UMNO Back to Power in Rebuilt Malaysian Alliance

Old wine in new bottles

By: Murray Hunter

The appointment of Ismail Sabri Yaakob as Malaysia’s new prime minister means a return to power for the United Malays National Organization, which was ousted in 2018 amid a welter of corruption and the arrest and disgrace of the party’s top figures, Prime Minister Najib Razak and party president Abdul Zahid Hamidi.

Malaysia’s king summoned parliament to the palace on August 18 to have them affirm their support for Sabri, 18 months after Muhyiddin Yassin was affirmed prime minister, triggering a year and a half of turmoil that paralyzed the government as factions within factions fought it out for power while the Covid-19 pandemic raged and the economy went into the tank, disillusioning and disgusting voters.

For the incoming Sabri government, the realization must quickly set in that power is not for power’s sake and that Malaysia is in the deepest crisis the country has ever faced. Sabri faces his own moment of reckoning from the fact that, in his previous role as senior minister for security, he played a major role in the failure to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, the events of the last week hopefully have given the new government a potential window of opportunity without politics -- at least until the next election, due on or before July 2023.

If this occurs, then the Westminster parliamentary system Malaysian style, with the king playing a major role as umpire, will have been shown to work. Now is the time for the executive government to get back to serious governing.

The 61-year-old Sabri, whose appointment as deputy prime minister in July kicked off a revolt led by Zahid among Sabri’s intraparty political enemies that brought down Muhyiddin’s shaky government, is closely aligned with the Hishammuddin Hussein group in the old Muhyiddin cabinet. Hishammuddin is well known for his waving of a ceremonial kris to threaten ethnic Chinese at past UMNO functions and for his rhetoric endorsing Ketuanan Melayu, or Malay Supremacy.

Sabri has also been a staunchly loyal party apparatchik for over 35 years, and knows the rival Najib Razak intraparty mafia very well. His party pedigree was probably the reason he was able to persuade backbenchers to support him. This would have forced his nemesis Zahid to follow suit, or split the party mortally.

One would expect the first Sabri cabinet to include more UMNO members, including some of his past critics. So, instead of a government dominated by Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional coalition, this will be a government dominated by UMNO with PN as a junior partner, fulfilling the aspirations of UMNO members to see the party as dominant in government once again.

For the 74-year-old opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and his Pakatan Harapan coalition, this means taking a back seat until the next election. With the current Covid-19 and economic crises now starting to affect the very survival of many Malaysians, any political antics could be seen as going against the king’s advice he gave to all party leaders earlier in the week.

This doesn’t mean that Anwar should do nothing. This is a time for Anwar to rebuild his own torn apart Parti Keadilan Rakyat after the exit of his rival Azmin Ali, and that of the coalition. PH needs to look at their narrative to the Malay heartland, and perform well as an opposition. Anwar may well consider forming a shadow cabinet, to better hold ministers in the new Sabri government accountable. PH has around 12-18 seats before the next election, and needs to build campaigning capacity on the ground, where it is weak.

In the next election, Pakatan Harapan won’t have the 96-year-old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on the hustings in the Malay heartlands, both for good or ill, so this needs to be taken into account. In addition, Anwar could bring some of his younger members forward as future leaders, and take on more of a mentor role.

Anwar as a mentor would be much more marketable than an Anwar perceived to just wanting to be prime minister. With the future Sabri cabinet primarily being made up of old wine in new bottles, a young and hungry PH line-up may be formidable. The Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party has been doing this, bringing in new blood, and within PKR there is lots of young talent. Party Amanah under Mohamad Sabu must rekindle the approach of moderate Islam, which has been lost from the rural-based Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS today under its extremist – and corrupt – leader Abdul Hadi Awang.

It is apparent the Sabri has been able to shore up the PN/BN coalition numbers with all MPs from UMNO supporting him. Sabri has also kept Muhyiddin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, or Bersatu fully intact in his coalition, with no defections, along with the rest of the coalition. That took his support to 114, three more than the 111 MPs he needs to become prime minister and form a government.

Mahathir, with his four-member Pejuang party, is expected to fall behind the new ruling coalition, and expressed a desire to serve in the cabinet, should an invitation be issued. That would take Sabri’s support to 118, a comfortable majority in the Dewan Rakyat, or lower house.

It appears Pakatan Harapan was only able to muster 101 members to support Anwar, with two seats currently vacant. This is another one of the numerous occasions Anwar has just fallen short of the necessary numbers to become prime minister. To many, this is a deep emotional blow, especially for those who strongly believe that Anwar should be given an opportunity to show what he can do in government.

Sabri is a Malay-centric politician who has not been without controversy over the years. During the last general election. he said a vote for the Democratic Action Party, an integral component of the Pakatan Harapan coalition headed by Anwar that fell from power in 2020, was a vote to eliminate the special rights of Malays and the uniqueness of Islam.

Sabri also caused controversy in 2015, when on his Facebook page, he urged Malay consumers to boycott monopolizing and profiteering Chinese businesses that discriminate against non-Chinese entrepreneurs. Sabri also unsuccessfully set up a Malay-only electronics mall “Loy Yat 2” to compete with the Chinese-dominated Low Yat Plaza, a teeming warren of electronics shops, which didn’t get off the ground.

Sabri, from Pahang — the same state as the king — began his parliamentary career as in 2004 after being involved in the UMNO party machinery since 1987. He became minister for youth and sports in Abdullah Badawi’s government in 2008. In 2009, under prime minister Najib Razak, Sabri became the minister for domestic trade, cooperatives and consumerism, and after the 2013 general election was appointed minister for agriculture and agro-based industry. In 2015, he was appointed minister for rural and regional development, until the 2018 general election, when Pakatan Harapan defeated the Barisan Nasional government which had run the country for 70 years.

After Najib Razak’s electoral defeat, Sabri in hard-fought UMNO polls became party vice president. After the so-called Sheraton putsch that brought Muhyiddin to power, Sabri became a senior minister with responsibility for defense. In July, he was appointed deputy prime minister under criticism by his rival Zahid and his supporters. Zahid then declared that UMNO would with immediate effect withdraw support for Muhyiddin and the Perikatan Nasional government. However, no UMNO cabinet ministers resigned from the cabinet in support.

This article is among the stories we choose to make widely available. If you wish to get the full Asia Sentinel experience and access more exclusive content, please do subscribe to us.