Is Muhyiddin risking a constitutional crisis amid Malaysian king's calls to reconvene parliament?

A handout photo. Malaysia's Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin poses for a picture at the parliament, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia November 26, 2020.
PHOTO: Reuters via Malaysia Information Department

Malaysia ’s king has for the second time in two weeks urged the government to reconvene the country’s suspended parliament as soon as possible, while analysts say a constitutional crisis may be afoot if Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin remains reticent to abide by the royal advice.

The National Palace’s statement on Tuesday on behalf of Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah followed a meeting earlier in the day between the constitutional monarch and the speakers and deputy speakers of the country’s bicameral parliament.

The king made a similar call on June 16 after he convened a gathering of the heads of the country’s nine royal households.

The sultans at that meeting issued a statement unanimously emphasising the need for parliament to sit to provide oversight over the government’s Covid-19 policies.

The repeated public reminders by the country’s royals, who traditionally abide by a convention of counselling the government privately, suggest that the royal institution “is very serious on its stance regarding this matter”, political analyst Awang Azman Awang Pawi told This Week in Asia .

With the government under pressure over a range of issues including its pandemic-era economic policy and flagging support among MPs, the king is reflecting the public’s demand for accountability, the University of Malaya professor said.

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Malaysia’s 222-seat lower house, the Dewan Rakyat, and the 70-seat upper house, the Dewan Negara, have been suspended since January following the declaration of an eight-month Covid-19 state of emergency until August 1.

Muhyiddin’s administration has demurred over when parliament will next sit.

Instead of announcing a date for the legislature’s reopening, the government last week formed a new committee to “look into” the matter.

It earlier said a sitting was planned for September, at the earliest.

Sultan Abdullah granted assent to Muhyiddin’s request for an emergency – which allows the government to rule by fiat – after the prime minister argued that he needed those powers to effectively deal with an unwieldy Covid-19 situation.

A national lockdown is currently in effect due to an inability by authorities to quell a third wave of infections, with daily cases hovering over 5,000.

Before his June 16 statement, Sultan Abdullah in a rare move summoned the leaders of the country’s major political parties to get their views on the matter.

Most leaders, including the head of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), whose support Muhyiddin counts on, have said they want an immediate reopening of parliament.

Political observer Oh Ei Sun said Tuesday’s (June 29) royal statement, while subtly worded, indicated that the country’s politics had entered “an ethereal state of affairs whereby the king, reflecting popular sentiment, feels compelled to benevolently and repeatedly” urge the government to reconvene the legislature.

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Sultan Abdullah had indicated as far back as February that he was of the view that the constitution allowed for parliament to sit during a state of emergency.

“If the government persists in its parliamentary procrastination, it would soon find itself in a constitutional crisis whereby not only its democratic legitimacy, but also its loyalty and accountability to both the king and the people are called into serious question,” Oh said.

Awang Azman agreed, saying he believed a further delay would heighten growing public anger at the government.

One issue being debated in legal circles is the interpretation of a clause in the constitution stating that the king has the power to convene parliament.

Wading into the discussions last Friday, attorney general Idrus Harun – a Muhyiddin appointee – issued a public statement indicating that Sultan Abdullah had to act on the advice of the government.

“In line with the powers of the king to reconvene parliament in accordance with the advice of the cabinet, the dates of meetings of Dewan Rakyat and Dewan Negara are also determined by the cabinet,” Harun said.

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Awang Azman said he was of the view that Sultan Abdullah had powers to recall parliament if he so wished.

“If the [Muhyiddin government] is still seen delaying the opening of parliament, it does not mean there will be a constitutional crisis because the king has the power to order a sitting, or dissolve or prorogue parliament under article 55 of the constitution and the emergency ordinance,” the political science professor said.

Elsewhere, at least seven of the country’s 13 states have indicated they will press ahead with plans to convene their respective state assemblies even though there is no indication when parliament will sit.

In states that have royal households, these plans were given assent by the state sultan.

Malaysia’s unique system of constitutional monarchy involves the heads of the country’s nine royal households taking turns to be the national king, or Yang di Pertuan Agong, for five-year terms.

Sultan Abdullah, who is from the state of Pahang, assumed the position in 2019 after his predecessor, Muhammad V of Kelantan, shocked the nation by abdicating.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.