UMNO Voices Support for Malaysian PM Muhyiddin’s 2021 Budget

Hadi Azmi
Kuala Lumpur
2020-10-30
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201030-MY-MuhyiddinB1000.jpg Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin attends the launching of the Malaysia Urban Forum 2020 in Kuala Lumpur, Sept. 28, 2020.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews

Updated at 7:53 p.m. ET on 2020-11-01

Malaysia’s dominant party has decided to back embattled Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s 2021 budget in parliament next week following an appeal by the king, amid warnings from analysts that failure to pass the annual spending plan could spell doom for his government.

The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) – Muhyiddin’s largest ally in parliament that holds 39 of the 222 seats – reiterated its support for the budget early on Friday, noting the nation must face the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Therefore, UMNO will ensure that the 2021 budget that is beneficial to the public will be passed in the parliament,” the party’s president, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, said in a statement.

Previously, UMNO leaders threatened to pull support from Muhyiddin over concerns that he has reaped the rewards of leading the government even as his Bersatu party controls only 31 seats.

UMNO’s announcement came a day after the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition announced it would be willing to meet with Muhyiddin – as called for by the king – to discuss the budget before it is introduced for debate on Nov. 6. Details of the spending plan, which is expected to be approved before the last day of the parliament session on Dec. 15, will not be released until it is introduced on the parliamentary floor.

Muhyiddin heads an unelected government that came to power eight months ago, after a Pakatan administration collapsed over infighting less than two years after it kicked UMNO out of office in an historic election.

Last week, Muhyiddin sought royal consent to declare a state of emergency that would allow his government to suspend the parliament and bypass the budget vote. King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah rejected the prime minister’s request for proclaiming what would have been the country’s first state of emergency since deadly race riots in 1969, saying such a declaration was not needed because the government has managed to handle the COVID-19 pandemic.

The king, who had appointed Muhyiddin as PM in March, also stressed that the new budget was crucial in addressing the pandemic and revitalizing the economy.

“Even so, His Majesty would like to remind politicians to immediately stop all politicking that could disrupt the stability of the country’s government,” the National Palace said in a statement.

Pakatan responded on Thursday, saying that members would abide by the king’s statement, but wanted Muhyiddin to negotiate before the budget was introduced for debate.

“The prime minister thus has to abide by His Majesty’s decree and consult and immediately discuss with the opposition the contents of the 2021 budget before it is tabled on Nov. 6 to ensure it achieves the wishes of His Majesty,” the Pakatan bloc said in a statement signed by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Amanah party president Mohamad Sabu and Lim Guan Eng, secretary-general of the Democratic Action Party.

A Pakatan official who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak said there had been no contact with Muhyiddin about a potential meeting.

Anwar, meanwhile, in recent weeks has mounted a direct challenge to Muhyiddin’s position, saying that he has garnered a majority of support among lawmakers to form a new government. However, during a meeting with the king on Oct. 13, where he presented his case for leading the government, and a press conference that followed it, the leader of the People’s Justice Party (PKR) declined to show a list of names of MPs who supposedly support his bid to become the next prime minister.

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Tunku Mohar Mokhtar, a political scientist at International Islamic University of Malaysia, said passage of the budget is a major test for Muhyiddin in parliament since he came to power. Mokhtar and another political analyst said the outcome could be catastrophic if Muhyiddin failed to get the support of at least 112 MPs.

“Tabling of the national budget is significant for many reasons – it reports the current state of the economy, it allocates resources to different ministries and agencies and it also shows the government’s priorities in spending,” Mokhtar told BenarNews. “The 2021 budget added another significance as it is a test of support for the PM.”

Mokhtar and constitutional expert Lim Wei Jiet said the Malaysian government was expected to follow the British Westminster system of government.

“It is a constitutional convention that a government that fails to obtain enough votes to pass an important parliamentary motion such as the annual budget is deemed to no longer hold the confidence of the majority of MPs,” Lim told BenarNews. “In such circumstances, the prime minister would normally tender his resignation.”

While such action would be a first for Malaysia, Lim pointed to an 1885 case in Great Britain and a 1941 case in Australia where the prime ministers stepped down.

Analyst James Chin of the University of Tasmania said he believed the budget would go through eventually.

“Muhyiddin’s government will be able to pass the budget simply because in the duration of the bill being debated in parliament, the government can modify it to appease to all parties. It is unlikely for the government to lose the vote,” he told BenarNews.

COVID-19 fallout

After seeing a decrease in the number of infections in August and September, Malaysia is facing a surge in novel coronavirus infections. The nation recorded 799 new cases and three deaths on Friday, bringing the totals to 30,899 and 249, according to health officials.

Globally, more than 45.2 million people have been infected by COVID-19 and more than 1.18 million have died, according to disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.

Because of the outbreak, UMNO’s Zahid said party members had decided they would be willing to work on the budget while waiting to call for a snap election.

“UMNO decided that the people’s mandate has to be returned to create a more stable government by holding a general election after the COVID-19 pandemic is successfully controlled and minimized,” he said in the same statement.

Zahid’s statement, in light of the king’s admonition to focus on the budget, shows it is interested in change, according to Mokhtar, the political scientist.

“The fact that UMNO is proposing for a general election at the earliest possible time – after the pandemic situation is under control – is an indication that it is still unhappy with Muhyiddin,” he said.

“What UMNO succeeded in doing is to tell Muhyiddin that he doesn’t have a blank check to do as he pleases because UMNO’s support is conditional.”

Meanwhile, Muhyiddin who appears to have the backing of a slim majority of just two seats to serve as prime minister, faces a total of 27 motions of no-confidence from opposition MPs including former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, according to documents viewed by BenarNews. In addition, a member of UMNO, Tengku Razeleigh Hamzah, sent a letter to House Speaker Azhar Azizan Harun requesting that no-confidence motions against Muhyiddin be heard during the parliamentary session, which begins on Monday.

Harun has insisted that those motions cannot be considered until after the government’s agenda, including the budget, is finished.

“All motions that are notified to me or to my office will be dealt with in accordance with the standing order. To ask me to do otherwise would be asking me to do things that are not legal.

“This is our law. And this is the law in other countries. Let’s face it, no amount of harsh name-calling and labeling against me will change this,” Azhar said in an open letter published in The Star newspaper on Oct. 15.

CORRECTION: An earlier version erroneously reported that the governing coalition sent the house speaker a letter requesting that motions of no confidence against Muhyiddin Yassin be heard during the parliamentary session beginning on Nov. 2.

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