Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's first federal budget survived a Parliament vote yesterday, ensuring his administration's continued survival despite its slim majority and challenges from allies and rivals alike.
Budget 2021 was surprisingly passed by a voice vote at its second reading in Parliament, with the opposition failing to muster the 15 lawmakers necessary to request bloc voting. The Bill will now move to a three-week-long committee stage of debates before a third and final reading is approved.
At RM322.5 billion ($106 billion), the budget will be Malaysia's biggest to date.
Tan Sri Muhyiddin's Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition had just 113 MPs - one more than the 112 needed for a simple majority - when he first presented the expansionary budget earlier this month.
The spending plan had drawn criticism even from his government ally Barisan Nasional (BN), which holds the most number of seats in PN.
However, BN lawmakers unanimously backed the Bill yesterday, after weeks of suggesting that their support would depend on certain demands being met.
Some of these demands, as well as requests from opposition MPs, were accommodated, Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz said yesterday as he announced several changes to the budget.
These included enhancing measures to tackle the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic such as making more people and businesses eligible for loan repayment exemptions and withdrawals from the state pension fund. More funds will also be allocated for front-line workers and Sabah state, one of the worst-affected by the virus.
Datuk Seri Zafrul also announced that the RM85.5 million originally allocated for a revived government propaganda unit would be reduced, after MPs from both sides of the aisle slammed it as a misplaced priority.
Mr Muhyiddin yesterday thanked lawmakers who supported the Bill, especially those from his PN coalition. He noted in his statement that the eleventh hour changes to the budget showed that the PN government was "open to different opinions and criticisms".
Despite spending past weeks sounding their displeasure over the budget, most opposition MPs chose not to object to it or even force a bloc voting process, which means counting votes for and against the Bill.
Yesterday's proceedings also displayed dissonance within the 108-strong opposition bloc. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who heads Parti Pejuang Tanah Air, was among 13 MPs who supported the request for a bloc vote.
He was joined by a few lawmakers from Parti Amanah Negara, which is a member of the Pakatan Harapan coalition led by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. The other two parties in PH, Mr Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat and the Democratic Action Party, opted not to force a bloc vote. The two parties have 80 MPs between them.
Mr Muhyiddin last month sought an emergency declaration from the King, which would have allowed him to bypass parliamentary approval for the budget and avoid a snap election if he lost the vote. The King rejected the proposal, but urged all lawmakers to pass the budget to help the government weather the pandemic.
The Royal Palace yesterday thanked lawmakers who it said "supported His Majesty's advice" by helping the budget's passage.