What Malaysia’s raging COVID-19 crisis tells us about failed leadership.
Malaysia’s embattled Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on Wednesday insisted he still had the support necessary to lead the country after members of his key coalition ally said they would no longer back him following a rare rebuke from the king, amid continuing political tension in the midst of a surging coronavirus pandemic.
Muhyiddin, whose fragile Perikatan Nasional administration has been under almost constant pressure since he was named prime minister in March 2020, said in a televised address that he still had the backing of a majority of the country’s 222 members of parliament and that his legitimacy to lead would be put to the test once parliament reconvened next month.
The comments followed an audience with the king and a flurry of political activity around the palace and the prime minister’s office.
“A motion of confidence in me will be tabled in September,” Muhyiddin said in the speech which was broadcast on local television. “With this motion, the legitimacy of my status as the prime minister and Perikatan Nasional as the government will be ascertained according to the law and the constitution.”
Malaysia has been in a state of political turmoil for months amid suspicions over the strength of legislators’ support for Muhyiddin, whose coalition was formed following a power grab and the resignation of predecessor former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
In September and October, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said he had the numbers to rule, while the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has the most seats in the ruling coalition, has withdrawn, or threatened to withdraw, its support for Muhyiddin a number of times.
Some questioned the decision to wait a month before calling a confidence vote.
“Waiting 1 month to test whether he still commands the confidence of the house is irresponsible and selfish,” New Sin Yew, a lawyer and constitutional expert wrote on Twitter. “It hurts the economy and allows time for horse trading. An emergency session of parliament should be called ASAP.”
A statement signed by nine senior opposition politicians, reiterated calls for Muhyiddin to go and called for parliament to reconvene urgently.
“We demand a special sitting of parliament be held not later than August 9,” said the statement, whose signatories included Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir Mohamad, Lim Guan Eng, the former finance minister, and Shafie Apdal, the former chief minister of Sabah state in Borneo.
In January, the king declared an “emergency” that suspended parliament with Muhyiddin arguing the move was necessary to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then the crisis has only worsened and the country’s health system is now struggling to cope with more than 200,000 active cases. A record 219 people died from COVID-19 on Monday, while daily cases on Wednesday reached a record 19,819.
Muhyiddin’s latest problems follow the recall of parliament for a “special session” last week when the law minister suddenly announced the emergency, which was due to end on August 1, had been revoked a few days before.
In a statement, the king said the move had been made without his consent and in violation of the constitution. In response, the prime minister said it had all been above board. Malaysia’s king is a constitutional monarch.
The disagreement with the palace drew anger from opposition parties and in UMNO.
BERSIH 2.0) calls on the Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin to call for an emergency sitting of Parliament immediately to prove that he has the support of the majority of MPs through the vote of confidence, and not wait till September. pic.twitter.com/6MSs8hSOcB
— BERSIH 2.0 (@bersih2) August 4, 2021
On Tuesday night, some UMNO members, led by Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is the party’s president and currently on trial for corruption, said they were withdrawing their support for Muhyiddin.
One of the party’s more junior cabinet ministers also resigned his post although senior ministers remained in their positions. Ismail Sabri, the deputy prime minister and an UMNO vice president, was among a number of ministers who appeared alongside Muhyiddin during his televised address.
On Wednesday, local media reported that the attorney general had also visited the king, while the chief of police was seen entering the prime minister’s office complex in Putrajaya, the administrative capital.
There was further uproar on Monday when riot police were deployed to prevent dozens of opposition legislators from walking to parliament, which had been suddenly closed after 11 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed following mass testing of the more than 1,000 people who work in the building.
Junior doctors also went on strike last week over pay and conditions, while hundreds of young activists took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur at the weekend in opposition to the government and its handling of the pandemic.
The police are investigating the protests and were questioning MPs on Wednesday.