The Convoluted Malaysian Political Scene

Once again, Malaysia is back on headlines, its attempt to establish democracy is ground to a halt, and it is indeed an exhibition of what the pandemic can do to domestic politics.

Consequently, the Malaysian embattled Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin had to resign, as the country struggles with the deadliest form of Covid outbreak yet. Ismail Sabri Yakoob, has been sworn in as prime minister, who was the deputy under Muhyiddin Yassin. Moreover, King Al-Sultan Adbullah may not declare any election in the short-term due to pandemic.

This is a win-win situation for both the palace-Yassin and the opposition alliance led by Anwar Ibrahim and Mahathir Mohamad, at least for now. After all, Ismail Sabri Yakoob’s appointment is an apt indicator of Muhyiddin Yassin’s alliance’s existence within the power fulcrum of Malaysia.

However, the genesis of the current political crisis is not limited to the Covid fiasco of 2021, yet it has root in political myopia coupled with the economic cusp since 2020.

United Malays National Organization

Undoubtedly, Muhyiddin Yassin is a veteran politician who kicked off his political career with the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). UMNO has been on the political steering wheel of Malaysia since its independence from the United Kingdom in 1957 until 2018, losing the election after ruling for 61 years. UMNO was defeated by a young, three-year-old “Alliance of Hope” [Pakatan Harapan], comprised of veteran politicians like Mahathir Mohamad, who served Malaysia as its longest prime minister, and his political comrade Anwar Ibrahim, the deputy prime minister under Mahathir Mohamad.

The Legacy of Mahathir Mohamad

One must understand the legacy of Mahathir Mohamad to get into the core of today’s Malaysian political crisis. Mahathir Mohamad served as the president of UMNO from 1981 to 2003 while serving as the fourth prime minister of Malaysia. He left UMNO and formed the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (BERSATU in Malaysian) in 2016.  He again served as the seventh prime minister from 2018 to 2020 at the age of 92 after the fall of UMNO.

During his rule, Malaysia emerged as a true economic phenomenon in Southeast Asia, becoming one of the key leaders in the Islamic world, and challenged the Western-dominated political and security discourses. In Malaysia and beyond, his political acumen became a symbol of economic and development successes in the 1980s and 1990s. As a result, Mahathir Mohamad occupies a unique and glorified position in the hearts and minds of Malaysians, the South-eastern countries and beyond. Mahathir Mohamad initially retired from politics in 2003 and handed over power to his successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi who continued term till 2009 as both prime minister and president of UNMO.

Mahathir Mohamad criticized Abdullah Badawi’s political tenure due to UNMO’s poor performance during the 12th general election in March 2008. This resulted in internal political pressure which ultimately encouraged Abdullah Badawi to step down from power in favour of his successor Najib Razak.

The Lack of Success of Najib Razak

Najib Razak was president of UMNO from 2008 to 2018 and served as the sixth Malaysian prime minister from 2009 to 2018. His regime was heavily accused of corruption, sedition, the implementation of a Goods and Services Tax (GST), abuse of power, and imprisonment of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Reuters reported, “U.S. prosecutors have alleged that more than $4.5 billion of 1MDB funds was laundered through a complex web of transactions and shell companies. The U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) has filed several lawsuits to claim about $1.7 billion in assets believed to have been stolen from 1MDB” (Reuters, 2018).

The Razak government’s corruption culminated in a mass protest; Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim (in absentia) called issued a “Citizen’s Declaration” on March 04, 2016, demanding the resignation of Najib Razak. The Declaration called for freedom of speech and media, restoration of the integrity of the institutions such as the Royal Malaysia Police, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, Bank Negara Malaysia, and the Public Accounts Committee (malaysiakini, 2016). The Declaration cited concerns over corruption based on the Wall Street Journal Reports,  Asia Pacific Fraud Survey Report Series 2013 published by Ernst and Young and the Corruption Perception Index 2015 (malaysiakini, 2016).   

The corruption led to subsidy cuts, Malaysian currency hit a 16-year low due to misappropriation of state funds in 2014-15, inflation continued to rise, leading to the rise in relative poverty, and the overall economy stumbled (Financial Times, 2015) (ASEAN Today, 2017). The ASEAN Today reported, in March 2017, Malaysia’s annual inflation rate reached 5.1%, far higher than others in the region. Indonesia recorded an annual inflation rate for 2016 of 3.5%, the Philippines hit 1.8%, and Vietnam reached 2.7%. High inflation in Malaysia, coupled with declining living standards, widespread poverty, and malnutrition signal that Najib is losing his grip on the situation (ASEAN Today, 2017).     

