News analysis

Knockout blow needed to end Muhyiddin-Mahathir fight


KUALA LUMPUR - Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has defended removing his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad from the ruling Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia and signalled that he is ready to fight for control of the government.

"Tun and his followers have chosen to continue working with Pakatan Harapan even though the party has decided otherwise. If that is Tun's choice, I wish him good luck," he said in a statement on Saturday (May 30).

This comes after Tun Dr Mahathir renewed his commitment on Friday to not only topple his successor but also sack him as Bersatu president.

The feud between the two men has left Malaysia with a dysfunctional government, as both try to woo lawmakers from the opposing camp in a bid to strengthen their hands.

While Dr Mahathir must try to deprive Tan Sri Muhyiddin of a simple majority - 112 MPs in the 222-strong Parliament - the incumbent needs to increase the number of his MPs to stabilise his administration.

The past three months have been hard on the governing party. Ruling with just 113 MPs and the strain of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic has seen the government unwilling to face debate in Parliament.

Respected technocrats and corporate figures at state agencies have been replaced with political appointees to shore up support while delays have afflicted plans such as the High-Speed Rail to Singapore that could help boost an ailing economy.

The latest casualty is the 12th Malaysia Plan, a five-year development blueprint which was supposed to be presented to Parliament in August. The Sunday Times has sighted an official memo revealing the Cabinet has postponed the tabling to next year despite the 11th Malaysia Plan ending in December.

"Malaysia will continue to be rocked by political instability until one side can garner a clear majority, otherwise fresh elections may be the only option," global risk consultancy Eurasia Group's Asia director Peter Mumford told The Sunday Times.


Mr Muhyiddin sought rapprochement with Dr Mahathir after being sworn in on March 1. This would have reunited the two factions of Bersatu and allowed him to keep the five MPs who were eventually removed from the party this week.

But having the former premier by his side would have also brought in the likes of Sabah's ruling Warisan and a few smaller parties and independents allied to the 94-year-old statesman. The Perikatan Nasional (PN) pact's strength would have increased to about 130.

That door was slammed shut after Bersatu ousted Dr Mahathir's son Mukhriz as chief minister in the family's home state of Kedah in early May, following Dr Mahathir's push to hold a no confidence vote in his successor in Parliament. The premier blocked any chance of this during the unprecedented 45-minute May 18 sitting by ordering proceedings to end as soon as the King finished his annual opening speech.

Parliament will now only reconvene on July 13, meaning PN will not have passed any Bills for nearly five months since forming government despite announcing two recovery packages worth RM35 billion (S$11.3 billion) in total by April 6. The Sunday Times has learnt that in an effort to secure a greater majority by then, Mr Muhyiddin has dangled the vacant position of deputy premier, which was initially reserved for Datuk Seri Mukhriz, in a bid to placate Dr Mahathir.

PKR president Anwar Ibrahim, whose party has 39 MPs, said on Friday that he rejected the position when approached, while sources revealed that Sabah chief minister Shafie Apdal - his Warisan has nine MPs - was offered the same.

"Anwar risks too much if he were to cross over because not only would others in Pakatan Harapan (PH) not follow, even some in PKR might refuse. So Shafie holds the key. If he joins PN, it will lock in Sabah and give Muhyiddin legitimacy," a source familiar with the negotiations said.

Datuk Seri Anwar leads the 92 MPs in PH, after the dispute between PM Muhyiddin and Dr Mahathir left Bersatu's membership of the former ruling coalition in limbo.


Most PH leaders are aware that they are unable to secure more than 112 MPs unless they affirm Dr Mahathir as their candidate for the premiership. Datuk Seri Shafie and MPs in Sarawak, especially from the ruling Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), are unwilling to back an Anwar administration.

The Sunday Times understands that PH leaders are trying to convince Mr Anwar to make way again - a mid-term handover agreed on prior to winning the 2018 election was left unfulfilled when Dr Mahathir was ousted in February. They believe that the PKR chief has room to cut a deal now that his former deputy Azmin Ali - whose faction was favoured by Dr Mahathir - has defected to PN.

"Anwar can demand the four Cabinet positions and control of policies and institutions that were handed to Azmin's camp before," one PH leader said.

If both Mr Shafie and Mr Anwar are satisfied, Dr Mahathir's camp believe they can convince some Bersatu MPs to return, using the founder's removal from the party this week as a reason to turn their backs on Mr Muhyiddin.

But while this could bring Dr Mahathir's support to as high as 118, it would still be dicey as the King could decide that fresh polls are preferable to the instability of slim majorities.

As such, efforts to bring GPS' 18 MPs over to Dr Mahathir's side will be crucial to ensuring that if and when Dr Mahathir seeks an audience, the Palace will have no choice but to swear him in for a third stint as premier.

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