Malaysia PM Ismail Sabri seeks 'family' unity as political tension rises

Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob is following a long-held tradition of past premiers in coming up with a catchy slogan to unite the country. PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

KUALA LUMPUR (BLOOMBERG) - Malaysia Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob unveiled his "Malaysian Family" concept on Friday (Oct 8) in a bid to rally a country trying to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic even as renewed political tensions threaten his almost two-month-old leadership.

The Malaysian Family's vision is one of healing, development and high income, according to a booklet released by the Prime Minister's Office hours before the soft launch.

It came with a song that included the lyrics: "This is the time to eradicate enmity, erase strife from the soul" and "let us stop pointing fingers at one another."

Datuk Seri Ismail is following a long-held tradition of past premiers in coming up with a catchy slogan to unite the country but he might have much more at stake.

He faces his first popularity test in a looming state election in central Malaysia and a de-facto confidence vote on the national budget later this month.

"The economy should revive, the welfare of the people needs to improve, and investor confidence must return," said Mr Ismail in a televised speech at Friday's launch. "Rest assured that only through the full cooperation of the Malaysian Family will the war against the Covid-19 pandemic end in victory," he added.

He said 10,000 members of the "Malaysian Family Squad" were prepared to mobilise across the country to help those affected by the pandemic. The government was working on various initiatives to ensure no one would be left behind, he added.

This comes as Mr Ismail seeks to reopen the battered economy within the final quarter of the year - one major step includes lifting a months-long ban on interstate travel, which is set to happen within days.

Since rising to power in August, Mr Ismail has sought to bring stability to a nation that has seen three premiers in 18 months.

He first mooted the idea of an "inclusive family" in his inaugural speech in August, and went to work quickly to make peace with all political sides, including brokering a confidence and supply agreement with the main opposition bloc.

Mr Ismail has also kept the old Cabinet largely intact in his new administration, and promoted his predecessor to a position equal to that of a minister.

But in the past week, these political ties have begun to fray. A key state that Mr Ismail's party controlled collapsed due to infighting, and former premier Muhyiddin Yassin opposed a move to add a new deputy speaker post for the opposition.

Meanwhile, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has complained about Mr Ismail's slow progress on reforms promised in their agreement.

Ismail's Malaysian Family concept has echoes of former premier Najib Razak's 1Malaysia slogan: both emphasise promoting national unity.

Like Najib, who backtracked on reform pledges such as abolishing the draconian Sedition Act due to internal party pressure, Mr Ismail may be realising how difficult it is to cater to various political groups.

"The main problem with Ismail's Malaysian Family concept, at least for the moment, is the fact that he tries too hard to endear his siblings while bringing in too many foster children," said Dr Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

He was referring to the component parties in the ruling coalition, and the premier's pact with the opposition alliance.

Trying to meet so many parties' conflicting interests and ideologies would just create internal discord as well as provide room for politicians to take advantage of power vacuums, as was the case in Malacca state, Dr Oh said.

"So by trying too hard, he actually would engender political instability."

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