Malaysia Reels in Wake of King’s Rejection of Emergency

With scores of cronies depending on him, Muhyiddin scrambles to remain in power

By: Cyril Pereira

The implications of the failure of Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin’s last-ditch effort to preserve his position via an emergency decree remain unresolved after the Yang di-Pertuan Agong or king, consulting his brother rulers on October 25, concluded there was no such emergency. The Agong called on all politicians to stop bickering, for the government to tackle the pandemic, and for lawmakers to approve a 2021 budget for smooth administration.

Although Muhyiddin is said to have offered to resign following the king’s refusal, the 70 ministers and deputies who depend on him for their pomp, power, perks, and more begged him to stay. It was unthinkable for this ragtag crew to dismount so soon. For those for whom he couldn’t conjure federal positions, Muhyiddin has dished out sinecures at government-linked companies. All risk being turfed out in a change of government.

Muhyiddin, who has struggled through eight months of political chaos, faces a parliamentary test for the 2021 budget due on November 6 after parliament reconvenes on November 2. He has survived this far by evading a full sitting of parliament. The speaker he installed by fiat has declined earlier motions of no-confidence. The prime minister holds a wobbly two-seat majority. If parliament fails to pass the budget, it signals a vote of no-confidence, obliging the government to resign for a new general election.

UMNO met to discuss terms to share power with Muhyiddin and to support his 2021 budget. Loud denunciations targeted Najib Razak, former UMNO president and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the current one, for mooting an alliance with Anwar. The other warlords turned on both. One UMNO leader described the contrite Zahid Hamidi as “coming to his senses.”

This finally seals the lid on Anwar’s coy “overwhelming majority.”

Rule by edict?

It was the looming budget crisis, and the probability that he couldn’t secure approval, that prompted Muhyiddin to seek emergency powers to suspend parliament, citing a resurgent third wave of Covid-19 infections and “political instability” as his rationale. Anwar Ibrahim’s sensational claim and Tengku Razaleigh’s caretaker offer added urgency.

Constitutional experts, lawyers, doctors, civic society, retired civil servants, and the general public, were against a manufactured emergency for the political survival of an unelected government. The country faces no security threats, riots, or the collapse of social order. Concerned groups circulated petitions on social media to stop the emergency declaration. The public mood is anger at the attempt to cling to power on the pandemic scare.

The Malaysian constitution has no provision for an “interim” prime minister. Westminster parliamentary convention allows only for a caretaker prime minister pending a new general election. That requires a general election timeline for a defined caretaker term. Malaysia has no ‘caretaker PM’ precedent.

Govt by betrayal

The present government came into being after the 73-year-old Muhyiddin led defectors from the elected Pakatan Harapan coalition that won the 14th general election in 2018, to ally with Parti Islam Se-Malaysia or PAS and UMNO, the backbone of the Barisan Nasional alliance that voters booted out in 2018. The king appointed Muhyiddin prime minister after the incumbent Mahathir Mohamad resigned amid political chaos at the end of February.

Muhyiddin defaulted back into the old, discredited paradigm. Citizens at large also wanted an end to the theft of national assets by the political elite, in the name of the people. Mahathir is not blameless. His lifelong obsession with Malay dominance and demonization of ethnic Chinese Malaysians, drives this political pathology.

There is no public stamina for another general election in the midst of the Covid-19 precautions, so soon after the 2018 polls evicted the Barisan Nasional regime from power after 61 years. UMNO has splintered into factions: those pending trial on corruption charges; those waiting to replace the Old Guard to reform the party; and those eager to join PAS for ‘eternal’ Malay rule.

Go forward, or backward?

PAS holds a block of 18 seats in parliament. Any configuration of Malay ethnic political alliance needs to include the rural Islamist party for a majority. Malay politicians avoid the largely non-Malay, urban DAP, having damned it as evil to their constituents. Malay DAP members are criticized as traitors, or naive.

Yet, there is unease about association with PAS, and in sharing power with it, at many levels of the Malay polity. The now-widespread influence of the Islamic Development Department, JAKIM, in the prime minister’s office, with over a billion-ringgit budget, raises consternation among the non-Islamic citizens of the Peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak. Progressive Malays worry too, seeing the regression of societies elsewhere.

Malaysia is at a major crossroad in its evolution as a nation. Can it venture confidently into the 21st Century knowledge-society, or will it regress? Science, Mathematics, and English for borderless collaboration, learning, and innovation, are vital skills. The country needs all its citizens harnessed for economic revival and innovation. Marginalizing society’s human capital on race and religion, is unwise.

AI automation and robotics are displacing manpower in offices and factories. Low-grade human resources are being made redundant. The government has little capacity to expand employment. The Covid economic shutdown of whole sectors has added to graduate unemployment. Employers fault the national education system for rendering many unemployable.

What about food?

Food as the most basic need of society has been neglected to the point the country imports RM50.2 billion annually, for its daily needs. There is alarming big-biz thinking to convert marginal plantation mono-crop land to food agriculture – which can be expected to spray more chemical toxins into the daily diet. Industrial agriculture has already injected poisons into the human food chain globally.

Yet, there is land for food crops abandoned as smallholdings in rural space. That is a golden opportunity for the agrarian economy, to improve public health and repurpose land as community self-reliance. As Sikkim state in India has proven, chemical inputs can be replaced by natural farming for wholesome food, to rid society of food-borne obesity, diabetes, organ failures, cancers, and premature death.

The country could reduce the escalating, unproductive public-health budgets for more hospitals, sick beds, doctors, nurses and specialists, via a national program of safe-food self-sufficiency. Food as nutrition for the body is also food as natural medicine, without the need for supplements and vitamins to compensate for nutrition-deficiencies in everyday diets.

Until Malaysia can break out of its self-imposed yoke of race and religion, it will sleepwalk through these opportunities, which its people are otherwise well equipped to leverage. These new national directions have to come from fresh leadership with holistic vision, which seems absent for now, in the scramble for power.

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