Malaysian PM faces uncertain future after king’s ‘unprecedented’ decision

Malaysian PM faces uncertain future after king’s ‘unprecedented’ decision
Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin attends a parliament session at lower house in Kuala Lumpur. (AP)
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Updated 27 October 2020

Malaysian PM faces uncertain future after king’s ‘unprecedented’ decision

Malaysian PM faces uncertain future after king’s ‘unprecedented’ decision
  • Muhyiddin Yassin’s rejected attempt to declare state of emergency described by some as an attempt to cling to power

KUALA LUMPUR: A day after Malaysia’s King Al-Sultan Abdullah rejected a proposal by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to declare a state of emergency, political analysts and senior politicians told Arab News that the premier’s future looks bleak.

“The Council (of Rulers) did not support the idea of a state of emergency,” said Charles Santiago, a senior member of the Democratic Action Party. “It is clear that they do not trust Muhyiddin’s decision and he has lost his legitimacy as the prime minister.”

He added that the decision by the monarch and the Council of Rulers was “unprecedented.”

Muhyiddin’s proposal, which he said would help battle a new wave of COVID-19 infections, sparked national outrage. Critics accused him of using it as an attempt to cling to power, just weeks after opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said he had support from a majority of lawmakers for an attempt to topple Muhyiddin’s government — a move that also failed to earn the king’s approval.

Muhyiddin, the leader of the Malaysian United Indigenous Party, also faces tough challenges from within the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the single biggest party in Malaysia’s ruling coalition. This could leave him vulnerable as he only has a majority of two in the 222-seat parliament.

“The problem does not lie with the opposition now, it is the government itself,” said Santiago. “Muhyiddin’s cabinet won with a two-seat majority and their main worry is UMNO, as any pullout from any members may lead to Muhyiddin losing his majority.”

Senior UMNO politician Puad Zarkashi said that Muhyiddin has only two choices: resign or dissolve the parliament. If the PM clings to power, he added, the state will find itself “in chaos” amid ongoing instability.

“This (government) is too fragile to govern and this seems to be a never-ending story, so he (Muhyiddin) should not jeopardize the people,” Puad said. The prime minister needs to accept the fact that “his time is over” and there had been “too much politicking,” he added.

On Friday, there was uncertainty among Malaysians as rumors of the proposed state of emergency began to circulate. On Sunday, the king rejected the proposal, saying that the government’s efforts to contain a third wave of COVID-19 were “impeccable.” He also called on politicians to “cease politicking,” which he warned could destabilize the nation.

Some experts disagreed with the king’s assessment, saying that while “the confidence of the people may not be in question,” the public is more concerned about economic stability and recovering from the pandemic.

The king has the power to declare a state of emergency that would allow the country to be governed through laws that cannot be challenged in court. However, professor James Chin of the University of Tasmania said that the ruler’s decision to reject the PM’s proposal “does not amount to anything” because, under the National Security Council Act 2016, Muhyiddin does not require the king’s consent to declare a state of emergency and has other options.

“He can draw his powers from the Police Act and other emergency provisions, especially when it comes to a health crisis,” he added.

“He has additional powers with these various acts — although to the public, he looks like he’s lost big with the king.”

Others warned of the economic disruption that could result from a state of emergency.

“If a state of emergency is called under a political consideration, it will be unfair for the people as it will tank the economy,” said professor Firdausi Suffian, a political analyst at MARA University of Technology.

He added that the king’s decision to decline Muhyiddin’s request did not mean that the public is losing confidence in the administration.

“The king … lauded the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and decided that declaring a state of emergency was unnecessary for now,” he said.

It is time for political leaders to put their differences aside, Firdausi said, and work together to approve the budget, which will be presented to parliament on Nov. 6 and represents a key test for Muhyiddin.

If he is unable to gain enough support to pass the bill, pressure will mount on him to resign or hold an election. A state of emergency, in such a situation, would delay that vote and give him more time to gather support.

“There should be a working committee, consisting of politicians from all parties and experts, to sit down and handle the COVID-19 crisis,” Firdausi said. “The last thing Malaysians need now is a snap election and a new prime minister.”

Authorities in Malaysia have reported 27,805 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 236 deaths. The last time a state of emergency was declared in the country was on May 13, 1969 during race riots in which more than 180 people were killed.