As ‘pandemic premier’ Muhyiddin survives yet again, what’s next for him – and Malaysia?

by | Aug 5, 2021 | Opinion Pieces

  • The prime minister is still the prime minister even after royal rebukes, opposition protests, youth demonstrations and a loss of support
  • While many believe Muhyiddin’s days at the helm are numbered, Mahathir’s reinvention shows political memories are short. Can the current PM do the same?

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has scored again. Despite all the excitement in the opposition ranks – including another claim that opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim had the numbers to take over as premier; a youth demonstration; a march by MPs to demand the opening of parliament, after it was suspended again for a Covid-19-related issue; the resignation of a member of Cabinet; and an attempt by the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) to take over – Muhyiddin remains. One more time, the Malaysian political ace has seen off all comers, including the country’s king.

Since March last year, Malaysia seems to have lost its direction. Time has lost meaning for many in the country, who have endured lockdown after lockdown. Uncertainties have become rules and certitudes have become exceptions. In a context of social despair, as well as economic and political crises, Muhyiddin is the prime minister of the pandemic. His government emerged at the same time as Covid-19, and the virus will surely survive his rule. For Muhyiddin, however, there is no such thing as failure. Despite the skyrocketing number of infections in the country, he has crafted a story and a name for himself: the man who survives all crises.

In the past few days – and following the insistence last month of the king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah – the Malaysian parliament was called for an extraordinary sitting. Amid the shouting and name-calling from the opposition, a bomb was dropped: de facto law minister Takiyuddin Hassan declared that the pandemic-related state of emergency had been lifted five days before parliament convened.

The early revocation of the emergency annihilated all hope for lawmakers to debate, let alone vote against, any of the ordinances that derived from the extraordinary powers given to Muhyiddin by royal green light in January – and potentially show the prime minister lacked the support of the parliamentary majority he needs to stay in power.

Sultan Abdullah’s response was to issue a statement of disapprobation that the state of emergency had been revoked without his consent. Amid royal protestations and allegations that the government had orchestrated an unconstitutional move, the opposition called for Muhyiddin to resign – leading to an avalanche of political shifts amid calls for a new government. For a few days it seemed as if many were celebrating the demise of the prime minister’s political career, but he has refused to back down.

Muhyiddin is shaking off rumours and detractors, including the king himself. And despite claims to the contrary, no one can prove that he has effectively lost his majority.

The prime minister has made unprecedented manoeuvres that have taken his opponents and the Malaysian people by surprise, going back to the internal coup through which he took power last year. His defiance of the king and of the elected members of parliament echoed the days of Mahathir Mohamad’s first premiership, though the context is extremely different.

In the mid-1980s, Malaysia was one of the “Asian Tigers”, while today the country is one of the most badly impacted by the pandemic. Back then Mahathir had the backing of a strong majority, and economic growth was in full swing. He had also effectively and symbolically emasculated the country’s royal families by amending the constitution. Muhyiddin’s appointment by the king in March last year gave the impression of a certain closeness to the royal leader, though this relationship seems to have taken a different tone.

However, the boldness of Muhyiddin’s strategy and the confusion it has created, combined with the chaotic responses of a disjointed opposition, have allowed him to maintain power. Clearly, his governance sits just on the edges of democracy. Yet even if Muhyiddin’s political strategy remains in line with what the constitution permits, it has tarnished his government’s image. In a global context, where the pandemic has been used as a pretext to strengthen autocratic leadership, he needs to soften his image and restore trust among the people. Can Muhyiddin reinvent himself?

Political memories are short. Malaysia has witnessed the successful reinvention of controversial leaders: Mahathir, once seen as a dictator, became an icon of democracy, a narrative that allowed him to put an end to 61 years of Umno rule and oust Najib Razak in 2018. Today, even Najib – the once-booed alleged kleptocrat, still in a legal tangle over the 1MDB financial scandal – appears as a voice of wisdom thanks to his on-the-dot economic and governance analyses. On social media, there is an air of nostalgia floating around as some recall the stability embodied by Najib, which harks back to the world before Covid-19. Does this mean that all is not lost for the current Malaysian leader?

If Muhyiddin wants to be someone else other than the Pandemic Premier, he needs to get going now. After a Wednesday meeting with the king, he has announced that he will call a no-confidence vote in September when parliament reconvenes. Parallel to his efforts to rebuild, or confirm, his majority, Muhyiddin needs a better narrative to circumvent the multiple crises and neutralise the desires, however fleeting, to overthrow him within his own coalition.

The confusion and lack of communication over the country’s pandemic National Recovery Plan have left Malaysians totally lost. Urgent measures are necessary to restore eroded trust in the government and state institutions. These measures must address the multiple traumas Malaysians, particularly the youth, are suffering from: economic despair, physical and mental exhaustion, and fear of the future. Foreign representatives need to get a better vision of Muhyiddin’s reform agenda beyond the pandemic, if any, as they still see opposition leader Anwar as the only democratic alternative.

It is up to Muhyiddin to invent a better story for himself and show the people he is not just the prime minister by default – since Mahathir resigned, and no election can be held due to the pandemic – but the correct, albeit controversial choice, for Malaysia. Unless, of course, the prime minister’s resilience has already surpassed his own ambition: maybe for Muhyiddin the underdog, the game is the goal. If so, the prime minister has won on all fronts.

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