Updated at 5:35 p.m. ET on 2020-03-02
In his first public address as Malaysia’s prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin promised a clean government Monday, as he emphasized that he had reluctantly accepted leadership to stabilize the country following a political turmoil that required the king’s intervention.
Muhyiddin, 72, delivered the 16-minute speech from the prime minister’s office about 34 hours after being sworn in by Malaysia’s king, amid claims from his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad that he – instead of Muhyiddin – had support to form a government.
“I realize that my appointment was not through an election. Instead, I was appointed after getting the support of the majority of members of parliament,” Muhyiddin said, without giving a total number of lawmakers backing him.
“I did not crave the office of prime minister. I only came to the rescue when both prime minister candidates did not have the support of the majority of members of parliament,” he said.
He was referring to Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim, another prominent lawmaker who had put himself forward as a candidate for prime minister during a week of political turmoil that followed Mahathir’s shock resignation one week ago.
“What choice did I have?” Muhyiddin asked, adding that had he not stepped in, it could have prolonged a political crisis, possibly leading to the dissolution of parliament and fresh elections.
Clad in a blue suit and tie and crisp white shirt for his first day as the nation's leader earlier Monday, Muhyiddin cast himself as a savior, not a traitor.
“As expected, some are calling me a traitor. Listen well. I am not a traitor,” he said.
“My instinct is clear, my presence here is to save the country from ongoing turmoil.”
Parliamentary vote sought
Muhyiddin now heads an alliance dominated by the multi-ethnic country’s Muslim majority, including the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party of corruption-tainted ex-premier Najib Razak, as well as the Islamist PAS party, which has been campaigning for stricter Islamic laws.
However, neither the king who appointed him to the post on Saturday nor Muhyiddin nor any of his allies have given an accounting of exactly how many lawmakers are in his new National Alliance coalition. Mahathir, for his part, asserted on Sunday that he had 114 MPs in his camp.
The number was trimmed later to 112 by Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan coalition amid warnings by him that it could be whittled down further through defections fueled by promises of government posts.
Mahathir and other opposition politicians and activists have called for an urgent session of parliament to settle the matter but Muhyiddin has not said if he’ll move to gain the endorsement of parliament in a bid to prove that he has majority support.
“The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih 2.0) calls for a special session of Parliament to put beyond doubt the question of whether the newly sworn-in PM Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin commands the majority in Parliament,” the group said in a statement, echoing similar calls voiced by demonstrators at a small rally staged late Sunday.
“If a special session is not called, then this vote of confidence should be moved as soon as when the next sitting of Parliament convenes on March 9th,” Bersih said.
Muhyiddin, who was sacked as deputy prime minister by Najib in 2015 after raising corruption concerns, later joined forces with Mahathir in leading a diverse coalition that brought about the first change of government in Malaysian history, with Mahathir at the helm.
Muhyiddin said Monday that his government would continue efforts to curb corruption and abuse of power.
“I’m also aware that what the people want is a government that is clean, has integrity and is free from corruption. To start with, I promise to appoint cabinet members from among individuals who are clean, of caliber and integrity,” he said.
A court hearing scheduled on Monday on 47 corruption and money laundering charges against UMNO leader Zahid Hamidi was postponed to Tuesday after his lawyers claimed that he had a scheduled meeting with Muhyiddin over the formation of a new cabinet, local news reports said.
Muhyiddin's office issued a statement Monday “clarifying” that there was no meeting scheduled with political leaders that day.
Zahid was then summoned to court to face possible contempt-of-court charges by government lawyers for allegedly lying to the court but he insisted that he had a letter to back his claim, the New Straits Times reported. The court then asked him to bring the letter on Tuesday, the report said.
Aside from Zahid – who faces a separate corruption trial in October involving 40 charges and 33 alternative charges of receiving bribes in his former position as home minister – several other UMNO leaders also await trials on graft charges, reports said.
UMNO, with 39 MPs, is the biggest party in Muhyiddin’s new National Alliance coalition.
In his speech, Muhyiddin also asserted that he was prime minister of all ethnicities and groups in the racially diverse country, although his governing coalition appeared to include only three non-Malays and no non-Malay parties.
“Give me a chance to leverage my 40 years of political and government experience to steer Malaysia,” Muhyiddin said.
‘Treachery and betrayal’
On Sunday, an aide to Azmin Ali, a minister in the previous government who was instrumental in ousting it by joining ranks with Muhyiddin, said the new government would protect press freedom and judicial independence, and that the graft trials of past leaders would continue.
“Najib’s trial will go on ... and for Rosmah and Zahid as well,” Khalid Jaafar told BenarNews, referring to Rosmah Mansor, Najib’s wife, and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the home affairs minister in Najib’s government.
He said there had been “no conditions, no deals” with UMNO, the anchor party of the ruling coalition that Mahathir defeated in 2018.
A leading figure with the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a predominantly ethnic Chinese party that holds the largest number of seats in parliament – 42 seats – blasted the new government.
“In 2018 the people decided, in 2020 the MPs decided,” said MP Ramkarpal Singh, chairman of the party’s legal bureau, calling Muhyiddin’s rise to power a result of “treachery and betrayal.”
“His success was not based on a level playing field,” Ramkarpal wrote. “It was a result of the treachery and betrayal of certain Members of Parliament who unashamedly deserted the very platform they campaigned on just less than two years ago to win the votes of the people.”
“They have brought back the very people the Rakyat [people] voted out two years ago,” he said. “This is unforgivable.”
Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.