New round of political instability lies ahead in Malaysia

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Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin during his meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince in Riyadh on March 9. Bandar AL-JALOUD/AFP

A week is a long time in politics and what a long and tumultuous one it has been for Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

The outcome of the Malay Rulers meeting has, rightly or wrongly, come across as a sort of royal reprimand of his Cabinet. The opposition leaders are calling for his resignation and he is staring at what might be an epic showdown of numbers in Parliament very soon.

Everything seems to point to another round of political instability for the country. If there is anything good to be said about the unpopular Emergency Ordinance, it is that the restrictive order brought down the political temperature.

However, the mercury is rising again and from most accounts, Muhyiddin is preparing to bite the bullet and face his opponents in Parliament.

He took over the premiership on a controversial note but with a high approval rating. But he is now at the most vulnerable point in his premiership largely as a result of the government’s handling of the pandemic.

So is his job on the line?

If he fails to muster the numbers against an ambitious opposition bench that has rallied behind their prime minister candidate Seri Anwar Ibrahim, then yes, his ruling coalition will be in trouble.

However, it is untrue that the Malay Rulers want Muhyiddin out. That conclusion was drawn from the Sultans’ emphasis on the need for a stable government that enjoys the confidence of the rakyat.

Palace sources said people have either overread the statement or chose to read it the way they want things to go.

The Yang di-Pertuan Agong and his brother Rulers – said the sources – are concerned about the pandemic and its effects on the economy and people’s livelihood.

Like everyone else, they think the government could have done better in managing the pandemic and that the political leadership could do more to regain the people’s confidence.

The royals are said to live in a gilded cage but social media has enabled them to tune in to what people are saying about issues, about their political leaders and even about the royals themselves.

The Rulers believe they need to be proactive to voice their concerns.

They are aware that certain segments of society think they have over-stepped their role as a constitutional monarchy but these are unusual times, and unusual times call for unusual measures.

“Personally, I think it’s alright for the King to engage the stakeholders. Tuanku Agong did not want to leave anyone out as we prepare to end the Emergency,” said former Kapar Umno division chief Faizal Abdullah.

The Rulers spoke as one voice at their recent meeting although the Sultan of Johor’s motorcade leaving early had sparked speculation.

The Johor sovereign had flown over in his own jet but left before the meeting was over. He apparently had to be back at the Senai Airport which closes early as a result of the emergency. He had in fact arrived early to join the King for lunch.

There were also reports that the Yang Di Pertuan Besar of Negeri Sembilan was not among those arriving in the afternoon but he arrived on the dot at 3pm after getting his swab test result, a requisite for all attendees.

Putrajaya acknowledged the outcome of the Rulers’ meeting with a brief and terse statement that one political observer equated to an “OK, noted with thanks”.

Everyone can see that ties between Putrajaya and the Palace are not exactly all sunshine and everything nice at the moment.

The Palace statement was couched in royal nomenclature but it is clear that the royals want Parliament to convene and for the emergency to end after August 1.

There appears to be some sort of tug-of-war over when Parliament should meet. Putrajaya was looking at a September date whereas the Rulers want it as soon as possible.

A standoff would not be good, it would be seen as challenging the Palace.

As it is, police reports have been lodged against de-facto Law Minister Seri Takiyuddin Hassan for insisting that Parliament will meet in September, in line with what the prime minister said when unveiling the national recovery plan on Tuesday.

Whether Parliament meets sooner or later, the coming sitting is set to be the mother of all sittings.

Pakatan leaders are elated, they feel they are a step closer to returning to Putrajaya and Opposition Leader Anwar is once against within sight of the premiership.

“It’s the most positive development for us since the Sheraton Move. After meeting the political leaders, the King can see people are not happy with the current government,” said a PKR parliamentarian.

Ideas like a minority government and even something entirely new like a unity government are being tossed about ahead of Parliament convening.

“I don’t want to spoil the mood but we should not discount the possibility that if pushed to the wall, if the situation gets too chaotic, Muhyiddin may decide to advise the King to dissolve Parliament,” said Umno supreme council member Seri Johari Ghani.

The prime minister does not have to name the election date straight away.

“Under the constitution, he has 60 days to decide on the date of election. In the meantime, he can push on with the vaccination to bring down the infection numbers,” said Johari.

Muhyiddin’s numbers will probably be tested during the voting of bills like what happened during the Budget session last year.

It is not just a question of whether Muhyiddin has enough numbers to hold the fort, but also whether Anwar can live up to his claim of having strong and convincing numbers.

Anwar’s numbers will hinge on whether Warisan president Seri Shafie Apdal and Pejuang adviser Mahathir Mohamad decide to come onboard.

The reality is that both sides are struggling in this enervating numbers game.

Political commentator and lawyer Khaw Veon Szu put it well in saying that any change of government, be it by the backdoor or the sidedoor, will not stable.

“It will suffer the same fate as the current government. Whichever side we want to support, let them come in by the rightful way – through a general election,” said Khaw.

Joceline Tan / THE STAR (MALAYSIA)/ASIA NEWS NETWORK