KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has appointed Umno vice-president Ismail Sabri Yaakob as Deputy Prime Minister, ahead of a meeting by the party to discuss withdrawing its support for the Perikatan Nasional (PN) administration.
The appointment will assist the Prime Minister in administering the country and meeting the people's needs during the current health and economic crisis, said the statement from his office on Wednesday (July 7).
Datuk Seri Ismail, Umno's most senior figure in Cabinet, will retain his existing post as Defence Minister.
Another minister from Umno, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, is now Senior Minister for Foreign Affairs. He will also take over the security cluster portfolio, which deals with the Covid-19 pandemic, from Mr Ismail.
The King has been informed of both appointments, which take effect immediately, said the Prime Minister's Office (PMO).
Mr Ismail said his appointment is a responsibility that must be borne sincerely and expressed his gratitude to Mr Muhyiddin.
"At the same time, I would like to express my gratitude to Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi for his support and that of the entire party leadership. Thanks also to the MPs, leaders of political parties and all Malaysians," he said in a statement.
Mr Hishammuddin said that he would take on the new role to the best of his ability.
"I believe that only with stability, unity and close cooperation from all parties can we come out of this crisis together," he said in a Facebook post.
"Whatever post is entrusted to me, my position remains the same, which is only to serve the people and the country sincerely," he said.
The appointments come ahead of a meeting scheduled for this evening between members of Umno's supreme council - its top decision-making body - to discuss withdrawing support from the government.
The move to elevate the two senior Umno lawmakers is seen by political observers as an attempt to influence the deliberations.
Mr Muhyiddin, who leads Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, currently commands a razor-thin majority in the 222-seat Parliament with the support of Umno's 38 MPs.
A faction headed by Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is proposing the party break away from PN. It has been speculated that Zahid plans to team up with Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim and his Pakatan Harapan coalition, to form a new government.
A rival faction in Umno, which includes Mr Ismail and Mr Hishammuddin, prefers to keep the status quo and stay in power with PN until the next general election can be held, pursuant to the party's resolution at its last general assembly.
"It is hoped that the two appointments will boost the Perikatan Nasional government's ability, especially in facing the Covid-19 pandemic, and strengthen unity and cooperation among the parties that form the government," said the PMO in its statement.
Meanwhile Zahid's plans have met with growing calls for him to step down as president.
Local journalist Fareez Azman on Wednesday posted on Twitter: "30 Umno MPs have agreed that Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi should resign after being embroiled in multiple court cases. This was informed by Datuk Seri Zahidi Zainul Abidin when contacted by Astro Awani just now."
Zahid is currently facing 47 charges involving criminal breach of trust, receiving bribes and money-laundering revolving around tens of millions of ringgit linked to the charity foundation Yayasan Akalbudi, in which he is a trustee.