Malaysia Under Growing Stress
Current political crisis preventing any solutions
By: Murray Hunter
Over the past week, Malaysians have been using social media to call on those who have run out of food and essential items to raise a white flag outside their homes to ask for help. Neighbors and small businesses in local areas have responded by donating food and essential items to those in distress.
Some are now organizing donation campaigns to collect food while fishermen in Penang and farmers are donating fish and produce. A Sambal SOS app is now operating, showing people where food banks are located. The white flags are a distressing symbol of the hopelessness that many feel in a country that is reeling from political and economic problems and a deepening social malaise.
After 18 months of squabbling that began with the fall in February 2020 of the hapless Pakatan Harapan coalition, Malaysia is suffering from dual crises that stem from the same source – a government that has ignored its duty to cope with the Covid-19 coronavirus while it uses extraordinary means to remain in power. Now the political crisis has deepened, if possible, with the United Malays National Organization withdrawing its support from Prime Minister Muhyiddin’s reeling government, almost certainly guaranteeing its end – if Parliament ever reconvenes. It is now suspended over the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis, with most people believing the suspension was a subterfuge to save Muhyiddin from his fate..
The economic and social consequences from harsh and ineffective restrictions in the attempt to curb the Covid-19 coronavirus have left the country with nearly 800,000 people affected in a population of 32 million, nearly 5,899 deaths and a caseload rising by 18 percent over the past two weeks while many nations are on a downward trend as the pace of vaccination widens.
The second crisis is political as contending factions continue to maneuver and squabble. After nearly 18 months of Perikatan Nasional government, starvation levels are rising, the coronavirus has killed nearly 5,800. Some 777,500 are officially unemployed, a figure that is believed to vastly underrepresent the total. According to the World Bank, gross domestic product contracted by 5.6 percent in 2020 and unemployment remained elevated at 4.8 percent as of Q4 2020. Although the Finance Ministry has set a 6 percent GDP target for 2021, the latest round of lockdowns makes that highly unlikely.
The rate of employed persons working fewer than 30 hours per week increased from 2.0 percent pre-pandemic to 5.3 percent in Q2 and 3.5 percent in Q4 2020. Self-employed and informal workers appear to have been hit hardest by the crisis due to reduced ability to work from home and limited coverage by social protection measures.
None of the contending groups are offering the nation any alternatives or solutions to the current predicament, which is now beginning to bite deeply. There is a growing feeling that the situation today is much worse than the Asian financial crisis of 1998/99.
Current economic statistics, which are lagging, don’t tell the real story. As the Enhanced Movement Control Order (EMCO) has been extended to the middle of July, and is likely to be extended again, more businesses are closing permanently, more people are losing jobs, and the incidence of poverty is rapidly rising. Large groups of people just don’t have enough food and essentials.
This is going on while enforcement agencies are dishing out harsh fines to those breaching restrictions while just trying to make a living and survive. The suicide rate is almost double of last year, with 468 suicides recorded until June 30.
At the same time, the elites are showing their disconnect. Politicians including cabinet ministers are being scorned for having durian parties while the wife of UMNO politician Nazri Aziz, is being mocked on social media for her selfies showing off her high life. Abdul Hadi Awang, the leader of the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, is facing widespread criticism for achieving nothing as Malaysia’s special envoy to the Middle East amid rantings about Allah and Covid-19.
The ability of Perikatan Nasional to govern is now under great scrutiny. Muhyiddin was mocked on social media for going to hospital to treat an infection. With no designated deputy prime minister within his cabinet, people are asking who is running the country.
Muhyiddin’s slow reaction to the rapid increase in cases has brought anger. The latest shutdown order called across the Klang Valley, which encompasses the Kuala Lumpur conurbation, has so far been ineffective in reducing the magnitude of the outbreak. In addition, Azmin Ali is under criticism as minister of international trade and industry over what industries he has designated as essential and non-essential. His decisions have led to layoffs and hardships.
Meager Assistance Package
Muhyiddin’s latest Covid-19 relief announcement, the Pemulih (restoration) package, primarily relies on a loan moratorium to assist micro-enterprises and SMEs. In addition, individuals are allowed to tap into their own Employee Provident Fund (EPF) contributions. Cash payments to those in need are totally insufficient in providing assistance, and delayed.
Two payments of RM500 (US$120) in September and November for sole proprietorships are too little, too late. Only RM500 will be paid per eligible person under the People’s Care Assistance program with RM100-1400 paid in September amid complaints that this is just too long for people to wait. Many of Malaysia’s thousands of micro-enterprises have been unable to borrow, so the loan moratorium will do nothing.
The assistance package is not without some long-term consequences. The possible effect of the loan moratorium could be a bank-induced credit squeeze just when the economy needs funds pumped in to prime a recovery. People dipping into their EPF now may lead to potential financial problems in retirement.
One local MP was reported to have told a household not to raise a white flag, but to raise their hands in prayer. In Nibong Tebal, Perak, several impoverished families who put up white flags were scolded by representatives of the local state representative. The Kedah chief minister Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor called the white-flag campaign “anti-government propaganda.” Authorities have generally scorned those who have raised white flags, angering the community even more, leading many to social media to plead to both the government and royals for help.
