Malaysia’s King Urges Politicians to Set Aside Differences Amid COVID-19 Surge

Hadi Azmi and Noah Lee
Kuala Lumpur
2021-01-19
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Malaysia’s King Urges Politicians to Set Aside Differences Amid COVID-19 Surge Malaysia’s King Al-Sultan Abdullah Riayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah inspects an honor guard during the 62nd Independence Day celebrations in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Aug. 31, 2019.
Reuters

Malaysia’s king asked politicians in the country on Tuesday to set aside their differences after lawmakers across the spectrum questioned his decision to declare a national emergency to contain escalating coronavirus cases.

Meanwhile, Malaysia extended a lockdown over most of the country amid consistently elevated rates of COVID-19 cases daily, a day after the prime minister announced a multi-billion-dollar stimulus package to shore up the pandemic-battered economy.

“This is the time for us as Malaysians to put aside our political differences, races and religions and show our loyalty, humanity and solidarity in fighting the pandemic,” King Al-Sultan Abdullah Riayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah said in a statement.

“With all the support and cooperation from all, we can flatten the curve and ease the burden carried by our frontliners. With God’s grace, we can break the chain of infection in the country effectively,” the king said.

On Jan. 12, he declared an emergency in the country – on the advice of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin – citing the increase in COVID-19 cases.

On Tuesday, the government expanded a lockdown to most of the country, after the country reported 3,631 new coronavirus infections and 14 virus-related deaths.

A day earlier, the government announced a U.S. $3.7 billion package to mitigate the economic impact of the lockdowns and the surge in coronavirus infections.

Rising criticism of emergency

The emergency declaration was criticized by a raft of political parties, many of which said an emergency was not needed to contain the coronavirus surge. Muhyiddin used the worsening pandemic as a pretext to cling to power after he had lost majority support in parliament, others said.

On Monday, a former member of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) – a key partner in the ruling bloc – said he was filing a lawsuit against Muhyiddin for requesting the king to declare an emergency.

“My main intention in filing this … [case] is to seek the judiciary’s views on whether a prime minister who has lost the support of the majority has the ‘locus standi’ to advise His Majesty for an emergency proclamation in our country,” Khairuddin Abu Hassan said in a statement.

He noted that Muhyiddin’s government had lost a majority after two UMNO MPs withdrew support to the government in quick succession earlier this month.

The king declared the emergency on the same day that support for Muhyiddin’s coalition fell to 109 among 220 MPs. It is slated to end Aug. 1, unless the king is advised to end it an earlier date.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said on Monday that the emergency “removes the last vestige of democratic rights of the people.”

“This government has now lost its majority and therefore the right to rule. … Through the proclamation, this minority government has now gained absolute power to rule,” he wrote on his blog.

Non-political groups have also criticized the emergency proclamation.

On Sunday, 10 former presidents of the Malaysian Bar said in a letter that the pandemic wasn’t a reason to declare an emergency.

“[I]t is very troubling that the government has set a dangerous precedent for the use of Proclamations when the requisite conditions are not met under the Constitution. … It is therefore imperative that both the Proclamation of Emergency and the Ordinance be laid before Parliament, as soon as possible,” said the letter published in the Malay Mail newspaper.

Last week, two medical association said the emergency declaration should be used responsibly and the health system shouldn’t be politicized.

Analyst: King’s power cannot be challenged

Meanwhile, constitutional expert Shamrahayu Aziz said that lawmakers had no constitutional right to ask the king to reconvene parliament.

According to the constitution, “it is clear that courts have no jurisdiction to review the proclamation, and in the literal sense it means members of parliament also have no right to press the king to ensure parliament meet,” Shamrahayu, of the International Islamic University of Malaysia, told BenarNews.

“Furthermore, parliament is still suspended according to Section 14 of the Emergency Ordinance, so the Emergency Ordinance itself prohibits parliament from sitting. So in my view there is no basis for the MPs to appeal to the king to call for parliament.”

Economic package ‘for political survival’

The new $3.7 billion COVID-19 assistance package announced on Monday is the fifth such one since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in Malaysia. The government last year announced 305 billion ringgit ($ U.S. 75 million) in pandemic aid.

This new package, which includes wage subsidies and cash aid, is anchored on three main objectives, Muhyiddin said in his speech announcing the initiative.

“First, combating the COVID-19 outbreak; second, safeguarding the welfare of the people; and third, supporting business continuity,” the PM said.

“[T]he government  understands that during MCO [lockdowns], all types of businesses face various challenges including difficulties in managing cash flow as well as utility and rental payments. As such, the Government will endeavor to reduce the business sector’s burden through several measures.”

Economist Nazari Ismail said that the government could ill afford the new COVID-19 economic package but needed to introduce it for political reasons.

“The government cannot really afford it since the debt level is already too high, but since people expect government assistance like the previous time, the government has to come up with the package for its political survival,” Nazari, from  Universiti Malaya, told BenarNews.

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