Malaysia's messy politics on show in one-day Parliament session

Malaysia's government is working to implement its 260 billion ringgit (S$85 billion) stimulus package.
Malaysia's government is working to implement its 260 billion ringgit (S$85 billion) stimulus package.PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR (BLOOMBERG) - Malaysia's first Parliament sitting since its chaotic change of government two-and-a-half months ago is set to reveal where lawmakers' allegiances fall, as the opposition questions Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's legitimacy.

For the first time in the country's history, the one-day session on Monday (May 18) will only host a speech by the king, leaving no time for representatives to discuss policies for addressing the pandemic or go through a planned confidence vote against Muhyiddin.

Opposition lawmakers said the move showed the premier's refusal to face them, while Muhyiddin said it was meant to reduce the risk of infections.

Although short, the sitting will reveal Malaysia's new political landscape, which was roiled by a weeklong power struggle that left both sides of the aisle fragmented. The Parliament's seating arrangement, which should broadly be divided between the government and the opposition, will offer a clue on where the loyalties have settled.

Muhyiddin is backed by parties from former ruling and opposition sides that on Sunday declared a deal to formalise a coalition. That includes Umno that supports race-based affirmative action policies, even as he sought to present himself as prime minister to all.

He's also counting on support from the Bersatu party founded by former leader Mahathir Mohamad, who has secured the approval to launch a motion of no confidence against him.

Despite being in the ruling coalition, Umno leaders have openly criticised the government, especially on the distribution of aid and the implementation of a lockdown meant to contain the pandemic.

"Governance has to take a back seat to division of spoils," said Wong Chin Huat, a professor at Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia in Sunway University. The current government "will stay on for a while unless the economy hits bottom and completely erodes their legitimacy".

SURPRISE GROWTH

So far, the opposition coalition doesn't pose a "credible threat" to the government, said Ahmad Martadha Mohamed, a professor of government at Universiti Utara Malaysia.

"With the country facing the crisis and the people's mind preoccupied with health and economic issues, many attempts at de-stabilising the government might not be well-received by the people," he said.

 
 
 

The government is working to implement its 260 billion ringgit (S$85 billion) stimulus package, the biggest in Southeast Asia as proportion of gross domestic product, while promising another set of measures to bolster an economy struggling with the effects of the pandemic. That has kept Malaysia from contracting, with the first quarter showing a surprise expansion of 0.7 per cent, the slowest since 2009.

"Malaysia's political scene has always been such that absent a general election, the incumbent government would always have the upper hand, as it possesses abundant political and other forms of largesse to distribute around to acquire political support," said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow of Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

The stability of Muhyiddin's government depends on Umno, the biggest party backing him, Oh said. "So the current ruling coalition is likely to hold due to the major coalition parties' common preference for racial and religious supremacy albeit in a multiracial and multicultural society, but whether it would continue to be led by Muhyiddin is at best questionable," he said.

POLITICAL TURMOIL

Muhyiddin came to power in March after the king named him as the one most likely to secure the support of a majority in Parliament, ending a week of shifting allegiances among lawmakers who broke away from their parties and argued among themselves over whom to support as premier.

The turmoil was set off by Mahathir's abrupt resignation in February, leading his then-assumed successor Anwar Ibrahim to rise as his coalition's candidate, before returning to the race too late.

 
 

Mahathir and Anwar have since joined hands, saying "it's time" to restore an election mandate they won two years ago and issuing a statement together for the first time since their government was ousted.

"It would be foolish to underestimate Pakatan Harapan, especially Mahathir," said Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, director at BowerGroupAsia.

"However, the question remains as to whether Mahathir is willing to take a step back and let Anwar take the lead. One of the main reasons behind the collapse of the previous government was the distrust between the two leaders."