The Political Scene Complex

Mahathir Mohamad and his alliance won the 2018 elections, owing to Najib Razak’s astronomical failures. However, once Mahathir Mohamad returned to power, Najib Razak’s legal trial begun. BBC reported: “his properties were raided, and both he and his wife were charged with a string of offences. He has since been found guilty on seven charges of corruption linked to the multibillion-dollar state investment fund, 1MDB” (BBC, 2020).

However, within less than two years he resigned from his premiership and handed over the power to Muhyiddin Yassin. Mahathir Mohamad handed over power to his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin as the prime minister. Muhyiddin Yassin, then deputy of the ruling party UMNO, was expelled from UMNO in 2016 by incumbent prime minister Najib Razak. This had brought Mahathir and Muhiyuddin close to form the BERSATU, which became instrumental in ousting Najib Razak that marked the fall of UMNO for the first time in 61 years of Malaysian political history.

Meanwhile, Mahathir Mohamad’s once aide, later rival, Anwar Ibrahim, joined hands together to put aside long-running animosity to protest against the parliament’s stalemate and a group of around 100 lawmakers. Interestingly, in 1998, Mahathir Mohamad sacked, then his heir-apparent, Anwar Ibrahim, from his government and subsequently imprisoned him for charges linked with sodomy and abuse of power, which were criticized as politically motivated and intentional.

On-going Challenges

Muhyiddin Yassin assumed prime ministership after a week of internal political tumult with Mahathir Mohamad in March 2020. This time the situation was completely different from his predecessors. He has parliamentary uncertainty, unpredictable implications of COVID19, and economic volatilities in his hands. Muhyiddin Yassin convinced the King that he had sufficient parliamentary members to back him to form an administration without Mahathir Mohamad and his alliance, including those from the previous administrations. He was willing to discard the Islamic parties – Party Islam Se Malaysia or PAS. But what went wrong this time?

1-   The first challenge that Muhyiddin Yassin had to deal with from day 1 was COVID19. Malaysia handled the pandemic fairly effectively much of 2020, compared to South Asia, Europe, and North and South Americas. But the situation started to decline with the Borneo state of Sabah as the epicentre since September 2020. This had intermittent responses from the government, resulting in a continued rise of the Covid19 cases in 2021. The government announced a “total lockdown” in June, when the country was reporting 7,000 cases a day (Aljazeera, 2021). This has caused prolonged disruption to business and schooling to a society that is already sustaining inflation and the economic impacts of the Razak regime. Moreover, a lack of financial support and subsidy has heightened anger among many Malaysians, particularly the youth. The young voters are not practically familiar with the UNMO or the Malaysian economy that Mahathir Mohamad built; hence the political responses this time is different too.

2-   The second challenge that accentuated the political crisis for the Muhiyuddin administration was the return of the old political order in the Muhyiddin’s cabinet. This time cabinet consists of 70 members, the largest in the Malaysian parliamentary history that includes “senior ministers” politicians with links with public-funded businesses (Aljazeera, 2021). The public health and the internal power struggle overlapped, resulting in chaotic governance and continuing political strife.

The parliament has remained on suspension since January 2021 due to the national emergency declaration. This has been a bottleneck in delivering a coherent response combining public health and fiscal stimulus, fiscal reforms, and policy readjustment that the public would aspire to see.  

3-  The third challenge for Malaysian politics is economic stabilization that would require vaccines and financial stimulus to be available for the public, hand in hand. The average number of new infections reported in Malaysia each day reached a new high, with current reporting [as of August 23, 2021] more than 21,500 daily (Reuters Covid-19 Tracker, 2021). As of August 12, 2021, 23,161,255 vaccine doses have been administered in Malaysia (World Health Organization, 2021). The economic recovery will largely depend on the Malaysian parliament, economic recovery, and resumption of trade and business.

In the coming days, the dramatic political scenarios in Malaysia will be influenced by the King, new voters, and the public opiniom. In a rare incidence, the King’s palace rebuked Muhiyuddin Yassin’s administration for the handling of emergency ordinances. In a statement in July 2021, the King’s palace said, “the revocation of the ordinances was done without the king’s consent and thus ran counter to the federal constitution and the principles of law” (Sipalan, 2021). This reflects the public orientation too. The youth protests, online and offline, are becoming clearly visible as well.

Hence, the international community will be watching out for the peaceful resolution of internal political strife required for regional and global growth. Malaysia has just stepped into the world’s most significant trading arrangement – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The political volatilities will only make its regional trading difficult in the long run. The ideal scenario should encompass the politicians as part of the solution to the Malaysian economic and public health situation, not as part of the problem.

It is crucial that the Ibrahim administration learns from the past and allow peaceful critics to strengthen economic and political governance. After all, technology, demography, and regional economic situations are changing rapidly

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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