Muhyiddin emerges as front runner to be PM

Ex-Malaysian DPM gets support of his Bersatu, Umno and PAS

Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia president Muhyiddin Yassin arriving at the party headquarters in Kuala Lumpur on Monday. With his rise, Malaysia could have a "backdoor government". PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia president Muhyiddin Yassin arriving at the party headquarters in Kuala Lumpur on Monday. With his rise, Malaysia could have a "backdoor government". PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, 72, emerged yesterday as the front runner to be Malaysia's prime minister as the topsy-turvy week in Malaysian politics took another major turn.

His sudden ascent puts Malaysia on the verge of having what is being called a "backdoor government" - one where Mr Muhyiddin, the president of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, leads a coalition dominated by lawmakers from parties that lost the 2018 general election.

Such an outcome would put an end to Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) chief Anwar Ibrahim's bid to be prime minister and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's tenure, though it remains to be seen what role the 94-year-old Dr Mahathir would have in the new coalition.

The reshuffling of allegiances came yesterday, after Speaker of Parliament Mohamad Ariff Mohamad Yusof rejected Dr Mahathir's request for a special sitting next Monday to pick a new PM.

The Malaysian King, Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin, later affirmed the Speaker's decision and said he would instead be asking party chiefs to nominate a premier.

Statements then followed from Umno, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) and Bersatu, declaring their support for Mr Muhyiddin.

"The Bersatu lawmakers meeting today have decided to nominate Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin… as the eighth Malaysian prime minister for the consideration of the… Agong (King)," the party statement read, adding that the meeting was attended by 36 Bersatu MPs - a number that includes the PKR breakaway faction led by former economic affairs minister Azmin Ali.

Up till then, Datuk Seri Anwar, who had the pledged support of 92 lawmakers from the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, was closest to securing the 112 votes needed to become prime minister.

With Umno's 39 MPs, PAS' 18 and Bersatu's 36, Mr Muhyiddin now could count on at least 93. And with Dr Mahathir now seemingly content to throw in his lot with the group, Mr Muhyiddin looks set to cross the finish line with the support from the east Malaysian parties that had previously pledged support to the interim Prime Minister.

Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), a coalition of Sarawak parties, has 18 MPs, while Parti Warisan Sabah has nine.

With a host of smaller parties thought to be allied with the new coalition, Mr Muhyiddin could get around 130 votes.

But the final outcome is likely to be unclear, at least until tomorrow.


"GPS will make our stand with regard to Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin on March 1," Sarawak deputy chief minister James Masing told The Straits Times.

Dr Mahathir had alluded to his support for Mr Muhyiddin a day earlier, during a press conference.

He had said then that he had discussed it with Mr Muhyiddin.

"There are various possibilities we've discussed, including the possibility that Muhyiddin might become a candidate (for PM). If everybody chooses him, I'm okay, " he said.

At the same event, Dr Mahathir had said he was unwilling to work with Umno, though he knew Mr Muhyiddin was "more relaxed" on the matter and was "quite prepared to accept them as a comrade". ST understands that Dr Mahathir's unwillingness to work with Umno played a part in Mr Muhyiddin's rise.

"Even though they could not have Mahathir as PM, backing Muhyiddin still means Anwar won't be PM," an Umno official said.


The possible installation of a new government yesterday prompted the resignation of Malaysia's Attorney-General Tommy Thomas, the man who has led high-profile corruption cases against former prime minister Najib Razak.

Meanwhile, Mr Anwar made clear last night that he was not yet defeated. He wrote on Twitter: "I know for a fact some of the MPs on the 'other side' are unhappy that their party leaders have stolen their voice. Pakatan Harapan has the numbers."

PH had run the federal government until an attempted coup to form a backdoor government over the Feb 22 weekend saw the demise of the coalition. Dr Mahathir resigned as premier on Monday but was made interim Prime Minister by the King. The King conducted interviews with all MPs on Tuesday and Wednesday, but confirmed yesterday that no one candidate had secured a majority.

Mr Muhyiddin is a Malaysian political veteran with a public career spanning three decades.

He has served as a minister in the Cabinet during both periods of Mahathir premiership, as well as during the tenures of former premiers Najib and Abdullah Badawi. He was deputy prime minister to Najib until he was dismissed in 2015 for public remarks made about the PM's handling of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal. He formed Bersatu with Dr Mahathir in 2016.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 29, 2020, with the headline 'Muhyiddin emerges as front runner to be PM'. Subscribe