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Uncertainties cast shadow on Malaysia

Power struggle roiling country since change in govt in February

By PRIME SARMIENTO in Hong Kong | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-05-21 10:21

Malaysia's King Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah (right) receives documents from Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin during the welcoming ceremony at the Parliament House in Kuala Lumpur on Monday. REUTERS

Malaysia's political uncertainties continue to cast a shadow on the country's efforts to revive an economy battered by the pandemic.

While there were no fireworks in the parliamentary session on May 18, analysts said it belies the power struggle that has been roiling the Southeast Asian country since the sudden change in government in late February.

The parliamentary sitting both started and ended with a speech by Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah, who called for national unity amid the difficulties brought by the COVID-19 outbreak. The Sultan called for an end to the country's political crisis and appealed for political maturity.

Analysts are alluding to former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad's move to call for a no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

The parliament did not discuss that motion, while Sultan Abdullah stressed in his speech that he appointed Muhyiddin as the latter has gained the trust of the majority of the House of Representatives. The monarch said he had also asked Mahathir not to resign in February "but he was firm in his decision".

"A lot of people are very fed up with all these (political) maneuverings," said James Chin, director of the Asia Institute Tasmania at Australia's University of Tasmania.

Chin said that Malaysians are "worried about their jobs and the state of the (country's) economy", noting how COVID-19 has slowed Malaysia's GDP growth and led to job losses.

Southeast Asia's third-largest economy eased to 0.7 percent in the first quarter, as the outbreak slashed tourism and export revenues and made hundreds of thousands jobless. The movement control order, which was enforced mid-March, has also cut consumer spending.

The Malaysian government started easing lockdown measures on May 10, hoping it would lead to economic recovery. The country continues to battle COVID-19, with the number of patients climbing to 6,978 as of May 20 with 114 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Over 80 percent of these patients have been discharged.

Wong Chin Huat, political scientist at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia, Sunway University in Kuala Lumpur, has praised the Health Ministry's efforts to curb the number of infections-unaffected by the politicking that pervades the country's leadership.

"The technocrats in the Health Ministry have competently flattened the curve," Wong said, referring to the public health strategy that aims to slow down the spread of the novel coronavirus.

He said Muhyiddin "may want to deliver but many of his ministers seem inexperienced".

"The combat against COVID-19 pandemic is largely left to the professional bureaucracy, while economic revival would have to depend on the private sector," Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said.

On the other hand, Oh said senior politicians are busy with their power struggles. He expects Mahathir and his ally Anwar Ibrahim to continue with their uphill task of building a parliamentary majority.

Muhyiddin, meanwhile, has to maintain the support of the various political parties that comprise the ruling Perikatan Nasional coalition.

A week before the parliamentary session, Mahathir and Ibrahim issued a statement questioning the legitimacy of Muhyiddin's government. The duo also claimed that it is time for them to reclaim the mandate they received in 2018 when their Pakatan Harapan coalition won the general election.

Mahathir also held a briefing after the parliamentary session and questioned why the parliament was only allowed to sit for two hours.

Despite Mahathir's protestations, analysts believe Muhyiddin's hold on power is secure as he has the support of most members of the parliament.

"The security of Muhyiddin's premiership depends not so much on the opposition's motion of no confidence, but on the continued support of his own political allies," Oh said.

Chin, director of the Asia Institute Tasmania, said Muhyiddin's continued popularity among the core Malay voters-the rural Malays-is also helping to secure his position. The Malays comprise the majority in Malaysia's multiethnic society.

Wong of Sunway University said Mahathir and the rest of the opposition cannot depend on "short-term political gambles. They must instead build on medium and long-term popularity".

Wong said even if Mahathir's motion was discussed in the parliamentary session, he doubts that the vote of no confidence will emerge as a game changer in Malaysia's politics.

"The parliamentary rules give Muhyuddin great power in agenda setting. He can also use political appointments to court support from backbenchers and even opposition members," he said, adding Muhyiddin also has the power to delay the next parliamentary session.

"Muhyiddin is safe until the election draws near, as the new coalition will then be tested over allocation of electoral constituencies to contest," he said.

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