Inside Story

Malaysian democracy comes full circle

Out of the turmoil, the party that lost the last election is back leading a new government

Amrita Malhi 24 August 2021 1577 words

Under pressure: Ismail Sabri Yaakob arriving for a meeting last Thursday with King Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin at the royal palace in Kuala Lumpur prior to his appointment as prime minister. Kyodo News via AP Images

What just happened in Malaysia? The short answer is that an UMNO politician is once again in the prime minister’s seat, only a few short years after the 1MDB scandal led to the first-ever electoral defeat of an UMNO-led coalition. UMNO — the United Malays National Organisation — had ruled in Malaysia since the country’s first election in 1955, taking over from Britain at independence in 1957.

UMNO’s Ismail Sabri Yaakob became Malaysia’s ninth prime minister last week after Muhyiddin Yassin lost his parliamentary majority. Ismail, who had served as deputy prime minister for only five weeks after eighteen months as defence minister, reportedly holds 114 seats of 220, leaving high-profile opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and his Pakatan Harapan (Pact of Hope) coalition on the opposition benches. The new prime minister was reportedly a compromise candidate for parties and factions opposed to Anwar’s rise.

The new government consists of UMNO, with the remnants of its old Barisan Nasional coalition, and Bersatu, Muhyiddin’s splinter party, which was formed by Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, when he quit UMNO in 2016. A group of fifteen UMNO MPs, led by party president Zahid Hamidi, withdrew their support for Muhyiddin earlier this month, forcing his resignation and paving the way for UMNO to lead a government once again. Aside from a few independents, the government also includes UMNO’s main Islamist rival, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, and a Sarawak coalition called GPS.

Malaysia’s new government will now need to do what its predecessor dodged: face up to the challenge of reconvening parliament and confirming its majority after a period of emergency rule. It must then demonstrate that it can hold itself together in a way the previous government could not, and that it is capable of managing the pandemic’s worsening health and economic impacts.

“Malaysian politics is so confusing it’s making my head spin,” is a sentiment I’ve been hearing quite often lately. The situation is “unstable,” declare the risk and ratings agencies, with every new policy decision running the risk of being reversed as governments are cut down and new ones installed.

It’s certainly true that just about every combination of individuals, parties and factions has been proffered over the past three years to try to find a stable political settlement. Candidates for the job of prime minister are never scarce, and every one of them is constantly talking to every other grouping and counting his numbers. In this last round of negotiations, for example, Anwar reportedly struck a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Shafie Apdal, leader of a Sabah party called Warisan: whichever of them secured the remaining numbers needed for Pakatan to lead a majority of MPs would be their side’s candidate for PM.

The ideological or policy differences between the various groups in the mix are not always clear and always up for negotiation, and unpicking why any of the personalities involved might have a better chance of gaining power is never straightforward. Partisan allegiances are made pointless by the instability of government and opposition coalitions. Even election results may not hold firm, as Malaysians’ experience since 2020 demonstrates: the elected Pakatan government was brought down from within when a group of MPs met at Kuala Lumpur’s Sheraton Hotel and opted to join UMNO and PAS in establishing Muhyiddin’s government.

But the “confusion” is also a symptom of a breakdown in the narrative of democratisation — or at least the contest for it — that has built up around Malaysian politics since 2008, with Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan coalition at its forefront. This narrative attracted interest among large numbers of people in Australia and elsewhere, including the sharp, informed and often nostalgic Malaysian diaspora.

That narrative drove media coverage, attendance at speaking tours and other events, and a boom in explainer articles like this one; but it began to falter when Anwar and Mahathir joined forces after two decades of enmity. That about-turn might have paved the way for today’s “instability,” but it also spearheaded a successful election campaign that associated Najib and the missing 1MDB funds with an influx of Belt and Road projects that was causing widespread unease and increasing the risk of unsustainable debts to China.

The democratisation narrative ultimately crumbled when the Pakatan government failed to deliver the reforms it promised and eventually collapsed. Its successor, Muhyiddin’s government, then failed to consolidate its own position and instead declared a state of emergency, ostensibly as a response to the pandemic. Yet with its inconsistent movement restrictions and struggling vaccination program, the emergency saw case numbers rise rather than fall.

