Malaysia's Political Crisis Reaches the Boil

Could Mahathir reappear in a national unity government?

By: Cyril Pereira

Parliament is set to resume on July 26, ending six months of political paralysis and kicking off a new paroxysm of political jockeying. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or king, who had granted Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin an emergency dispensation from mid-January till August to tackle the third Covid-19 surge, intervened in June after pandemic measures failed to curb the infections but wrecked the livelihood of the people.

Closures of retail businesses, lay-offs, suicides, and families hoisting white flags pleading for food from volunteers made the king instruct Muhyiddin to cut the emergency short and to recall parliament. Not since the Japanese occupation of WWII has the country suffered such despair.

Double betrayal

The coming fortnight is crucial for Muhyiddin’s backdoor administration, which replaced the elected multiracial Pakatan Harapan government which took power after May 2018 elections which drove the deeply corrupt Barisan Nasional from office. The reformist coalition was led by Mahathir Mohamad, who pledged before the election to hand over to Anwar Ibrahim, leader of its largest component party.

Instead, Mahathir secretly sent Muhyiddin to dicker an all-Malay coalition with the GE14 losers the indelibly stained United Malays National Organization, and the rural Islamist party, Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS. After Muhyiddin secured the mutiny, Mahathir resigned abruptly at the end of February 2020 to scuttle the sitting government after 20 months of evading the transfer of power. The coalition’s pledge of institutional reforms was also left unimplemented.

Mahathir’s scam succeeded in displacing the legitimate government. But Muhyiddin double-crossed him, seized leadership of the turncoats, and convinced the Agong he enjoyed majority parliamentary support. The backdoor gambit worked with a two-seat edge. It faced a test for the 2021 budget. The Agong admonished MPs to stop bickering and to pass the biggest budget in the country’s history. Muhyiddin’s bountiful spending plan stuffed billions into Islamic institutions to mollify PAS and expanded paid tenure for otherwise unemployable religious studies graduates – the core PAS support base.

Cirit-birit

Yet another crisis, however, recently gripped Muhyiddin without warning: his bowels raged. The Malays call it cirit-birit. He was rushed into hospital as his MPs horse-traded through the night to forestall the 38-seat UMNO block withdrawing support. On the fly, he appointed UMNO VP Ismail Sabri as deputy PM and upgraded Hishammuddin Hussein, who once waved a keris at a youth convention to signify ethnic Malay superiority, as senior minister.

That effectively preserved one faction of the divided UMNO, setting up Sabri and Hishammuddin as the next backdoor PM and deputy when Muhyiddin quits for poor health.

Meanwhile, the putative UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who faces multiple charges of corruption, held a supreme council meeting calling on its MPs to withdraw from the Muhyiddin government. That was immediately challenged by the Sabri-Hishammuddin faction and others disinclined to face another general election now at a time when the government is in deep trouble over its mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The party revolt played out in the press and social media, undermining Zahid’s authority. He will have to stand down. It opens the way for Ismail Sabri to bid for the UMNO presidency next.

Zahid along with Najib Razak, jointly known as the “court cluster” for the ongoing corruption cases against them, want Muhyiddin out. They hope to sponsor a more amenable backdoor administration. They advanced talks with the “I have the numbers” man of flexible principles, Anwar Ibrahim, who puzzles why he is on the sidelines and not at the center of the action. The ultimate prize of premiership has eluded him for two decades.

But all that is the political class indulging in collective buffoonery in its glass bowl, far from commoners on the ground.

Lockdown outrage

The Malaysian street is railing against Muhyiddin’s ministers, many of whom have been caught flouting the very lockdown rules they imposed on citizens with hefty fines and harsh policing. The pandemic misery has exposed the chasm between the privileged, arrogant, undeserving, and unaccountable ruling elites and ordinary folk. The grace, politeness, and deference that Malays have traditionally shown their political masters is frayed – replaced increasingly by rude, angry, name-calling videos and comments on social media. The trust is broken. The blinds are off.

This rumble could herald seismic shifts at the next general election, due by September 2023. There will be a 50 percent youth electorate by then under 25 years of age. Digitally savvy, less naive but hit by unemployment, underemployment, and reduced social mobility, this generation is unlikely to follow traditional voting loyalties. They will audit the punters soliciting their votes. Can they be fooled that the Chinese are causing their plight and not their own venal Malay representatives?

The youth see through the dysfunctional political class squirreling away public resources to enrich themselves while shoplifting the perks, privileges, and handouts claimed in the name of the masses. They demand jobs, economic growth, and the reduction of social inequality. They are in no mood to tolerate fakers and are wholly unimpressed by the titles of “Datuk” and “Tan Sri,” which awed their parents. They are, on the contrary, more inclined to reject the titled grifters. Unless UMNO cleans out its nest of racketeers, it may be in for a shock.

Failed state?

Bloomberg’s Daniel Moss dismissed Malaysia as a failed state last week. He lamented the political morass which forced the ceremonial royalty to emerge from the shadows to give direction to the feckless politicians of “the once-proud nation.” He cited the white flag movement as “shorthand for discontent at the atrophying state and troubled economy.” He said the political circus is irrelevant to the economy or to put food on the table for the people. There is no leader with any vision to guide the ship of state, Moss concluded.

In that context, the man likely to lead UMNO into GE15 in 2023, and become prime minister, Ismail Sabri, has a toxic history of racist and religious politics. He seems to have nothing else to offer. Like a vinyl record stuck in its groove, Sabri keeps repeating tiresome canards of the Chinese profiteering on the Malays. He urges Malay consumers to boycott Chinese shops and products. In 2015, he accused a digital mall in the city of overcharging Malays and called for the opening of exclusive Malay digital malls.

The MARA (People’s Trust Council) government agency foolishly did just that, establishing MARA Digital Malls in Johore and Pahang. Both closed within three months. For his racist postings on Facebook, the then Inspector-General of Police said Sabri would be investigated for sedition. Nothing came of that. This double standard in enforcing laws designed to prevent racist hatred widens the trust deficit of Malay rule, the police, and the justice system.

The supreme irony of the country’s descent into failed statehood would be the recycling of Mahathir Mohamad at 96 to a national recovery council, till the next general election. While Najib Razak is vilified for the 1MDB heist and convicted, the architect of the systemic transfer of national assets into crony hands is Mahathir. Najib just went overboard with greedy advisers and an exhibitionist wife. His crime is a matter of degree. The country is yet to fully reckon with Mahathir’s string of epic financial misadventures, and more.

Cyril Pereira is a long-time Asia Sentinel contributor based in Hong Kong