Malaysia’s Muhyiddin Cites COVID Crisis as Reason to Maintain Power

S. Adie Zul, Noah Lee and Hadi Azmi
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia’s Muhyiddin Cites COVID Crisis as Reason to Maintain Power Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin gives a thumbs-up as he leaves Parliament in Kuala Lumpur, Nov. 26, 2020.
[Courtesy Malaysia Information Department]

Malaysian leader Muhyiddin Yassin, in an extraordinary speech Friday, said he could resign but no other MP has enough support to take over and that parliament should allow his government to stay in power until the Covid crisis is under control and national polls can happen.

Addressing the nation for the second time this month in a live broadcast, the man who leads an unelected government and is under pressure to resign for the first time floated the possibility of a general election taking place no later than July 2022.

“My easiest choice would be to resign. If I take this decision, my work is done and it is up to the King’s wisdom to pick a new prime minister,” Muhyiddin said, noting that the constitution allows the king to appoint as prime minister the person he thinks has the confidence of a majority of MPs.

“However, up to this point, none of the members of parliament can prove that he has the majority to enable the King to appoint a new prime minister.”

He also dangled political incentives such as establishing term limits for the prime minister and granting 18-year-olds the right to vote. Opposition members contacted by BenarNews rejected the PM’s proposals.

Muhyiddin unveiled them a day after his government set Sept. 7 as the date for a parliamentary vote of confidence on his leadership, although Malaysia’s king had urged him to move up to next week the vote that could seal his government’s fate.

Muhyiddin told the nation that he wanted voters to choose the next leader.

“I do not intend to continue to cling to the branches of power. In this situation, it is appropriate that the mandate be returned to the people to elect a new government when the time is more appropriate,” he said.

“Thus, depending on the pandemic situation, I make a commitment that the 15th general election will be held no later than the end of July next year.”

In addition to his proposal to limit the prime minister to two terms in office, Muhyiddin offered an anti-defection bill as part what he sees as his effort to create a bi-partisan framework to ensure the continuity of a functioning government. While details have not been worked out, the bill is an effort to keep MPs from leaving one coalition to join another while in office.

The bills would require two-thirds majority support in both houses of parliament.

“The government also agreed to implement the Undi18 (voting rights for 18 to 21-year-olds) without waiting for the automatic registration which would take time. For this, a constitution amendment bill will be tabled in the parliament,” he said.

Muhyiddin said he came up with the cooperation framework to allow the government to continue functioning so it can manage the health and economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At the same time, I like all Malaysians, have a responsibility to not allow the kleptocrats to rule the country should this political crisis not be resolved immediately,” he said in an apparent reference to former Prime Minister Najib Razak and former Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

The pair face criminal court trials on corruption and money laundering charges. Najib's are linked to 1MDB, a beleaguered state development fund. Malaysian and U.S. prosecutors allege that at least $4.5 billion (18.8 billion ringgit) was stolen from the fund by Najib and associates in what U.S. justice officials described as the “worst kleptocracy scandal in recent times.”

Negative responses

Zahid, who serves as president of the United Malays National Organization – the largest party if the ruling bloc – questioned Muhyiddin’s approach to maintaining power.

“As an MP who has sworn to protect and preserve the constitution, it is unwise for the Pagoh MP to overstep the king’s authority in appointing the prime minister,” he said in a statement.

In early August, Zahid claimed that UMNO lawmakers had pulled their parliamentary support for Muhyiddin.

Muhyiddin was elected to parliament to represent Pagoh, a constituency in Johor state. In early 2020, he broke from the Pakatan Harapan alliance and joined forces with UMNO to form a coalition needed to convince the king that Muhyiddin should be prime minister after the Pakatan government collapsed.

On Friday, Pakatan put out its own statement calling for Muhyiddin to step down immediately.

“This is the first time in Malaysian history a prime minister who admitted that he has lost majority support but openly appealed [for] support from the opposition,” the statement said.

Three parties in Pakatan – the People’s Justice Party, the Democratic Action Party and Amanah – rejected Muhyiddin’s latest action.

“We are confident that we will be able to propose better planning to manage COVID-19 pandemic, reviving the economy and saving the people and their livelihoods,” a statement from the parties’ leaders said.

But Ong Kian Ming, a Democratic Action Party MP and former International Trade and Industry deputy minister, said Malaysia could see benefits in the long run.

“PM Muhyiddin Yassin has proposed a way forward with a number of institutional reforms that could leave a lasting impact on Malaysian politics, if passed. I think that all political parties should sit down to discuss if these terms are acceptable,” he said.

Bersatu, the party led by Muhyiddin, offered support for his plan to establish bi-partisan cooperation.

“This cooperation opens the door for all political parties in the country to take part in the war against COVID-19, in line with the ‘whole of nation’ and ‘whole of society’ practiced by the government while allowing us to refocus on our top priority – the people,” Bersatu information chief Wan Saiful Wan Jan said.

Political analysts, meanwhile, described the PM’s speech as a desperate move to cling to power, adding that the Pakatan government had previously proposed the same reforms.

The sooner parliament sits, the more dangerous it is for Muhyiddin, said James Chin, a political analyst from University of Tasmania.

“[H]e is under tremendous pressure to push the parliament date up … the fact that he announced it on TV and saying that he will meet them next week, this sounds more like delay tactics,” he told BenarNews.


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