Can Malaysia's New Government Survive?

It might just, barring mishaps

By: Dennis Ignatius

When it comes to who gets to be Malaysia’s prime minister, those words in Article 43(2) of the Constitution – someone who is likely to command the support of the majority of members in the House – must necessarily carry more weight than what the majority of Malaysians might wish for.

That’s the Constitution and we have to live with it. It’s futile, dangerous even, to expect the King to act in any other way. Ismail Sabri Yaakob has the job. The question now is whether Sabri’s government will prove more stable than the previous one. It might just be, barring any major missteps.

First, it is unlikely that any of the 114 members of parliament who indicated their support for him will change their position. They would be seen as duplicitous and disrespectful of the King.

Second, the United Malays National Organization “court cluster,” of top former officials who have been indicted and which caused former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin no end of problems, has been neutralized. It will be difficult for them to go against what is after all an UMNO-led government without coming across as self-serving.

Sabri’s appointment also marks the beginning of the end of UMNO president Zahid Hamidi’s political career. Sabri will no doubt use the power of the prime minister’s office to quickly consolidate his position within UMNO. All the court cluster can hope for now is some sort of a deal that would minimize their exposure to all the criminal charges they are facing in exchange for fading into the sunset.

Muhyiddin too has little room to maneuver. He recently hinted that his party’s support for Sabri is conditional on the latter keeping the court cluster out. Revenge may be sweet but he is simply posturing. The reality is that neither he nor Zahid is in any position to threaten Sabri; both the Malay rulers and the people will not stand for another attempt at regime change.

This also applies to the Opposition. They had an opportunity to make a deal with Muhyiddin – significant reforms in exchange for a confidence and supply agreement – but they rejected it. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim apparently refused to consider it because he felt sure that he had the numbers this time around. It was a huge strategic blunder. The opposition will have to live with the consequences and the knowledge that they facilitated UMNO’s return to power. In the meantime, there can be no more talk of trying to overthrow the government at least for now.

The 74-year-old Anwar’s failure yet again to win support to become prime minister must surely call into question his continued leadership of both his party and the opposition coalition. Clearly, the opposition has lost its way and voters have lost faith in them. If the opposition is to regain momentum, a new leadership team must be put in place as soon as possible. The priority now must be GE15.

Whether Sabri will prove to be a more competent administrator is another issue. For one thing, he was Muhyiddin’s point man on the pandemic and he made a mess of it. If he is smart, he will bring in a new team headed by someone with real credibility and turn it over to the professionals. Likewise with the economy; bring in a team of credible industry leaders and economists to help turn the economy around. These are the two issues of immediate concern to Malaysians and they will judge him by it. Beyond that, he would need to keep the racial and religious rhetoric down and stop the crackdown on dissenters.

If he can manage all that, don’t be surprised if he goes on to win another term come GE15. Malaysians, after all, have short memories as twice-premier Mohamad Mahathir can attest. Besides, after the last few years of upheaval and chaos, voters long for normalcy again.

The real worry is that UMNO will now go all-out to ensure that it will never lose another election. Sabri will almost certainly seek to consolidate his party’s position, tighten its grip on all the levers of power and use every means at his disposal to restore the hegemonic system that was in place until GE14. They will not be taken by surprise again. Malaysia is not likely to experience another election tsunami again for quite a while.

Dennis Ignatius is a retired Malaysian diplomat and an occasional contributor to Asia Sentinel