After Muhyiddin’s resignation on Monday, the king ruled out fresh elections due to an unprecedented spike in coronavirus cases.

With no clear successor to Muhyiddin it fell to the king to pick a PM. And he chose Ismail Sabri, vice president of the ethnic Malay-centric United Malays National Organization’s – despite concerns voiced among some Malaysians that the new leader is prejudiced and that he botched the government’s pandemic response while serving as deputy prime minister under Muhyiddin.

The new PM will have to promptly call for a vote of confidence in parliament, though, to prove that he has the backing of a majority of lawmakers, the king decreed earlier this week. Parliament is scheduled to begin a regular sitting Sept. 6.

The king’s decision marks a change from last year when he appointed the unelected Muhyiddin as leader without requiring a confidence vote in the legislature.

Ismail Sabri is a veteran politician who most recently served as Muhyiddin’s deputy and a main official in charge of handling the pandemic.

New covid cases have soared despite the imposition of another lockdown by Muhyiddin’s government in June, with daily infections breaching a record on Friday for a second consecutive day. The country has racked up 1.5 million cases of the virus so far.

On Thursday night, police arrested 31 people attending a memorial vigil for the 13,700 COVID-19 victims, Katrina Jorene Maliamauv, executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia, said in a statement.

‘Old wine in a same old bottle’

UMNO is back in power three years after being defeated in a general election for the first time in more than 60 years.

The party was swept out of power in 2018 by a wave of popular criticism in the wake of a financial scandal that implicated then-Prime Minister Najib Razak and in which billions of dollars were looted from 1MDB, a state sovereign wealth fund which he had established.

UMNO this time around will be ruling with a slim majority and with the support of a sizable number of lawmakers loyal to Muhyiddin, whose fall it engineered.

After Muhyiddin resigned, UMNO cobbled together support for its candidate Ismail Sabri, much like the previous coalition government did in March 2020. 

All except one of the MPs who support UMNO’s Ismail Sabri were part of Muhyiddin’s ruling coalition, which lost majority backing when UMNO said 15 of its lawmakers had pulled support for the alliance on Aug. 4.

For Tunku Mohar Tunku Mokhtar, from the International Islamic University of Malaysia, that means there is no perceptible difference between this administration and the previous one.

“This government is going to be no different from the one it is going to replace. Old wine in a new bottle is what it is,” the political analyst told BenarNews.

Like Muhyiddin’s government, this one, too, was not elected by Malaysians – and the new coalition’s partners are the same as in the previous government.

After its 2018 loss, UMNO managed to become part of the government after the coalition that defeated it fell apart in February 2020. Now, Muhyiddin’s coalition is supporting UMNO.

Still, many on social media noted that they were again saddled with a government Malaysians had not elected.

“The very government that was dissolved due to their incompetence was made government again,” tweeted @ MrFaizAhmad.

And @Gobinat Murugayah riffed on the “old wine” proverb, tweeting: “It’s more like same old wine in a same old bottle, with the label being replaced. It will taste the same.”

Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition who again was denied an opportunity to serve as prime minister, described the king’s move to appoint Ismail Sabri as PM as aligning with the Constitution.

“Let us all pray and work so that the COVID-19 epidemic crisis and the economy are immediately resolved and addressed for the sake of the people,” Anwar said in a statement.

“For all leaders, members and supporters, we urge all to accept this decision with determination to work harder towards GE-15, so that we can win back the people’s mandate that we have received in the last General Election,” he said.

Before the 2018 polls, he and Mahathir Mohamad formed a pact to lead the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition to victory, but they agreed that Mahathir would transfer power to Anwar, his former deputy and longtime political rival, within two years.

That never happened. Pakatan collapsed over internal resistance and fighting over the prospect of Anwar taking over as PM.

What happens to 1MDB trials?

Meanwhile, many are raising questions about how trials in the 1MDB case would proceed with UMNO back in power.

Former PM Najib was convicted in one case and sentenced to 12 years in prison, but he is out pending a decision on an appeal. He is charged in a second case related to 1MDB, but that trial has yet to begin, and many of his associates are facing court cases as well.

Separately, UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is also being tried for 47 corruption charges involving millions of ringgit in an unrelated case.

Analyst Oh Ei Sun believes these corruption cases will be affected with UMNO back in power.

“There must be some deals right, struck between Ismail Sabri and … UMNO,” Oh, with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, told BenarNews.

“There are various subtle ways where they can ‘go slow’ and lessen this prosecution without outright dropping the charges. … They could also withdraw charges bluntly, they could do that, but that unseemly, right?”

Racism allegations against Ismail Sabri

Others are concerned not only about UMNO, but Ismail as well.

A petition titled “We don’t want Ismail Sabri Yaakob to be prime minister [of] Malaysia,” on, has collected more than 360,000 signatures since it was started on Wednesday, when it became almost certain that the UMNO nominee would be named PM.

It said Ismail Sabri had mismanaged the pandemic and made offensive comments about Chinese Malaysians. In 2015, Ismail Sabri indicated that ethnic Malays should boycott Chinese-owned businesses.

Academic Tunku Mohar expanded on some of these critiques, saying Ismail’s record was filled with failures.

For instance, his decision to set up a shopping mall exclusively for Malay traders to sell digital devices ended up a failure and a short-lived venture, the academic noted.

“He’s also not known for any ideas or vision,” Tunku Mohar said.

‘As fragile as before’

However, despite reservations about UMNO, some Malaysians on social media said they were glad that political instability had ended.

Analyst Oh believes they may rejoicing prematurely.

“The government is as fragile as before,” Oh said.

In addition, Muhyiddin’s coalition – which boasts 50 MPs – could do to UMNO what UMNO did to their leader, Oh said.

That is, these MPs could withdraw support to Ismail Sabri, leaving him with only 64 MPs in his corner, well short of 111 that a PM needs to stay in power.

The current government’s term is scheduled to end in July 2023.

Some opposition parties congratulated Ismail Sabri on being named PM, but they were also bitter that they could not be back in government despite winning the 2018 elections.

Mohamad Sabu, president of Amanah, a member of the 2018 winning coalition, hoped Malaysians would not lose faith in the country’s democratic election process.

“I am saddened that those who were given the mandate by the people in the 2018 General Election did not get a mandate again,” he said in a statement.

“Maybe the people now feel that the election process has become wasted.”


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