Malaysia's Muhyiddin battles for political life as royal peace offering fizzles, key ally pulls support

PHOTO: Reuters

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who has for months resisted calls to resign, is staring into the political abyss after a move to heal a rift with the country’s influential king failed to douse claims that he had disrespected the monarchy, and as key allies pull their support for the government.

Local media reported that the 74-year-old leader called an emergency meeting of key lieutenants from his Perikatan Nasional government late on Tuesday (Aug 3), amid political analysts’ predictions that he could find himself increasingly isolated in the coming days – forcing him to finally step aside.

Earlier in the day, Muhyiddin had sought to walk back his refusal to allow a parliamentary debate on a just-ended Covid-19 state of emergency – a position that put him on a collision course with the king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, who had explicitly called for such a discussion.

Critics who had earlier charged that Muhyiddin had acted in an insolent manner towards the country’s revered royal institution appeared unmoved by the prime minister’s pledge that the matter would be debated in September.

Among those who dismissed Muhyiddin’s peace offering were heavyweights from the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), which props up the premier’s ruling coalition.

11 out of 38 Umno MPs said on Tuesday evening that they were pulling support for the government with immediate effect, citing the stand-off with Sultan Abdullah as among the reasons for their decision.

In a statement before the Umno announcement, Muhyiddin said the debate proposal “will be discussed in the cabinet meeting tomorrow, with the hope of resolving the polemics related to the repeal of the emergency ordinances in a harmonious and constitutional manner”.

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“As such, in line with the views of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and Article 150(3) of the Federal Constitution, a motion to debate and then revoke the emergency ordinances can be brought to parliament, which is scheduled to sit in September,” he said.

Muhyiddin’s climbdown comes ahead of what is expected to be his first meeting with the king after the saga erupted last week, and raised questions of whether the split between the executive branch and monarchy would precipitate a constitutional crisis.

It is common practice for the king to grant the prime minister an audience ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting.

Political observer Wong Chin Huat said Muhyiddin’s move was “clearly a reconciliatory response” aimed at avoiding “a collective royal rebuke” before a meeting between Sultan Abdullah and other hereditary Malay rulers later this week.

“Depending on whether the royal wrath is tempered with this gesture, some apologies and resignation may be necessary,” Wong told This Week in Asia.

Sultan Abdullah had instructed the government to allow a debate on the six-month emergency – which ended on Aug 1 – during a truncated parliamentary session that began last Monday (July 26).

But the de facto law minister Takiyuddin Hassan stunned opposition lawmakers on the first day of the five-day session when he revealed the government had decided to repeal the emergency a week earlier – meaning a debate or a vote was no longer required.

The main opposition group, Pakatan Harapan, and others not aligned with Muhyiddin immediately accused the government of conniving to avoid a parliamentary vote at all costs.

The government critics charged that a vote would show what they had been stressing for months: that Muhyiddin did not have a legislative majority and had asked the king for the emergency powers in January to forestall a no-confidence measure in parliament.

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Also angering them were Takiyuddin’s suggestion that the king had assented to repealing the emergency without a vote.

As the opposition cried foul, Sultan Abdullah joined the fray on Thursday, backing their position.

In a statement issued via the Comptroller of the Royal Household, the monarch said he was “deeply disappointed” that the law minister and Attorney General Idrus Harun had failed to deliver on their promise to allow a debate on the emergency.

Subsequently, Muhyiddin-appointed parliamentary speakers postponed the remainder of the parliamentary session, citing an outbreak of Covid-19 in the legislature building, and Muhyiddin over the weekend used his prerogative powers to indefinitely delay the restart of proceedings.

In protest, opposition lawmakers on Monday gathered to enter the parliament building but were blocked from doing so by riot police.

In a statement on Tuesday, the Pakatan Harapan bloc consisting of 91 lawmakers said it viewed the police action as illegal and that lawmakers planned to file police reports on the matter.

There was no indication of whether the disrupted parliament session would resume in the coming days, or if MPs will only convene next on Sept 6, when a 15-day session is scheduled to begin.

Wong, the political analyst, said Muhyiddin would next have to face an unavoidable vote during that sitting – when lawmakers debate a Royal Address.

The speech, which is similar to the Queen’s Speech in Britain to mark the opening of a parliamentary session, is crafted by the executive branch.

Lawmakers voting down the speech would be “tantamount to a vote of no-confidence” in Muhyiddin, Wong said, adding that government-friendly parliamentary speakers would not be able to suppress the vote in this instance.

He suggested there was a possibility Muhyiddin could lose power earlier than the September sitting amid discussions within Umno to install the premier’s Number Two, Ismail Sabri, as his successor.

Umno member Ismail, previously the coordinating minister for security affairs, was promoted to deputy prime minister last month amid discontent within his party about Muhyiddin’s leadership.

In the Umno statement issued on Tuesday, party chief Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said the prime minister was obliged to resign “in a respectable manner” given he no longer had majority parliamentary support.

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Zahid, a former deputy prime minister currently standing trial for corruption, said Muhyiddin’s pledge to allow a vote on the emergency in September “mocked” the king as it failed to acknowledge the government’s wrongdoing and the monarch’s repeated calls for a proper parliamentary deliberation of the matter.

With the latest developments, Wong said the prime minister now had “at most” the backing of 105 of the country’s 220 lawmakers.

 That figure is below the 50 per cent mark he needs to remain in power, and “if he cannot reverse the loss of majority, his number is going to shrink to two digits in days if not hours to come”.

Malaysia’s months-long political turmoil is taking place as the country continues to battle a Covid-19 crisis, which has led to the deaths of more than 9,400 people and over one million infections in the nation of 33 million people.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.