For the first time in Malaysia’s history the UMNO party found itself in the opposition as the new parliament opened Monday, but not without leaders from the old ruling bloc and other politicians staging a walkout over the house speaker’s appointment.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the 93-year-old ex-leader of the United Malays National Organization that had dominated Malaysian politics for 61 years, took his seat among lawmakers as head of the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, which toppled UMNO in a bitterly fought general election in May.
There was some drama from the start.
Leading figures from UMNO and Barisan Nasional, the former ruling coalition that holds only 51 seats in the 222-member parliament, as well as other parties challenged the naming of Ariff Md Yusof as speaker. They accused the government of backdating his appointment letter to July 2, in time for the required 14-day notice.
Former Prime Minister Najib Razak was among those who left the chamber only to return for the swearing-in ceremony at the beginning of the 20-day parliamentary session.
Opposition members did not have anything against Ariff as speaker – but with his appointment process – said walkout leader Takiyuddin Hassan, from the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). The faith-based party did not align itself with Najib’s Barisan bloc or Mahathir’s Pakatan alliance, which won at least 116 seats in the May 9 election.
Mahathir, who had led Barisan and UMNO during an earlier 22-year stint as prime minister, denied the allegations.
“Not backdated, it was prepared earlier, so when I signed it I put the date,” said Mahathir, who described the walkout as nothing more that theatrics on the part of the new parliamentary minority.
Two familiar figures from UMNO, however, opted to remain in their seats during the brief walkout: former Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin and former Foreign Affairs Minister Anifah Aman.
“We can protest during debates or after the officiating ceremony tomorrow. To me, it’s better if we respect the ceremony and not resort to any actions that might undermine Barisan’s image as a credible opposition,” Khairy said.
Najib, whose government was swept out of power on May 9 and who has since been charged as part of a criminal probe linked with the 1MDB financial scandal, resigned as chief of UMNO and Barisan but retained his parliamentary seat representing the Pekan constituency in Pahang state.
On Monday, the former prime minister sat on the opposition side of the room next to new UMNO president Zahid Hamidi, who had served as his deputy prime minister. Zahid joined Najib in the walkout.
“That was a party decision, I leave it to the party,” Najib said when asked why he walked out. “Probably the party should explain to some extent why they did what they did.”
In all, 221 MPs took their oath of office in the presence of Ariff who served as a Court of Appeals judge before retiring in 2015. Missing from the session was Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who was recuperating from an operation to remove a pancreatic tumor, according to his press secretary.
Session to focus on taxes, anti-fake news law
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Liew Vui Keong said MPs and others had submitted more than 1,500 questions touching on issues concerning the economy, law reforms, the judiciary’s independence and other wings of the government to be addressed during the session.
Among the topics of interest is the re-introduction of a sales and services tax (SST) to replace the criticized goods and services tax (GST) as well as the repealing of the Anti-Fake News Act that was approved in March.
Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng announced that the SST rate would be set at 10 percent for sales and 6 percent for services. The bill on the tax is expected to be passed next month and is expected to bring in 4 billion ringgit (U.S. $1 billion) to the federal government.
Najib implemented GST in 2015 as a replacement for SST.