Separate from the white flag phenomenon, a black flag movement has started to express anger and dissatisfaction toward the Muhyiddin government. A group called the Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat (SSR) demands that Muhyiddin quit, that parliament reconvene, and the state of emergency end. Police are reported to be investigating the movement for sedition.
Asia Sentinel was told the feeling on the streets is akin to the anger felt after the sudden 1998 dismissal of Anwar Ibrahim as deputy prime minister by then prime minister Mahathir. The Reformasi protests in support of Anwar at that time led to incidents of violence and arson, by small groups. The heavy-handedness of authorities is stoking anger, rather than calming things down.
Towards a Parliamentary Sitting
Muhyiddin in an attempt to shore up his support made a surprise appointment of UMNO vice president Ismail Sabri Yaakob to the position of deputy prime minister, and elevated Hishammuddin Hussein as a senior minister, taking over the defense portfolio from Sabri. This immediately led to UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamid withdrawing UMNO support for Muhyiddin as prime minister, with immediate effect. Political infighting has gone into a spiral dive.
The parliament is now scheduled to sit in the first week of August, a special sitting with special rules with some members physically absent but connected online. Whether Muhyiddin faces a vote of no confidence remains to be seen, as the Dewan Rakyat speaker Azhar Azizan Harun, a Muhyiddin ally, will no doubt employ all the rules and standing orders to delay or prevent any vote, if possible.
Last year as the crisis wore on, Muhyiddin appeared to have the support of just 111 MPs in the 222-member house of parliament, scraping by with the slimmest majority of one with three absent. Since then, the United Malays National Organization at its national congress voted formally to withdraw support, leaving the timing to the party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi to decide.
Yet Zahid himself doesn’t have the loyalty of all 38 UMNO MPs. Thus, for UMNO, this current crisis is not just about support for Muhyiddin as prime minister but Zahid, who faces multiple corruption charges, as party leader. UMNO is deeply split, with one faction supporting Hishammuddin Hussein, currently minister of foreign affairs in the Muhyiddin cabinet. There are in fact 18 UMNO members in the Perikatan Nasional cabinet. How many UMNO members will support Muhyiddin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu, which has 31 MPs, 15 of them formerly UMNO members, remains to be seen.
This split weakens UMNO as a solid bloc. As Zahid has officially withdrawn UMNO support, Muhyiddin would lose confidence of the house. However, this doesn’t mean that Pakatan Harapan’s leader Anwar Ibrahim will be able to muster a majority. Thus it is possible that no MP would be able to command a majority. UMNO MPs who withdrew their support for Muhyiddin might decide to remain non-aligned and independent.
Normally, this would lead to an election, with Muhyiddin recommending to the Yang Di-Petuan Agong, or king to dissolve the house and call for polls. However, this would be undesirable with the current state of the pandemic, and not a popular option for any stakeholder.
There is another option, to form a minority government under a selected prime minister, not too much different from what has occurred over the last 18 months, with the PN government. Muhyiddin could continue with an independent UMNO bloc if they pledged to pass financial bills the government introduces to the parliament, like the budget.
Alternatively, Anwar Ibrahim could also lay claim to forming a minority government if independent blocks make a similar undertaking to the king. Whoever would become the minority-supported prime minister would no doubt garner the support of some who decide to cross over and be part of the government, in a similar manner to what PH did after winning the 2018 general election, bringing Muhyiddin to power, in February last year.
Another possible outcome could be a similar scenario to what happened in the Perak State Assembly in December last year. Sitting chief minister Ahmad Faizal Azuma, lost a no confidence vote on the floor of the assembly with the opposition PKR and DAP voting with some UMNO members against. The government didn’t fall, but rather only the position of chief minister changed to an UMNO MP, Saarani Mohamed, who kept on the same executive committee (state cabinet). Modeled on this, the pundits are theorizing that Hishammuddin would take over as prime minster, keeping the Perikatan coalition primarily intact.
Finally, with no agreement on who could lead a minority government, the king could suggest that MPs return to him with a proposal for a unity government until the next election, due in 2023. Only a month ago this option was dismissed as impossible. Now this maybe the only workable solution outside a new election. Veteran UMNO politician and prince, Tungku Razaleigh Hamzah, known as Ku Li, publicly offered himself as an interim prime minister.
No Real Solution
Any political solution is going to be a rearrangement of the same politicians in different chairs. This will not likely lead to any new solutions to the current economic and social crises. It’s also unlikely there would be any change in the Covid-19 response, as the real manager is the director general of the ministry of health, Noor Hisham Abdullah, a civil servant. Any new group in power is likely to continue to follow his advice.
Any political solution maintaining the power status quo is sure to be unacceptable to the people, especially if there are no, or few policy changes. It’s time for the younger generation of Malaysian politicians to break through as a new voice to change the paradigm of Malaysian politics. The white flags are flying.