The Asian Voice

'Fluid' is the political word of the year for Malaysia: The Star columnist

In his commentary, the writer says that the only sure thing to predict about Malaysian politics is that a lot will happen this year.

The second day of 2020 began with the surprise resignation of Malaysia's Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik. PHOTO: BERNAMA

KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The second day of the new year started with the surprise resignation of Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik.

It forced me to revise my 2020 list of what to expect in Malaysian politics. One item on my list was whether there will be a Cabinet reshuffle and who will be replaced.

Maszlee's resignation partly answered the question. I also had to get a fresh comment from Universiti Malaya sociopolitics professor Awang Azman Awang Pawi on the matter.

"Going by Maszlee's statement, the decision to resign is based on the PM's advice. This is shocking because Maszlee is resigning only because of the people's dissatisfaction and there are other ministers who are also often criticised by the people. If it is only Maszlee who quits, it could be seen as Pakatan (Harapan) making him their scapegoat, " said Awang Azman.

The rakyat (people), he said, also wants other ministers to be dropped or their portfolio to be changed.

"If a comprehensive Cabinet reshuffle is done then Pakatan (Harapan) will have the opportunity to gain new confidence. It is Pakatan's chance to do comprehensive damage control," he said.

"The rakyat (people) also wants the Prime Minister transition to be accelerated to give the ruling coalition a new momentum."

Indeed, the issue of the transition of power between Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) chairman Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is going to be big, according to Universiti Utara Malaysia political lecturer Professor Dr Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani.

"At the same time, 2020 is going to be the third year Pakatan (Harapan) is in power. The big question is whether they can fulfil the promises made in GE14 in 2018. This is also related to whether Pakatan can bring economic growth against the backdrop of a tough global economy," he said.

Another issue is whether the government would be stable.

"There is still uncertainty, and people are worried about many issues of race and religion," said Mohd Azizuddin.

The uncertainty surrounding the transition of power will drag on through this year, said political analyst Dr Abdul Latiff Mohd Ibrahim.

"Since Pakatan (Harapan) came to power, this has been the main issue, coming and going from time to time. Because of the uncertainty, the economy is affected, politics is becoming dirtier and anger is rising among people because the government is seen as ineffective," he said, adding that the issue must see closure this year with Dr Mahathir keeping his promise or the rakyat (people) may react strongly.

Will Dr Mahathir give up power to Anwar?

Shahbudin Husin, the author of Anwar The Eighth PM: A Promise To Transfer Power That Must Be Fulfilled, published in 2019, is confident it will happen this year.

If it doesn't happen, he said, it will be the end of Pakatan Harapan (PH): "If Pakatan (Harapan) wants to survive 2020, there must be a transition of power whether in May or after Apec, " he said, referring to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation series of meetings that will end this November.

Shahbudin pointed out that PH is not like Barisan Nasional (BN): "When he was PM during Barisan's rule, Mahathir could decide when and who to give up power to. But under Pakatan (Harapan), the real power is in the Pakatan presidential council."

He said that, in the end, PH leaders like Amanah president Mohamad Sabu, Democratic Action Party (DAP) adviser Lim Kit Siang and DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng will make sure that Pakatan wins GE15 by making sure that the promise of the transition of power happens.

However, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia politics and governance research group head Dr Mazlan Ali doesn't think Dr Mahathir will quit as Prime Minister in 2020.

Mazlan said that after the Tanjung Piai by-election in Johor which saw a majority of Chinese voters rejecting PH, Dr Mahathir is not happy with the community, especially with Dong Zong (the United Chinese School Committees' Association).

"I hypothesise that Tun is looking for a new coalition where he doesn't need DAP. He might be looking for an alternative power which is based on Malay/Islam support, " he said, in which case he does not see a likelihood of the Prime Minister handing over his power to Anwar.

Political analyst Professor Shamsul Amri Baharuddin expects Malaysia's Rubik's Cube of coalition politics will be turned in 2020.

"The realignment and re-positioning of Pakatan (Harapan) are still being discussed, and whether a new coalition will be formed. You see it within Umno (United Malays National Organisation), within PAS (Malaysian Islamic Party), it centres around Mahathir, Anwar and (Datuk Seri) Najib (Razak). The re- positioning will continue to happen next year (2020) to the extent that there might even be a change of government," he said on Dec 27.

"A new coalition might emerge with different parties. Pakatan (Harapan) is like duckweed. It is an agreement above water, and they remain floating together. But any of them can shift and move away as they are not rooted in the ground."

Will there be an endgame in the PKR civil war?

It will continue, predicted Ilham Centre research fellow and University Malaya political analyst Professor Hamidin Abdul Hamid, though "maybe in a different tone", referring to more second- and third-layer PKR leaders making noise.

"But the confrontation will still be there. There is no sign that it will end unless someone gives in - unless Anwar gives certainty to Azmin that he will be the next PKR president," he said.

Hamidin also does not think Anwar will be the eight Prime Minister this year. He said the PKR president had to cement his position in his party first. Anwar, when he came out of prison, misread the political situation.

He thought everything was settled, that PKR members will accept him as president and he could rule the party, Hamidin said. But there was resistance.

