Malaysia set for emergency measures to avert snap polls amid Covid-19 pandemic

Sources said that an "economic emergency" could be proclaimed to ensure that government spending to curb Covid-19 is not jeopardised by an increasingly unstable political atmosphere.
Sources said that an "economic emergency" could be proclaimed to ensure that government spending to curb Covid-19 is not jeopardised by an increasingly unstable political atmosphere.PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's Cabinet was locked in a special meeting on Friday (Oct 23) morning to decide on emergency measures to ensure that the upcoming budget session in Parliament does not result in snap elections amid the resurgent wave of coronavirus infections.

Sources with knowledge of these options told The Straits Times that an "economic emergency" could be proclaimed to ensure that government spending to curb Covid-19 - which has seen total cases doubling this month alone - is not jeopardised by an increasingly unstable political atmosphere.

"It will not be similar to the curfews and military presence we had after the 1969 race riots.

"Instead, normal life under the Movement Control Order (MCO) will continue, without politics getting in the way of dealing with a health crisis," said one source on the condition of anonymity as the matters are official government secrets.

A top ministerial aide told ST that the Cabinet's decision to invoke emergency powers has now been brought to the National Security Council meeting on Friday afternoon.

"The special Cabinet meeting was to ensure we have a Budget 2021 that can be implemented. We have to wait for the PM’s audience with the King," he said, refusing to comment further on the agenda.

ST has learnt that Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is due to meet the Malaysian King, Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah, on Friday to seek royal assent from the federation's Supreme Ruler for a proclamation of emergency.  Tan Sri Muhyiddin arrived at the King's palace in Kuantan, Pahang at 4.40pm for a royal audience, reported the New Straits Times.

The special Cabinet meeting on Friday morning was attended by the Armed Forces Chief, Inspector-General of Police and Attorney General.

ST understands that they were consulted earlier in the week after high-level meetings saw health officials vehemently put forward their case to ensure that national elections do not happen until the outbreak is contained.

The polls in easternmost state of Sabah last month - which were held even as new infection clusters emerged there - were a key factor in Malaysia recording unprecedented numbers of new cases this month.

The country has seen over 800 daily new infections reported several times this week, far more than previous highs of just over 200.

Election Commission chief Abdul Ghani Salleh also said on Oct 13 that "in light of the outbreak, we urge, if possible, that no election be held during this period".

ST has learnt that less hawkish options, such as reaching across the political divide for a "unity budget", have also been floated, with the Democratic Action Party (DAP) being its chief proponent from the opposition.

However, some government leaders are uncomfortable with leaving their fate in the hands of political rivals, especially as many MPs in ruling Malay-Muslim parties have vowed not to cooperate with the Chinese-dominated DAP that they claim is masterminding an agenda to undermine the interest of Malaysia's majority community.

The Federal Constitution allows for an emergency to be called under Article 150, with the consent of the King.

ST understands that several state rulers - nine monarchs who take turns as king - have been made aware of the possibility of special powers being conferred to Tan Sri Muhyiddin's government.

This comes after a month-long political imbroglio when opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim claimed to have a "formidable majority" on Sept 23.

But Umno president Zahid Hamidi, who leads the largest component of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government, finally backed away on Wednesday from last week's threat to withdraw support for Mr Muhyiddin.

The situation is still considered fluid enough that Budget 2021, to be tabled on Nov 6, might fail, as PN only has 113 out of 222 MPs.

Mr Muhyiddin's administration would fall if it is unable to approve government spending and there is no certainty that there will be a replacement as Datuk Seri Anwar is unable to reconcile the differences between his ally DAP and Umno.

An emergency due to the coronavirus outbreak would allow for Parliament to be suspended and the executive arm being given powers to make rules and approve expenditure deemed necessary to ensure public security.