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With Malaysian politics on a knife’s edge, what challenges will Muhyiddin face?

By OOI KEE BENG, for TODAYONLINE, Singapore. 9 March 2020

If Malaysia’s new government under Muhyiddin Yassin is a solid one, then one could perhaps begin declaring a new era in the country’s politics. 

But it is not, and it in fact depends heavily on parties like the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and the Islamist Parti Agama Se-Malaysia (PAS) to stay in power.

Believing that Malaysia is in a new political era would be as foolhardy as the attitude of those who believed in the wake of the May 2018 general election that Umno was dead.

It was no doubt more correct to have claimed that the Barisan Nasional coalition was gone, but Umno is definitely too established and rooted in Malay consciousness to disappear over a bad election. 

Its return was a matter of time; the question was always what shape it would return in and in partnership with whom.

We have that answer today. The fact that Mr Muhyiddin is leader of Bersatu, and not of Umno, is of little consequence. 

He was after all, a long-term Umno leader; and chances are that once the dust settles, and once those who regret defecting with him have left, the process whereby Bersatu will be subsumed into Umno begins.

In some ways, this has already begun. Mr Muhyiddin has declared that his government will be a clean one. 

This was a necessary point for him to make, and as quickly as possible, for the publicising of the wish for a cleaner government was what basically differentiated Bersatu from Umno.

In fact, it was the point Mr Muhyiddin made much of as his reason for speaking out against Najib Razak before getting himself sacked in 2015.

But Mr Muhyiddin’s latest declaration has met with rumblings from the Umno ground.

To those in the Umno ranks, Mr Muhyiddin’s idea was quixotic. 

After all, by relying on Umno to bring down the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, Mr Muhyiddin was getting onto the proverbial tiger. Taming that tiger, or getting off it, will not be an easy matter.


Also, Bersatu is practically divided into two. And Dr Mahathir Mohamad — the man who has brought down every Malaysian prime minister except Tun Abdul Razak Hussein who died in office — is unlikely to let Mr Muhyiddin get away with the coup he pulled on the 94-year-old veteran.

Read also: Malaysia’s palace rebuts Guardian editorial about country’s change of government

Mr Muhyiddin may have brought down a weak coalition, but his own is no stronger.

Significantly, the popular vote won by PH in 2018 was only 49 per cent. This meant that half the population of Malaysia had not voted for a PH government.

But that is how the democratic system works. Be that as it may, this certainly gave heart to Umno and to PAS that daily sniping from the sidelines, coupled with support from within the administrative apparatus, would wreck the largely inexperienced, disoriented and naïve PH government.

The string of by-elections that the opposition won over the last year testified to the weakness of the PH government, and to the flimsy voter support it enjoyed.

Having two weak governments in a row, following the questionable habits of the regime that went before, puts Malaysia in a worrying position. Investors will hesitate to invest, especially at a time when the world’s economy is in deep trouble.

The truth of the matter is, Malaysian politics is balanced on a knife’s edge. No side controls an easy majority, and indeed, most parties — whether in the fallen PH government or in this new one — could have been considered to have had a kingmaker role.

This is the impasse that the coalition-building requirement of Malaysian politics has led the country to.

And so, as soon as Bersatu pulled out of the PH on Feb 24, that government fell. The same knife now hangs over Mr Muhyiddin’s government. Once parliament sits again in May, a vote of no-confidence can be expected to be moved against him.

From now until then, the new prime minister can be expected to have secured enough support for his government, by whatever means he finds necessary. 


Beyond that, chances are slim that the Muhyiddin government will survive the next three years until general elections have to be called in 2023.

What is more likely to happen is that he will call for early polls as soon as he feels the time is right.

And so, it would be a mistake to consider Mr Muhyiddin’s pending administration to be the start of a new period in Malaysian history.

In the coming weeks and months, what he will be most concerned about is his coalition’s survival. Forming a cabinet that will strongly secure support from the various coalition parties and party leaders will therefore be his first priority.

His latest reported attempt to meet up with Dr Mahathir, the ex-chairman of Bersatu, reveals the cul-de-sac situation he finds himself in.

Only coalitions have a chance to rule Malaysia. But coalitions are born of compromises and they are able to grow strong only after surviving common battles.

BN was strong because Umno was strong, and its allies over time grew to follow orders, at least publicly.

The history of the PH shows strong ideological, if not social, bonds between Parti Keadilan Rakyat and Democratic Action Party.

Unfortunately for them, that coalition has never been big enough to allow them to win power on their own. They had had to work with PAS. That failed. They then had to work with Dr Mahathir, Mr Muhyiddin and Bersatu. We now know how badly that has ended.

New configurations of coalitions, like the PH that won the election, are never compact in conviction. If PH stays intact, this crisis will strengthen its resolve and its internal cohesion.

The new coalition under Mr Muhyiddin has at most three years to prove itself while ironing out internal differences.

The ace it has up its sleeve is what it will rely on to stay in power beyond that period of time. It has the right to call for elections whenever it is to its advantage to do so. But if no such time comes, then the ace is but a joker.


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”.


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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