News analysis

Public anger intensifies against embattled Muhyiddin government

The Muhyiddin Yassin administration is reeling from a laundry list of grievances that has led to a prolonged backlash on social media. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KUALA LUMPUR - From confusion over Covid-19 lockdown rules and vaccine appointments to complaints over meagre aid packages and double standards in enforcing restrictions, not to mention a spate of deaths in police custody, the Muhyiddin Yassin administration is reeling from a laundry list of grievances.

It has led to a prolonged backlash on social media. There were even anti-government protests despite the pandemic, culminating in an online petition calling for the Malaysian premier's second-in-command, Datuk Seri Azmin Ali, to resign, which gathered 150,000 signatures in just a day.

Amid infighting among top government officials, the Senior Minister for Economy is fast becoming a lightning rod for brickbats against Putrajaya, especially with public anger rising over the number of businesses still operating despite tightened restrictions to curb record coronavirus deaths and infections.

Mr Azmin's International Trade and Industry Ministry (Miti) oversees applications to operate during the lockdown, which began on Tuesday (June 1), via an online system. As at Thursday morning, it has approved a fifth of nearly 600,000 firms claiming shutdown exemptions for 17 economic sectors.

Official sources told The Straits Times that the initial decision to allow corresponding ministries to handle their own approval process was reversed on the eve of the lockdown "as most could not develop a system for it".

The Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Ministry, for example, is in charge of retail as well as food and beverage, but with its website crashing under the volume of applications, it fell back on a basic Google Form that drew mockery from the public.

Even now, Miti is simply the coordinating body, with applications being vetted by respective agencies and ministries in charge. Yet, "the rest of the ministries are keeping mum because they don't want the burden" of taking collective responsibility for the government's exemption policy, said one official.

Animosity towards Mr Azmin from Pakatan Harapan (PH) supporters had already peaked after his crucial role in engineering a coup early last year that installed Prime Minister Muhyiddin, instead of the agreed handover from Tun Mahathir Mohamad to opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

Malaysia's largest party, Umno, which plans to part ways with Tan Sri Muhyiddin's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia once fresh polls are held, has found Mr Azmin an easy target. It challenged him on Monday to explain a swathe of manufacturing exemptions despite the premier announcing a "total lockdown".

On Wednesday, Senior Minister for Security Ismail Sabri Yaakob - who heads efforts to curb Covid-19 infections - made a thinly-veiled jibe on social media, saying: "I have closed the front door but..."

Sources revealed that the duo and several other ministers have clashed this week over the extent of lockdown restrictions, and the Umno vice-president's posting has deepened the perception that Mr Azmin is riding roughshod over others, including the National Security Council (NSC), which finalises rules to combat the pandemic.

"Umno leaders know that attacking Azmin is popular among their grassroots. With a party election coming, it can do no harm to fan the flames," a party insider told ST.

Analysts like Eurasia Group's Asia director, Mr Peter Mumford, believe that such political machinations - with Mr Muhyiddin calling for a lockdown after pressure from opponents and reports of infighting among his senior lieutenants - "are exacerbating concerns that the government is struggling to contain its worst Covid-19 wave".

BowerGroupAsia director Adib Zalkapli said: "You can't build public confidence or win mass support with conflicting messages. The only silver lining is that the vaccination rate is moving in the right direction."

Even then, many have complained about long queues and lack of physical distancing, under-dosing of vaccines and errors in appointment details.

While the 100,000 daily doses being administered are at least four times the rate of a month ago, it is still less than half the 250,000 needed to reach herd immunity by the end of the year and the 160,000 promised when the programme began in February.

The petition against Mr Azmin is just one of many on the website, where Malaysians are venting their frustrations with the government.

For example, a petition in May calling for national rail firm Prasarana's chairman, Datuk Seri Tajuddin Abdul Rahman, to quit had nearly 140,000 supporters.

He was sacked that month for his bizarrely lighthearted reaction to the first Light Rail Transit crash in its 23 years of operation, which left over 200 injured.

Celebrity Neelofa Noor's repeated breaches of movement restrictions that were punished with only slaps on the wrist have seen 79,000 calling for her to be jailed. Four custodial deaths in the past six weeks has spurred a whopping 178,000 to call for the end of police brutality in Malaysia.

Young Malaysians have even taken to the streets in recent weeks despite spiralling Covid-19 cases, twice heading to Parliament's door. They demanded that the government implement already approved laws to lower the voting age to 18, and call off the state of emergency that critics say was proclaimed to keep the Muhyiddin administration in power.

Police arrested 20 young people after a protest in Batu Pahat, Johor, where a banner emblazoned with the words "kerajaan gagal (failed government)" was torched. The phrase has become widely used in Malaysian social media, trending on Twitter since April and has appeared in graffiti in towns like Melaka and Taiping.

A senior government official also told ST: "We are all demotivated and tired because Prime Minister's Office is interrupting policies, NSC lacks leadership, Miti wants to lead too much and the Health Ministry is too emotional.

"Ultimately, it boils down to top leadership but there are too many political matters at hand."

As veteran investigative journalist Nadeswaran Rajah pointed out: "In all my 50 years of journalism, I have never witnessed such resentment of the government."

Writing in his regular column on Friday, he told Mr Muhyiddin: "Shouldn't you stand up and say, 'The buck stops with me,' take charge and wield the big stick? Mr Prime Minister, it is not too late to get your act together and pull this country out of the rut. If you can't find good people within, there's nothing wrong with summoning help from the outside."

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