Updated at 3:43 p.m. ET on 2020-03-04
Malaysia’s new government has ignored calls for an urgent sitting of parliament to show it has a majority support from lawmakers, amid criticism from opposition and civil society leaders who say that legitimacy of the ruling coalition is in doubt.
The next session of parliament, which had been scheduled to open on Monday, will begin in mid-May, according to a schedule released by the speaker of parliament based on instructions from new Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
“I have received a notification letter signed by the prime minister as the head of council to inform that the government has decided the first meeting of the third session, which was scheduled to begin on March 9, has been postponed to Monday, May 18,” said the statement signed by parliamentary speaker Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof.
Muhyiddin was sworn in March 1 after he and other lawmakers from the ruling coalition defected and joined ranks with the party of corruption-tainted ex-premier Najib Razak, whose government was ousted in the 2018 general election, and the Islamist PAS party, which has been campaigning for stricter Islamic laws in the multi-racial country.
Both Muhyiddin and Malaysia’s king said that he had support from a majority of 222 members of parliament, without giving a tally.
On Wednesday, opposition figures again called for more concrete evidence.
The postponement “has been interpreted as a ‘sign of weakness’ that the prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, does not have the majority support of MPs to be a legitimate prime minister of Malaysia,” said Lim Kit Siang, a senior leader of the Democratic Action Party (DAP).
DAP was a main party in the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition that unraveled in late February, leading to the shock resignation of then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Feb. 24.
Following a week of political turmoil and shifting alliances, Mahathir announced that he had the support of 114 MPs to return to the post, but said that King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah would not meet with him to allow him to present the information.
Power to delay parliament session
Back in power as part of Muhyiddin’s new National Alliance coalition, officials from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) – Najib’s party – said the two-month postponement was needed and not a delay tactic.
“Some say we are afraid to convene and that is why it is being postponed. You have to understand that this is not done in haste,” UMNO Secretary General Annuar Musa told reporters at party headquarters in Kuala Lumpur.
Annuar said Muhyiddin’s new government needed to issue a notice appointing a new parliament speaker and to appoint new members to cabinet posts.
“The new opposition will have to send questions to parliament and parliament has to pass those questions to the ministers. Right now where do we send questions when the prime minister has yet to appoint any ministers?” Annuar asked.
He said the Pakatan coalition, after assuming power in May 2018, spent nearly two months establishing a cabinet before parliament could reconvene.
Constitutional analyst Shamrahayu A. Aziz, of the International Islamic University of Malaysia, said the prime minister had the power to delay a legislative session.
“[B]ecause the prime minister has just been sworn in, he probably wants to take some time before having the parliament in session,” Shamrahayu told BenarNews.
On the day Mahathir said he had 114 supporters, Pakatan Harapan later revised the number down to 112 amid warnings that it could be whittled down further through defections fueled by promises of government posts.
Mahathir and activists, including from the grassroots Bersih movement, had also pressed for an urgent session of parliament.
“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 on Monday.
“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’s alignment with UMNO, meanwhile, has created questions about the status of criminal charges against Najib and his former deputy prime minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.
Najib is on trial in two separate courts on corruption charges linked to beleaguered state development fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and a subsidiary. A total of 42 charges have been filed and the former prime minister could face additional trials linked to what U.S. prosecutors described as the embezzlement of more than U.S. $4.5 billion (18.8 billion ringgit) from 1MDB.
Speaking to Reuters news service, Najib said he expects his time in court to be different under the new government.
“I would expect that the atmosphere would be more conducive toward a fair trial,” Najib told Reuters in an interview at his mansion in an affluent neighborhood of Kuala Lumpur.
“I don’t want any undue manipulation or pressure put on the judge or judges for political reasons. And on the strength of the evidence, I’m more than happy to go through the court process.”
His former deputy, Zahid, saw a Monday court hearing on 47 corruption and money laundering charges postponed for a day, after his lawyers claimed he had a scheduled meeting with Muhyiddin to discuss the new cabinet, according to local media. Muhyiddin challenged the claim of a meeting, leading Zahid to promise the court he would present a letter to prove he had been summoned by the new prime minister.
On Tuesday, Zahid escaped a contempt of court ruling, according to local media. Judge Collin Lawrence Sequerah accepted his explanation that there might have been miscommunication and that he had chosen the wrong words to seek the postponement.
The two UMNO leaders were not the only people with political ties to face legal action this week.
Mahathir’s daughter, Marina, was one of 19 activists questioned by police on Wednesday about their roles in weekend protests over her father losing power. Malaysian law requires obtaining police permission before holding a protest rally, Agence France-Presse reported.
“This reminds us of more than two years ago, when so many of us had to undergo this,” she told the news service. “The new government has only been in two days and all this is happening.”