Updated at 1:34 p.m. ET on 2020-03-10
When he first addressed the nation as Malaysia’s new prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin vowed to serve “all Malaysians,” but non-Malays already are criticizing his government by saying that his largely Malay-based ruling coalition could effectively shut out minorities.
Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance) bloc is dominated by parties whose members belong to the Muslim Malay majority, and there are only three lawmakers from parties affiliated with the coalition that represent minorities.
That’s in stark contrast to the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope), where minorities were well represented, but which collapsed last week less than two years after it won a historic election.
Charles Santiago, an MP representing the multi-cultural Democratic Action Party (DAP), took aim at Muhyiddin’s move to remove himself from Pakatan to gain power by aligning his party with a coalition that had ruled the multi-ethnic country before the 2018 election.
“Malaysia is set up as a multicultural, secular nation by the founding fathers. This is a test of the founding fathers’ vision of Malaysia,” Santiago told BenarNews.
“It is now a government that is far removed from the reform agenda brought about in GE14 by all Malaysians. Non-Malay voices will be subdued,” he said, referring to the country’s 14th general election in May 2018.
Muhyiddin and former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad created the Bersatu political party, which joined other parties in 2018, including the People’s Justice Party (PKR), to defeat the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and its coalition, which had been in power from Malaysia’s beginning as a nation in 1957.
Santiago said he had fears about UMNO, the party of former Prime Minister Najib Razak who faces a slew of criminal charges tied to the alleged embezzlement of billions of dollars from a state fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
He worried that UMNO would use its regained power to push Muhyiddin to drop charges against Najib and others, including UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who faces corruption charges not tied to 1MDB.
“If the PM does, then he will be seen as weak and complicit with those who were rejected by the people. This will be a difficult government to manage and I don’t know how they will do it,” Santiago said.
He said he also feared that the conservative Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which allied with Bersatu and the UMNO-anchored Barisan Nasional coalition to form Perikatan, would seek to introduce sharia law into the criminal justice system.
Shortly after taking the oath of office on March 1, Muhyiddin, a non-elected PM, tried to alleviate the concerns of the nation’s minorities. Malays account for about 60 percent of Malaysia’s 32 million people.
“I am prime minister for all Malaysians, from Perlis to Sabah. Whatever race or ethnicity, I am your prime minister. Give me a chance to use my 40 years of experience in politics and government to steer Malaysia to glory,” the 72-year-old career politician said in a nationally televised speech the next day.
His assurances did not sit well with some minority voters.
“I feel betrayed, like my voice doesn’t even matter in the grand scheme of things,” comic artist Kelvin Ng, 34, told BenarNews.
Ng, an ethnic Chinese, said he was particularly worried about the status of the trials involving Najib, Hamidi and Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, who also faces charges related to 1MDB. U.S. prosecutors allege that more than U.S. $4.5 billion (18.8 billion ringgit) was embezzled from 1MDB.
“I’m worried those charged will get away with it, and I am disappointed that this country is yet again run by corrupt people,” said Ng.
Another ethnic Chinese, Bok Chek Chu, a 58-year-old Penang resident, said he had no hope for the three non-Malay MPs who are part of the new ruling coalition.
“They are from MCA (the Malaysian Chinese Association) and MIC (the Malaysian Indian Congress), which were clearly rejected by the people in the last election,” he said.
Taking office in May 2018 after the electoral upset, Mahathir took steps to create an inclusive cabinet.
Among his first moves was appointing Tommy Thomas as attorney general. The appointment of Thomas, a Christian who was the first ethnic Indian to hold the post as the nation’s top lawyer, angered rightwing Muslim Malays who feared for the status of Islam as the federal religion.
Thomas resigned from his post last week, leading Muhyiddin to name Federal Court judge Idrus Harun to serve as attorney general on Friday.
Soon after taking office two years ago, Mahathir also named Lim Guan Eng, an ethnic Chinese member of DAP, as finance minister.
So far, only a few days into Muhyiddin’s term as prime minister, neither DAP, PKR or what is left of Pakatan Harapan have come out with any public statements questioning the stark lack of minority representation in the new government.
UMNO politician: ‘No big deal’
However, former UMNO supreme council member Shahrir Samad said the lack of such diversity in Muhyiddin’s coalition should not be an issue.
“It is no big deal except for the racists. Lim Guan Eng was at the helm and it did not make matters any better for the Chinese,” said Shahrir who lost his seat in parliament to a Pakatan candidate in 2018.
He called members of the ethnic Chinese community pragmatic, adding that their concerns were more about what the new government would do to make life better after “a dismal 2019,” and how it would deal with COVID-19.
“I reckon everyone knows it is going to be a tough year. So it will be tough for Muhyiddin too,” he said.
The new coalition could be making a mistake by not recognizing that Malaysia is a multicultural country, said James Chin, an analyst at the Asia Institute at University of Tasmania.
He described the new reality of Malaysian politics as “a mono-ethnic government in a multicultural country.”
“It is dangerous that they are trying to run a government that is just for one race,” he told BenarNews.
“PAS, I believe, will again try to push for RUU355, this time as a ruling party meaning they won’t be blocked from tabling it in parliament,” he said. RUU355 refers to PAS’s previous unsuccessful attempt to introduce amendments giving the nation’s sharia courts greater power.
Meanwhile, Awang Azman Awang Pawi, a political analyst at the University of Malaya, suggested that non-Malays would quietly make a comeback after the collapse of Pakatan and the rise of Perikatan.
“I believe there is growing talk of their voices being denied by what happened last week,” Awang Azman said, adding, “their leaders of choice won fairly and democratically in the previous election.”
Some, but not all, ethnic Chinese might become apathetic and see the sentiment of democracy as a waste of time, he said. For others, the change of leadership will serve as a catalyst.
“They have not given up on democracy, they will rise back up in silence,” he said.
Nisha David in Kuala Lumpur contributed to the report.
This report has been updated to correct the name of Kelvin Ng.