The emergency also shredded the government’s claims to legitimacy. With its parliamentary majority constantly under question, Muhyiddin finally had to admit it didn’t actually hold one. After Zahid and his followers withdrew their support, the numbers could no longer be hidden or fudged, and Muhyiddin’s last-ditch attempt to woo opposition support, offered in exchange for select democratic reforms, didn’t work either. Even so, other UMNO MPs serving in Muhyiddin’s cabinet didn’t follow Zahid out. Along with several other UMNO leaders including former prime minister Najib Razak, Zahid still faces charges related to graft and other offences, while those who didn’t join him continued to enjoy the benefits of holding cabinet positions, and are likely to continue to do so under Ismail.

Survival will continue to be a key question for that cabinet and the rest of the government. Muhyiddin’s government stressed “Malay unity” over democratisation, which it portrayed as “liberal,” “urban,” “elite” and “Chinese.” And yet there is no certainty that a coalition of parties, all of which seek to lead the nation’s Malay Muslim majority, can keep its unruly components in check. Some jostling for position has already begun. Early signs suggest that the new government doesn’t know what to call itself: is it still Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance) supported by Barisan Nasional (National Front)? Or will it need to consult a thesaurus to find yet another synonym for alliance, coalition, front, pact or consensus?

Adding to the political complexity is the question of how to signal where the government’s component parties wish to take Malaysia, and how to manage divided reactions.

For example, a few days ago, Muhammad Khalil Abdul Hadi, a member of Islamist party PAS’s international affairs and external relations committee, tweeted his congratulations to the Taliban for liberating Afghanistan from “the clutches of colonialism.” As prime minister during the 1990s, Mahathir linked PAS with the Taliban to discredit it electorally, while casting UMNO as the party of modernisation. Now, not only is PAS openly associating itself with the Taliban, but so too is an MP in Muhyiddin’s Bersatu party, Zuraida Kamaruddin. Noting that the Taliban might have some trouble with women’s rights, Zuraida has offered to visit Afghanistan to advise its leaders on how to empower women.

These statements are not intended for Malaysia’s international audience, although its partners are certainly listening. Rather, they are for domestic consumption, and they should be understood as messages aimed at winning different parts of the Malay Muslim voting bloc that Pakatan managed to split and the new government will be trying to bring back together. It will be trying to do this even while its component parties vie to outbid each other on race and religion, in a dynamic that is likely to introduce a new form of instability into government and governance — that of coalition partners competing for the same constituency. Managing this competition will be difficult — not because the coalition parties are too different from one another, ironically, but because they are too alike.

Further complicating matters, the voters they are competing for are increasingly cynical and worried sick about the pandemic’s health risks and economic impact. The vaccination program rollout has picked up in pace, but the proportion of Malaysians who are fully vaccinated has only just reached 40 per cent. Many have received the less effective Sinovac, however. Daily new case numbers exceed 22,000.

Many Malaysians are struggling with pandemic restrictions, which fall heavily on those in precarious jobs, and with inadequate coverage by stimulus and social protection measures. Many have turned to food aid packages, community and civil society mutual assistance initiatives, cheap instant noodles, and shoplifting. In an interview last month, Ameer Ali Mydin, managing director of a hypermarket chain bearing his name, was nearly in tears as he described how thieves were now more likely to target fish and basic vegetables than more expensive speakers and televisions.

With incomes sliding, not least among the Malaysian middle class, pressure on the new government will be intense, which is probably why Ismail has invited the opposition to join the National Recovery Council and the Special Committee on Covid-19. Civil society groups are again calling for more collaboration.

Indeed, excluding pressure groups would create its own problems: the social and economic challenges they highlight are exacerbated by the pandemic and can’t be wished away. A wide range of social, political and governance reforms will be required if Malaysian society is to recover. If the opposition couldn’t introduce them when it was in government, then UMNO will need to consider at least some of them, although how it will balance inclusive negotiations with managing the nation’s new political dynamics remains an open question.

Whatever the answer, Ismail has his work cut out for him. •