"So Anwar has to retreat, relook, re-position and reclaim his place as party president and accept the reality that there are others who play a big role in PKR who need to be recognised.

"When he wanted Rafizi Ramli to challenge Azmin as PKR deputy president, the establishment behind Azmin felt threatened," he said.

Team Anwar will continuously pressure Dr Mahathir to step down in 2020, Hamidin forecasted.

When I shared my list of what to expect in Malaysian politics in 2020 with Bridget Welsh, editor of The End Of Umno: Essays On Malaysia's Former Dominant Party (published in 2016), she said there was one thing missing: "The big thing not on your list is the Najib and (Datuk Seri Dr) Ahmad Zahid (Hamidi) trials. They will affect Malaysia on the international stage, as they deal with issues of corruption and the rule of law in this country," she told me on the second last day of 2019.

Welsh - an honorary research associate at the Kuala Lumpur-based University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute-Malaysia - contends that the Najib and Ahmad Zahid corruption trials will have a ripple effect within Umno.

"Twenty-twenty-one is the year in which what I call the mother of all elections will happen in Umno but the contestation has already begun now over who is going to take over the party.

"What is interesting to watch is whether Najib and Ahmad Zahid, the Umno president, will still be in charge of Umno at the end of next year (2020), " she said.

On whether Umno, like PKR, is experiencing a civil war, Welsh said there are at least two camps in the party: The Najib/Ahmad Zahid camp and camps connected to alternatives such as Umno deputy president Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan, former Umno vice-president Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, and Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin, an Umno vice-president.

"And this reflects a deep struggle in the party on how it can move past GE14 and rebrand itself," Welsh said.

Politics in Malaysia is so fluid that the day after my meeting with Welsh, the whispers that Ahmad Zahid has abandoned Team Anwar and is in negotiation with Team Mahathir started getting louder.

Yesterday (Jan 4) was nomination day for the Kimanis by-election in Sabah. It will be a straight fight between PH-allied Parti Warisan Sabah and Barisan's Umno.

"It could be a yardstick for the Pakatan (Harapan) government, especially for the state government led by Warisan-Pakatan-Upko, " said Tony Paridi Bagang, a senior lecturer at the faculty of administrative science and policy studies in Universiti Teknologi Mara Sabah.

"Voters will keep count of Pakatan (Harapan)'s achievements in doing what it had promised in GE14," he said, adding that Kimanis will also be a yardstick for many unresolved Sabah-related issues that the Opposition will capitalise on, such as the issuance of the Sabah Temporary Pass to foreigners and the promise of oil royalty.

With all this in mind, I had to ask: Will there be a GE15 in 2020?

"Knowing Mahathir, I don't think there will be a snap election," said Universiti Malaya political analyst Dr Muhammad Asri Mohd Ali.

"Mahathir has a short period of time left so it is better for him to continue what he is doing right now. A snap election doesn't guarantee that he will win."

Anwar does not have enough MPs to dislodge Mahathir, said Muhammad Asri: "With PAS supporting Mahathir and a group of Umno MPs also behind him, his position is secure," he said.

Muhammad Asri said it is business as usual for the PH parties, "Unless DAP is brave enough to stick with Anwar and pull out of Pakatan (Harapan). But knowing Guan Eng and his (alleged) Penang tunnel scandal, I don't think DAP dares to do that," he said.

"On Anwar's part, so far he has never acted alone. History shows that he needs DAP and PAS. So the question of whether PKR will act alone will not arise. Even if it happens, they will not have enough seats because (PKR deputy president Datuk Seri) Azmin Ali is with Mahathir. So Anwar needs DAP. But DAP will not follow Anwar this time."

With that scenario, Muhammad Asri said there is no pressure for Mahathir to seek the dissolution of Parliament. However, he has a caveat: Snap elections could be called if something happened to the Prime Minister or if Azmin's faction leaves PH.

Sarawak elections are only due in 2021. However, Prof James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, predicts they could be called in March this year: "The Sarawak election is on. It will be a quick one. At present, the situation on the ground is fluid but from my observation, GPS (Gabun-gan Parti Sarawak), the ruling state coalition) has the upper hand. DAP is becoming unpopular in Chinese areas and Sarawak PKR is split into two camps (Team Anwar and Team Azmin)," he said.

"GPS's call of 'Sarawak first' is gaining traction as Sarawakians are angry that MA63 (issues in the Malaysian Agreement 1963) is still outstanding, especially on financial affairs and political autonomy.

Chin said the kingmakers in state polls are Iban and Bidayuh voters: "If they swing to Pakatan (Harapan), it is bye-bye to GPS, " he said.

On national politics, Chin said it would be the same: race, religion and royalty, "but more racial and religious tensions due to the PAS/Umno pact and the push for Dr Mahathir to retire".

"For non-Malays, especially the Chinese, there is a realisation that regime change did not lead to any changes in race/religion politics and, for many, it seems the problem is worse now," he said.

Will 2020 be The Year Of Living Dangerously in Malaysia?

The writer is a former editor of the Asia News Network. The Star is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media entities.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.