Malaysia’s New Leader: Five Decades on the Path to Power

Nat Shu, Hadi Azmi and Nisha David
Johor, Malaysia, and Kuala Lumpur
200302-MY-Profile-Muhyiddin1000.jpg Muhyiddin Yassin waves to well-wishers before heading to National Palace in Kuala Lumpur to be sworn in as Malaysia’s prime minister, March 1, 2020.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews

Malaysia’s new prime minister, the son of a Muslim cleric, is a longtime government insider who kept a low profile as he climbed the ranks of power over some 50 years.

Muhyiddin Yassin, 72, was sworn in by the king as the eighth prime minister of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Southeast Asian nation on Sunday, after a week of political intrigue full of twists and turns that ultimately saw him replace his former boss, Mahathir Mohamad, as PM.

“My instinct is clear, I am here to save the country from prolonged political turmoil,” Muhyiddin told a national audience on Monday following his first day on the job in Putrajaya, while fending off accusations that he had committed treachery in reaching for the highest post in government.

The new leader came to power without being elected. He now a heads a ruling coalition that is largely based on a Muslim-Malay majority.

Political analyst Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani, a professor at University Utara Malaysia, praised Muhyiddin for his rise in politics, which began in the early 1970s in the southern state of Johor, where he grew up.

“Muhyiddin is a very clean person with no controversies. He is religious and comes from a non-elite background,” Azizuddin told BenarNews.

“He never held portfolios that exposed him to the outside world ... However, when he was deputy prime minister, he was exposed to the outside world and known in neighboring countries,” Azizuddin said.

Muhyiddin’s allies in the new ruling bloc include the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the very party he had been loyal to for decades but which he quit in 2016. He defected to the opposition then to help remove UMNO from power via the ballot box over allegations of entrenched government corruption.

Muhyiddin ‘needs strong support’

For Muhyiddin, the long road to the prime minister’s office was filled with its share of bumps.

That included being removed as deputy prime minister in 2015 and in 2016 as deputy president of UMNO, which had dominated Malaysian government since his country gained independence from Britain in 1957.

Born in Johor in May 1947, Muhyiddin’s political career began in 1971 when he joined UMNO. He later became the chief of the party’s youth wing in the state, a post he held until 1987. He served as chief minister of Johor, from 1986 to 1995.

Elected as an MP in 1978, Muhyiddin served as education and youth and sports minister before being named as Najib’s deputy prime minister in 2009, a post he held until 2015, when he fell out with Najib over the 1MDB scandal.

After the May 2018 election, Mahathir appointed Muhyiddin as home affairs minister.

That same year, Muhyiddin was diagnosed with early stage pancreatic cancer and was hospitalized during July and August 2018. Doctors said surgery on the tumor was successful.

Political analyst Azizuddin said Muhyiddin had succeeded in government, both at the state level in Johor and on the national stage. He said Muhyiddin’s blueprint for education following his appointment as education minister in 2009 remained in use today.

Azizuddin expressed hope for Muhyiddin.

“He needs strong support from the cabinet ministers and needs to appoint a good lineup to restore the country’s economy. He needs a good economic adviser,” Azizuddin said. “If he manages all well, the country’s economy can be restored.”

‘I have my own principles’

In 2015, then-Prime Minister Najib Razak sacked Muhyiddin as his deputy when Muhyiddin publicly stated his support for investigations into a financial scandal tied to 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state investment fund.

“Except on the 1MDB issue, I have my own principles and stand in defense of people’s rights, the good name of the party and state interests. If I was dropped from the cabinet because of my stance on this issue, I am alleviated,” he said in July 2015.

Najib founded 1MDB in 2009 to spur Malaysia’s economic growth, but he and some associates face criminal charges linked to what the U.S. Department of Justice described as embezzlement of more than U.S. $4.5 billion (18.8 billion ringgit).

After losing his UMNO position, Muhyiddin took a hardline stance in a Facebook post.

“In the face of public outrage against his leadership, Najib uses all the powers available to him to suppress dissenting voices and silence critics. We are indeed witnessing the collapse of democratic institutions and the emergence of a new dictatorship,” Muhyiddin wrote in February 2016.

Months later, Muhyiddin and Mahathir joined forces to found the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), whose membership would be made up of Bumiputera citizens – a Malaysian term referring to ethnic majority Malays and other indigenous people. Non-Bumiputera citizens, meanwhile, would be recognized as “associate members.”

“We want to be inclusive. We will give them new recognition. We want them to play a role in terms of presenting ideas,” Muhyiddin said at the time.

Bersatu aligned with Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party (PKR) and parties representing ethnic minorities to form the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition in a bid to bring down the UMNO-anchored Barisan Nasional ruling coalition. The three men – Muhyiddin, Mahathir and Anwar who had all been members of UMNO – pulled off the electoral upset in 2018.

After leading Bersatu to break from Pakatan at the beginning of last week, Muhyiddin gained power through forming a new coalition with UMNO and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), claiming he had the support of at least 112 of the 222-member parliament. Neither he nor King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah, who delivered the oath of office on Sunday, released figures showing that Muhyiddin had the support of a majority of MPs.

The move did not sit well with Mahathir, the man he succeeded as prime minister.

“Muhyiddin is willing to accept anything. He says politics are more important than principles,” Mahathir told a news conference on Sunday.


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