Malaysia’s New Political Normal

Back to the (bleak) future

By: Murray Hunter

Today, at least in the eyes of Malaysia’s ethnic Malays, who make up 60 percent of the population Muhyiddin Yassin is beginning to be seen as a legitimate prime minister. The focus has generally decreased on what many felt was the treacherous manner in which he came to power, usurping the leadership of the party Mahathir Mohamad had created in his bid to remove a corrupt government from power in 2018.

Initially, the new Perikatan Nasional regime was labeled an illegitimate “backdoor” government as those who voted for Pakatan Harapan, which billed itself as a reform government, saw hopes of future reform dashed for good. The circumstances of the putsch, sparked by Mahathir’s sudden resignation as prime minister, have faded, and the indecisiveness and antics of the once ‘the prime minister in waiting’ Anwar Ibrahim have cast doubts over Anwar’s ability to lead the nation.

Muhyiddin to secure support was forced to create a large ministry and award top jobs in government-linked companies (GLCs) and agencies to political appointees. Parti Islam se-Malaysia leader Amin Hadi Awang was appointed a special envoy to the Middle East, and Federal Territories Mufti Zulkifli Mohamed Al-Bakri was given the Religious Affairs ministry within the Prime Ministers Department to enlist the support of the Salafi-leaning “alumni,” a group within the civil service.

Muhyiddin’s ministry is made up of 32 ministers and 38 deputy ministers, encompassing all political parties which support him. This only garnered Muhyiddin’s coalition a slender majority of one, when the parliament chose a new speaker in the second sitting after Muhyiddin became prime minister.

The PN is a government of the Malay political elite and supporters from Sabah and Sarawak who were needed to give it a working majority in the federal parliament. Most of the new leadership had been long-time politicians. The Chinese dominated Democratic Action Party’s political influence is now restricted to the Penang state government, and Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat now only holds Selangor, with support primarily from the DAP. After defections, the Perikatan Nasional coalition, bolstered with support from the United Malays National Organization and PAS, now hold the Kedah, Perak, Negeri Sembilan, Melaka, and Johor state governments. They join Perlis and Pahang, already held by UMNO, and Terengganu and Kelantan held by PAS into an electoral mass that almost resembles the original Malaya, before the 1963 formation of Malaysia along with Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore, for a short period. The peninsula has returned almost completely to Malay-centric rule, the new political normal once again.

The civil service is firmly running the country, which is symbolized by Malaysia’s Director-General of Health, Noor Hisham Abdullah, who is the public face of Malaysia’s response to the Covid pandemic. The Higher Education Ministry has a new Director-General, Mohamed Mustafa Ishak, who is politically aligned firmly with the current administration, and would be expected to continue the same agenda. The court system is delivering verdicts favorable to the interests of government leaders, GLCs are now once again hosting numerous political appointees, and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission is once again a tool of retribution against opponents of the PN government, notably DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng.

The police have extra powers through the prolonged Movement Control Order which locked down communities, and local media are practicing much more self-censorship, since the government has indicated toughness on dissent through the charging of Malaysiakini, the country’s foremost independent media website, with contempt of court over readers’ comments posted on the website.

A vision of what sections of the new government want for Malaysia is starting to emerge through the narratives of PAS leaders, who are becoming the spiritual voice of the government. PAS leaders have regularly spoken publicly about banning alcohol and gambling outright in Malaysia. With senior PAS cadres taking their political philosophy from the spirit of the Muslim Brotherhood, and a fifth column of Salafi-leaning professionals through the civil service, medical profession, and civil service, a dogmatic neo-Malay-Muslim view of the world is beginning to predominate policy.

This can be most easily seen in Malaysia’s hard-line stance towards Israel at a time when Middle-East nations are thawing and developing diplomatic, social, and economic relations. Malaysia is still lost in the anti-Zionistic rhetoric of the Israeli-Palestinian issues, where views on the peace process within Palestine itself are divided along political lines.

Putra Jaya is once again dabbling in Sabah politics and royal institutions are being put back on their pedestals, as an instrument of Malay sovereignty. With the Covid-19 pandemic crippling many SMEs into bankruptcy, the economy is once again becoming strongly dominated by large corporations that have connections, special licensing, or other advantages over small business. With a public sector that has paid salaries to civil servants throughout the lockdown, a large gulf is opening between public sector employees who are cashed up, verses solo traders and small business operators who have suffered badly. The Malay class gap is widening within Malaysia.

The government has lost all resolve to tackle corruption. The conviction of former prime minister Najib Razak, and his remaining free as an MP pending a long-drawn-out appeal has made a mockery of the legal system. The effects of long-embedded systemic corruption are now beginning to affect the functioning of the country. For example, in defense, purchases of fighter aircraft and submarines which haven’t met strategic needs have weakened defense capabilities dramatically, at a time when the country needs effective military assets on the South China Sea to protect its interests against a newly aggressive China.

Malaysia’s national vision is returning to a neo-Tanah Melayu – Malay land – Identity. This sits well with the majority Malay electorate, with the DAP forcibly side-lined. Anwar’s PKR is struggling after being ripped by the defection to Muhyiddin’s party of former PKR vice president Azmin Ali, along with a number of key party members and MPs. The 73-year-old Anwar is still indecisive about where he wants to go. This could well be electorally very costly for PKR when the next general election is held.

There has been talk of a third force in Malaysian politics, the latest from Mahathir ally former Youth and Sports minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, who is proposing a Muda (youth) platform. Saddiq, once dubbed the “boy minister,” borrowed the idea from others who have remained silent. Mahathir’s warning to Saddiq that his movement might potentially fragment the Malay vote clearly indicates the one-dimensional paradigm Malaysia’s politicians are locked into.

Any new movement is certain to be shouted down by ultra-Malay groups, as has happened before. Any pretense towards multicultural ideas will be painted as being anti-Malay and anti-Islam. The authorities will ensure there is no room for alternative narratives. Meanwhile, issues concerning rising crime, abuse, drug addiction, incest, child marriage, human trafficking, corruption, reform of the civil service, education, and electoral reform will be forgotten, and almost taboo to bring up.

It is highly unlikely that Muhyiddin, who is 73 and suffered a bout of pancreatic cancer, will be a full-term prime minister after the next general election, which pundits expect at year-end, although there is little reason for him to call one as his position strengthens. Muhyiddin can bargain with UMNO, which stands to gain most at the next general election, with the prize of an eventual prime ministership. It’s not about an election, but rather succession in which a tightly done secret deal is preferred by the Malay elite. That’s why there are four senior ministers under Muhyiddin and no deputy prime minister. Malaysian politics is not about policy, but who will be the next leader.

The consequences are a nation inward-looking and thinking. Malay culture itself is being lost to a hybrid Arab-centric culture to pacify the Islamist stakeholders. The class divide is set to widen without strong economic and social welfare intervention. Counterintuitively, this will strengthen UMNO-PAS in the rural heartlands.

Malaysia as a nation is unlikely to break up physically. Sabah and Sarawak, which are Christian or animist, have nowhere to go. Malaysia is quickly breaking up from the inside. The younger Malay generation tends to see themselves as Muslims first and Malaysians second. The very meaning of Malaysia as older generations once knew it is very quickly disappearing. It is becoming a country of convenience for political ends, rather than a nation with a shared spirit and history.

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