Malaysia Declares State of Emergency Due to COVID-19

Muzliza Mustafa, Hadi Azmi and Noah Lee
Kuala Lumpur
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Malaysia Declares State of Emergency Due to COVID-19 A worker at an electronics shop in Kuala Lumpur watches a live broadcast of Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin addressing the nation, Jan. 12, 2021.

Updated at 3:45 p.m. ET on 2021-01-12

Malaysia’s king declared a national emergency on Tuesday – the first in more than 50 years – citing a sharp increase in coronavirus cases as justification, but critics lambasted the move as an attempt by an unelected prime minister to retain power amid weakening parliamentary support for his government.

In a televised speech shortly after the royal proclamation, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin assured the nation that it was not a coup, but said parliament and state assemblies would be suspended, and polls would not be held during the state of emergency, authorized through Aug 1.

“Al-Sultan Abdullah is of the view that the spread of COVID-19 in the country is at a very critical level and there is a need for a Declaration of Emergency,” the National Palace announced in a statement, adding that hospitals were near capacity with or full of patients stricken by the virus.

The emergency could end sooner if the daily number of new coronavirus cases can be stemmed, the palace added.

“The civilian government will continue to function. It is not a military coup. [A] curfew will not be imposed, and I guarantee that the administration will not be affected,” Muhyiddin said in remarks broadcast live on television.

“Parliament and state assemblies will be suspended. Elections will not be held,” he added.

‘An admission of defeat’

Opposition parties and civil rights groups criticized the PM for asking the king to declare an emergency.

They said it appeared to be a ploy to prevent a government collapse and snap polls soon after two lawmakers withdrew their support for a coalition led by Muhyiddin, leaving his government on even shakier ground.

“[C]ould it be that the true reason for this emergency is to suspend parliamentary democracy and disable the scrutiny of Parliament on the government, or more likely, given the ongoing schism within the Perikatan Nasional with UMNO threatening to pull out of the coalition, an attempt to halt the collapse of the Muhyiddin government,” the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih), a grassroots group, said in a statement.

Perikatan Nasional (PN) is the coalition that Muhyiddin and his Bersatu party created to form the government last year after the Pakatan Harapan government, which was elected in 2018, collapsed due to a power struggle.

The United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which lost that year’s general election, dominates the ruling bloc. UMNO has been pushing for snap polls because its relations with Muhyiddin’s Bersatu party have been frosty for months. Its leaders feel the party has not reaped the rewards of holding the most parliamentary seats in the alliance.

In the past four days, a pair of UMNO lawmakers, including Nazri Aziz, have pulled their support for the government.

Nazri said that with his withdrawal, the government was left with the support of less than half of lawmakers – 109 of 220.

“Muhyiddin asking for a state of emergency is an admission of defeat ... an admission he’s lost his majority,” the UMNO lawmaker said.

Lim Guan Eng, leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), questioned the need for the emergency proclamation and suspension of parliament – measures that are stipulated under Section 150 of the constitution.

“Will the performance of the PN government improve with an Emergency Proclamation? This is unlikely with the suspension of parliament, when there are no longer any restraints against abuse of power, the upholding accountability and transparency without parliamentary oversight or any checks and balances provided by the opposition,” Lim said.


Malaysian King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah (right) receives documents from Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin at the opening of the 14th parliamentary session in Kuala Lumpur, May 18, 2020. [Photo courtesy of Malaysia Information Department]

 ‘Not my intention not to hold elections’

Muhyiddin said he had requested the emergency proclamation due to the spread of the coronavirus, and not to prevent elections. The king had denied a similar request from Muhyiddin in October.

“It is not my intention not to hold elections. My concern is COVID-19. I give a commitment that elections will be held as soon as an independent committee declares that the pandemic is over,” Muhyiddin said.

The last national emergency declared in Malaysia was in May 1969, after race riots broke out.

The country has recorded more than 2,000 new cases daily since Jan. 5, and three cabinet ministers have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week.

On Monday, Muhyiddin had announced strict movement restrictions nationwide for two weeks, including a complete lockdown in five states and the national capital region, because the surge in coronavirus cases had caused the healthcare system to reach “a breaking point.”

According to political analyst Tunku Mohar Mokhtar, the emergency declaration has put democracy in Malaysia on hold.

“There will be no elections, general, or by-elections, during the emergency. This practically puts a stop on demands from some politicians from UMNO who want general elections to be held soon, but it is understandably dangerous during the current spread of the pandemic,” Mohar told BenarNews.

“In essence, the emergency has also suspended democracy.”

Bridget Welsh, a political scientist with Nottingham University based in Malaysia, said the move would have lasting implications.

“The [emergency] declaration has yet to be accompanied by policies that change the COVID approach the current government has adopted over the last few months that has got the country to the health crisis it is now facing,” she told BenarNews

“No matter what happens with COVID, the decision will reshape the country’s political landscape, undercut democratic institutions, exacerbate polarization and erode trust.”

 Nani Yusof in Washington contributed to this report. 


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