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As another unstable coalition takes power, what does the future hold for Malaysian politics?

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Designate and former interior minister Muhyiddin Yassin waves to reporters before his inauguration as the 8th prime minister, outside his residence in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, March 1, 2020. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

By OOI KEE BENG for TODAYONLINE, 2 March 2020

Muhyiddin Yassin has emerged as Malaysia’s eighth prime minister after a week of dramatic twists and turns among parliamentarians.

He emerged the winner thanks to the coming together of three of the five Malay-based parties in the country, along with a coalition of Sarawak parties called Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) and a handful of Members of Parliament (MPs) from the Barisan Nasional (BN) parties of Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC).

Whichever way you look at it, it is an unholy and unstable alliance.

First, Mr Muhyiddin’s party Bersatu was formed to end abuse of power by the previous BN government dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (Umno).

An elite-led partnership between the two now is therefore unlikely to be as free of problems as Mr Muhyiddin and Mr Azmin Ali — both of whom broke away from the Pakatan Harapan (PH) pact led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad — may be hoping for.

This is apparent in the claim made by Dr Mahathir at the last minute on Saturday night (Feb 29) that he had support from enough MPs to form a government, hours after the Palace had named Mr Muhyiddin as the new premier.

Dr Mahathir claimed that the King declined to grant him another audience so close to the swearing in of Mr Muhyiddin as prime minister and that stopped him from regaining power.

Furthermore, Bersatu was formed through the pure obsession that Dr Mahathir had to bring Najib Razak down. With the goal of bringing down Najib gone for Bersatu, there is little, if anything, to differentiate it from Umno.

The two parties cannot help targeting the same constituency, after all. Umno Light — as Bersatu was always considered to be — has little choice but to be absorbed back into the mothership of Umno.

What one should expect then, is that there will be desertions from Bersatu, including from among the newly-joined defectors from the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), who had followed Mr Azmin across the political divide.

Second, the third coalition member in Mr Muhyiddin’s new government, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), also targets the same constituency as Umno and Bersatu.

In fact, what PAS will seek to do during its short term in office, will be to penetrate Umno core constituencies as deeply as possible, and enhance and sustain Islamist tendencies within the civil service. Hopefully, the Sarawakians will stand in PAS’ way to some extent.

Indeed, the new government lacks grounds to sustain itself.

Those most willing to stay the course and not rock the boat will be the MCA and the MIC. Showing no will of their own at all in the chaos that unfolded last week, these runt members of BN realise that the only card they have left to play is to cling onto the leggings of Umno and hope for the best.

The end of the old grouping we call the BN has been clear to everyone except the MCA and the MIC, but this new coalition should make its demise official.

The position that GPS holds in this hodgepodge government — formed for no other reason than to intrigue its way to power — is a very strong one. It is in fact the kingmaker.

The powerholders in Sarawak have always been fearful of federal government control of the affairs of this giant state, and will therefore be more than ready to flex its muscles vis-à-vis its new partners.

A NEW MALAYSIA IS YET TO COME

But looking beyond this newly formed ruling coalition, what does its coming to power mean for Malaysia in general?

Investments can be expected to drop even further. In any case, the economic atmosphere in the world is already in an extremely bearish mood, and investors are more given to caution than to boldness.

Back in opposition, the PH parties, supported by their main ally Parti Warisan Sabah, can be expected to mount attack upon attack, in parliament and outside parliament, against the flimsy Muhyiddin government.

How relevant Dr Mahathir will remain in the coming weeks and months is hard to predict. As we now know, PH as opposition is much more formidable than PH as government. The future PH, it is hoped, will be more ready to run a government than it had been.

Interestingly, political developments in recent years have provided the East Malaysians a role in federal politics which they had never had before.

This is largely for the good, and with their stronger significance and participation in the country’s politics, the nature of racial politics can be expected to move away from the simple Malay versus non-Malay and the bumiputera versus non-bumiputera trajectory into more complex discourses that give greater relevance to class and regional perspectives in policy making.

Regional politics has also been on display as well, and as never before. The states of Sabah and Sarawak may make up East Malaysia in the eyes of most Malaysians, but obviously the future they imagine for themselves varies greatly from each other’s.

How these recent federal intrigues affect politics at the state level is not clear yet, but the governments in PH’s core states of Selangor and Penang remain solid.

The coming period provides a chance for soul searching among PH’s member parties, and the weaknesses it so evidently displayed during the 21 months it held federal power supply much fruit for thought — and much motivation for internal reforms.

One should also consider that the travails of the last week were precipitated by the long-expected split of PKR.

Although it brought down the federal government, the silver lining is that PKR can now rebuild itself properly into the all-important Malay-led multicultural party that Malaysia needs if it is to grow into the proud and free developed nation envisioned in Vision 2020.

There had been speculation before the crisis ever began that the PH government would turn out to be a one-term government.

Its term ended sooner than expected; but that also means that the time for its renewal has been brought forward — and perhaps also the time for its next term in power.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute, and also Visiting Senior Fellow at Iseas–Yusof Ishak Institute. His recent books include “Catharsis: A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia”.
Read more at https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/another-unstable-coalition-takes-power-what-does-future-hold-malaysian-politics

About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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