Malaysia's political crisis: PM Muhyiddin Yassin postpones parliament sitting amid showdown with king

A handout photo. Malaysia's Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin speaks during a session of the lower house of parliament, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on July 26, 2021.
PHOTO: Reuters via Malaysia Information Department

Malaysia's Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, facing calls to resign after a rare public reprimand by the king, has indefinitely postponed the resumption of a parliamentary session that was disrupted last week.

Muhyiddin's decision - revealed in a notice sent to lawmakers on Saturday (July 31) - came as the local media, the opposition and even some of the government's own allies warned about a constitutional crisis amid signs that the ruling alliance and monarchy are at loggerheads.

The notice stated that the decision to postpone the sitting was taken based on the health ministry's advice that "parliament is a high-risk location for Covid-19 infection".

It cited parliamentary standing orders that gave Muhyiddin prerogative powers to postpone the five-day session that is being held after the king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, pressured the premier to allow lawmakers to debate pandemic-related policies and the six-month state of emergency that is due to expire on Sunday.

The sitting had initially been adjourned to Monday after Deputy Speaker Rashid Hasnon - from Muhyiddin's own party - cited the need to take precautions as several people tested positive for the virus in the legislature building on Thursday. A total of 11 people were confirmed as Covid-19 cases.

With the 11 cases constituting 0.9 per cent of the people who were present in house, the opposition accused Rashid of using the pandemic as a fig leaf to prevent any discussion in parliament of Thursday's rebuke of the government by Sultan Abdullah.

Before Rashid ordered the adjournment, the king had expressed in a public statement "deep disappointment" with the government for misleading parliament by incorrectly suggesting the monarch assented to revoking the emergency without parliamentary debate.

Sultan Abdullah said his assent had in fact not been sought before de facto law minister Takiyuddin Hassan on July 26 declared that various emergency ordinances had been nullified a week earlier.

The royal statement, issued on behalf of the king by the Comptroller of the Royal Household, stunned political observers because of the forceful language that was used.

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The country's royals serve as custodians of Malay culture and the Islamic faith and have long maintained a practice of not publicly admonishing sitting governments.

The heads of the country's nine royal households take turns to be king or Yang di-Pertuan Agong, a position that mirrors a head of state in the Westminster system of government. Muhyiddin stood defiant after the royal chiding, however.

Muhyiddin later argued in a statement that the king had in fact already been briefed on the government's position that revoking the emergency did not require a parliamentary debate.

Writing in The Star on Saturday, long-time political commentator Joceline Tan noted it was likely that the palace viewed the government's refusal to allow a vote on the emergency as a "snub".

The vote would have offered the country an idea of whether Muhyiddin has majority legislative support as he claims.

Parliament had been suspended since Sultan Abdullah granted Muhyiddin emergency powers on Jan 12.

While the king had repeatedly urged the government to convene parliament during the emergency, the government swatted those calls away, citing the need for Covid-19 cases to taper off before the lawmakers can gather.

Muhyiddin's challengers, such as the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and the elder statesman Mahathir Mohamad, say the prime minister's real motive for enacting the emergency - and hindering the ongoing parliamentary sitting - was to prevent any form of legislative voting that would show that he does not command the support of a majority of MPs.

Muhyiddin-appointed parliamentary speakers have blocked attempts by lawmakers to table no-confidence votes since the government came to power in a political coup last March.

"Can Muhyiddin withstand the pressure to step down? It ought to be pointed out that while the king has the power to appoint whoever has the support of parliament as prime minister, he cannot remove a sitting prime minister," The Star's Tan wrote in her commentary.

On social media, opposition lawmakers reacted with fury over the postponement of parliament.

Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, leader of the Malaysia United Democratic Alliance party, wrote on Twitter that he planned to be in parliament on Monday. "If you want to stop me, you can try. I am not afraid," he tweeted in Malay.

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The deepening political crisis, meanwhile, is taking place while Covid-19 cases remain stubbornly high despite a latest round of lockdown measures first put in place in early June.

The daily caseload hit a fresh record of 17,786 on Saturday. More than 1.1 million of the country's 33 million people have been infected since the pandemic began. 9,024 people, or 0.8 per cent of those infected, have lost their lives.

Earlier on Saturday, hundreds of people staged an anti-government protest - the first major demonstration for some time - over the political turmoil and the ruling administration's haphazard Covid-19 policies.

Police later said the participants would be investigated for violating a ban on mass gatherings during the ongoing health crisis.