Mahathir Out, Muhyiddin In: The Recent Chaos In Malaysian Politics

On 1 March 2020, Muhyiddin Yassin was sworn in as Malaysia’s 8th Prime Minister, having defected from his 2018 election-winning alliance Pakatan Harapan (PH) with Mahathir Mohammad and Anwar Ibrahim’s parties, and instead backed by members of his old party, United Malays National Organization (UMNO). UMNO is also the party of former prime minister Najib Razak who is currently facing corruption charges for the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. Muhyiddin’s appointment followed Mahathir’s surprising resignation as prime minister on 23 Feb 2020, which has since plunged Malaysian politics into turmoil.

“This is utter betrayal,” lawyer and activist Fadya Nadwa Fikri told the BBC. “People didn’t vote for this.” Syed Saddiq, a young Malay politician in Muhyiddin’s party, has refused to back Muhyiddin’s cooperation with UMNO. “I am sorry for failing you. I tried. I really tried to stop them,” he tweeted. Mahathir himself has deemed Muhyiddin’s appointment as illegal and a betrayal. Professor James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, comments that “the possible outcome [of] a much stronger Malay-centric government with a much more Islamic outlook” would be disadvantageous for ethnic minority groups which constitute over 30% of the population. Members of the public have protested against what is being labelled a “backdoor government”.

Others have scrutinized the role of the King in the proceedings, with one Guardian writer rendering the situation a “royal coup”. The Istana Negara has since dismissed such claims, as the Comptroller of the Royal Household offered a reminder that the “Malaysian Parliamentary Democracy […] is based on the Westminster system”, and proceeded to detail the constitutional process under such circumstances. Mustafa Izzuding of the National University of Singapore has said that despite the King’s inability to make political decisions, “he can play the role of honest broker, bringing the warring sides together”. Such “revolutionary methods may have been necessary,” he purports, as “Malaysian politics are in uncharted waters.”

Less than two years ago, the PH coalition emerged with a historic victory in the 2018 elections, defeating UMNO for the first time since independence in 1957. Then 92-year-old Mahathir had come out of his retirement to lead the coalition against his former party, UMNO, eager to oust Najib following the 1MDB scandal. Joining forces with Muhyiddin and Anwar, the multi-ethnic coalition represented a new hope for Malaysia, a nation customarily favourable to Malays in its law and policies, as championed by the pro-Malay UMNO. Mahathir had promised for Anwar to succeed him as prime minister after two years, though specifics were not given. It is this agreement or lack thereof, that has given rise to much of the secrecy and speculation of the last month. As the two-year mark drew nearer, Anwar’s faction was persistent in requesting details for the handover, though to no avail. Dr Mahathir, however, felt he was being “undermined”, the Guardian reports, thus leading to his resignation. Meanwhile, Muhyiddin, sensing the rising strains within the coalition, abandoned the alliance and sought partnership with the opposition he had worked to defeat two years prior. The situation was further complicated by the fact that Mahathir’s supporters allegedly also met with UMNO the day before Mahathir announced his resignation, despite Anwar’s clarification on Monday that Mahathir had assured him directly that “in no way [would] he ever work with those associated with the past regime”.

Complex personal political relationships add fuel to this political fire. Mahathir and Anwar have endured 30 years of a tumultuous political relationship. Anwar served as deputy under Mahathir’s first term as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, though was later prosecuted and jailed for charges of corruption and sodomy, now generally regarded as political motivated acts. It is difficult to assess or predict their intentions or attitudes towards the other given the erratic history of their relationship. Greater transparency and accountability must be demanded by the public of all its politicians and their agendas if the government is to serve its people efficiently and honourably.

The low morale surrounding these events is exacerbated by the concurrent escalation of the coronavirus across Malaysia, and the US delay of returning additional 1MDB funds given the uncertainty of the political circumstances. PH and its supporters are perhaps particularly downtrodden having lost four of five recent by-elections, which do not bode well as the prospect of a snap election is increasingly conceivable.

Naomi K L Wang