Malaysia was thrown into political turmoil last night after Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin met Malaysia's King, Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah, to discuss imposing emergency measures, but a much anticipated announcement of the move over television failed to materialise.
This sparked speculation that Tan Sri Muhyiddin might make the announcement at the weekend, ahead of the opening of markets on Monday.
The move appears to be aimed at ensuring that the upcoming vote in Parliament on the Budget does not result in snap elections if it fails to pass. The government is also trying to buy time to deal with the resurgent cases of Covid-19 in parts of the country.
The constitutional monarch's consent is needed to invoke emergency powers.
The day's frenzy of activities began when Mr Muhyiddin chaired a special Cabinet meeting yesterday morning in the administrative capital Putrajaya to discuss the emergency measures, The Straits Times was informed by its sources.
The special meeting was attended by armed forces chief Affendi Buang, Inspector-General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador and Attorney-General Idrus Harun.
After securing his ministers' approval to put the matter before the King for royal assent, Mr Muhyiddin rushed to Kuantan in the eastern Pahang state for his royal audience with the monarch.
His motorcade was seen entering the palace grounds around 4.45pm.
Mr Muhyiddin emerged more than two hours later and flew back to Kuala Lumpur, but did not make any announcement on the measures.
It is understood that the King will first consult the country's eight other state rulers before arriving at a decision.
Mr Muhyiddin holds a slim majority in Parliament and failure to pass the Budget, which is scheduled to be tabled on Nov 6, would be tantamount to a no-confidence vote in his government and could trigger snap polls.
Observers have said that holding a general election amid Malaysia's resurgent wave of coronavirus infections could prove disastrous.
Sources with knowledge of these discussions told ST that an "economic emergency" could be proclaimed to ensure that government spending to curb Covid-19 - total number of cases of the disease doubled 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 will continue, without politics getting in the way of dealing with a health crisis," one source said on the condition of anonymity.
The Star newspaper quoted officials in Putrajaya as saying that only political activities would be affected by any state of emergency being declared.
"It will be business as usual. Economic activities will carry on and there will be no curfews.
"In a nutshell, life goes on as we know it," the source said.
The movement controls were reintroduced on Oct 14 in the capital Kuala Lumpur, and in the states of Selangor and Sabah, after new daily cases reached record highs of close to 900 cases.
A top ministerial aide told ST that the Cabinet's decision to invoke emergency powers was brought to the National Security Council meeting yesterday afternoon.
"The special Cabinet meeting was to ensure we have a Budget 2021 that can be implemented. We have to wait for the Prime Minister's audience with the King," he said.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who recently claimed that he has sufficient support from lawmakers in the 222-strong Parliament to form a new government, criticised the plan, saying that Mr Muhyiddin's administration is using the Covid-19 crisis as an excuse to justify its abuse of power.
"The government has failed to provide strong leadership in handling this crisis and is instead resorting to undemocratic means to stay in power," said Datuk Seri Anwar.
ST understands that the police and armed forces chiefs and the Attorney-General who attended yesterday's special Cabinet meeting were also consulted earlier in the week, after health officials vehemently argued that a na-tional election should not be held until the coronavirus outbreak is contained.
Last month's state polls in Sabah set off new infection clusters, which now account for the majority of new cases recorded in recent weeks.
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 had said on Oct 13 that "in the light of the outbreak, we urge, if possible, that no election be held during this period".
The Federal Constitution allows for an emergency to be called with the consent of the King.