KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's King has called for national unity and urged MPs not to create another political crisis, as Parliament sat on Monday (May 18) for the first time since Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin was appointed prime minister, leading an alliance that critics say does not command a sufficient majority of the 222 MPs to govern.
"I would like to advise not to drag this country again into another political crisis at a time when the people are facing hardship and an uncertain future as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic," Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin Ahmad Shah said in his opening address in Parliament.
"It is also for this reason that my government has decided to set the Parliament sitting for one day with my speech as the only agenda," he added.
Former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's request for a motion of no confidence against Mr Muhyiddin has been accepted by the Speaker but only the King's speech was scheduled for the sitting on Monday, leaving no chance for MPs to discuss the planned confidence vote nor the Covid-19 pandemic.
The parliamentary session was initially scheduled to run for 15 days.
The opposition has criticised the government's decision to disallow debates during the one-day sitting, alleging that Mr Muhyiddin's alliance, Perikatan Nasional (PN), was not confident that it would be able to secure a majority in Parliament. The government insists the move was aimed at curbing the transmission of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19.
As of Monday, PN has 113 seats, while the opposition has 108. There is one independent MP. At least 112 MPs are required for a simple majority in Parliament.
The King, in his address, also explained his decision to appoint Mr Muhyiddin as Prime Minister following Dr Mahathir's shock resignation in February.
"The political landscape was shaken by the prime minister's resignation... I asked him not to resign but he was firm with his decision. I was sad but I had to respect his decision. So I was responsible for appointing a new PM," said Sultan Abdullah.
"The political crisis could not be allowed to continue without an end. After a process which was in line with the Constitution, I found that Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin commanded the majority among members of the Dewan Rakyat," said the King. The Dewan Rakyat refers to the Lower House of Parliament.
Mr Muhyiddin was sworn in as prime minister on March 1 after he led more than 40 MPs to leave the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition in February, depriving the Mahathir administration of its majority just 21 months after it ended Umno's six-decade grip on power at the 2018 election.
"We cannot accept the reason that because of the pandemic we are only allowed to sit for two hours," Dr Mahathir told a news conference after the shortest Parliamentary sitting in Malaysian history.
If people can work, shop and eat out under the conditional movement control order (CMCO), then MPs should be allowed to sit and debate, he said.
"Even the Sabah legislative assembly met for three days. How many people got sick?" he asked.
"Parliament is a talking shop, but we are not allowed to talk. That will spell the end of democracy if we cannot speak as representatives of the people," he said at the conference also attended by other opposition parties.
He also said that PN has a slim majority and was at risk of being toppled.
"This is the first time the government has a very narrow majority. If two or three of them switch from a party to another, from the government to the opposition, then this government would fall."
Notably, Parti Keadilan Rakyat president and leader of the opposition Anwar Ibrahim was not present at the press conference but he later issued a joint statement with opposition leaders criticising the recent decision to drop charges against Mr Riza Aziz, the stepson of former premier Najib Razak who had been accused of laundering US$248 million (S$354 million) belonging to state fund 1MDB .
All MPs, senators, Parliament staff and media personnel attending Monday's session were required to undergo Covid-19 screening.
Two MPs were quarantined after they were found to be close contacts of those who had tested positive.
Unlike previous sessions, only official media were allowed to enter the Parliament building.
The King, MPs and Parliament staff wore masks, but the monarch removed his to deliver his address.
MPs had to ensure one empty seat between them, leading some to sit in the public gallery due to the social distancing measures. Dr Mahathir, who founded ruling Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia along with party president Mr Muhyiddin, was seated in the opposition bloc.
Monday's session was originally scheduled to run from March 9 to April 16, but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The next session will take place from July 13 to August 27.