SINGAPORE - The political situation facing Malaysia's new Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob is only a hair better than that of his ousted predecessor, and it is vital for him to quickly deliver results as public patience with the government wanes.
This was top Malaysian pollster Ibrahim Suffian's take at the What's Next For Malaysia? instalment of The Straits Times Connect webinar series on Wednesday (Sept 1).
The newspaper's Malaysia bureau chief Shannon Teoh was also on the panel that was hosted by Foreign Editor Bhagyashree Garekar.
The panel sought to dissect the immediate challenges facing Datuk Seri Ismail and potential developments on the horizon, after Malaysia's installation last week of its third premier in three years amid a devastating pandemic that has yet to show any signs of abating.
"Ismail Sabri needs to get his act together very quickly," said Mr Ibrahim, founder and executive director of the Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research in Kuala Lumpur.
"The new prime minister's position is barely better off than that of (former premier) Muhyiddin Yassin… He has only a handful of people that he can rely on to deliver him a majority in the House. And he has a limited timeframe - perhaps a couple of months at the most - to change the narrative, stabilise the political environment (and to) begin delivering the goods to the Malaysian public."
He added: "Public patience is running thin. So (Mr Ismail has) a big challenge ahead."
The difficulty of the tasks facing Mr Ismail is compounded by the fact that he is expected to bring about real change politically, economically as well as in Covid-19 containment, while tapping essentially the same team that his predecessor used without producing satisfactory results.
The new premier picked a near-identical Cabinet line-up to that of Tan Sri Muhyiddin, retaining most senior lawmakers from the previous Perikatan Nasional administration to keep his allies happy. He has only 114 MPs backing him, giving him a slim majority of the 220 seats in the federal legislature, and he gave more than half of his backers government positions.
But Mr Ismail has some advantages that his predecessor did not. While opinion polls in July before Mr Muhyiddin's ouster showed that nearly two-thirds of Malaysians thought the country was headed in the wrong direction, Mr Ibrahim expects an improvement in public sentiment with the new premier.
More Malaysians - in particular bumiputera voters - are likely to see Mr Ismail as a leader suited to help turn things around, "in part because perhaps Umno (of which the new premier is a vice-president) is not going to strongly agitate against the new leadership".
"People expect the stability that will come, even if thin and momentary, might give the government a chance to do some of the things that it had sought to do but wasn't able to," Mr Ibrahim said.
Moreover, the appointment of Mr Khairy Jamaluddin as Health Minister was "a step in the right direction, putting a young and dynamic person in charge of a critical part of the national recovery agenda". Mr Khairy is in charge of the country's Covid-19 vaccination roll-out, which has been applauded by the public.
Mr Teoh, ST's Malaysia bureau chief, addressed the question of why opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim - who heads the biggest coalition in Parliament, Pakatan Harapan (PH) - has until now failed to put together a majority of MPs to form a government.
Essentially, Mr Teoh said, it boiled down to Umno's continuing outsized influence over the Malaysian political sphere, and the party's claims that Datuk Seri Anwar's PH alliance was undermining Malay interests.
"Umno remains influential because it seems to speak on behalf of so many Malay families that are in the majority electorate in Malaysia," he said.
"When it claimed that PH was trying to tear down all the privileges and special rights that Malays and Muslims enjoyed, people listened... So if you were an Umno MP right now, you wouldn't prop up an (anti-Malay) Anwar government because it would hurt you with your electorate… It would be suicide with your own constituents."
Both Mr Ibrahim and Mr Teoh agreed that Mr Ismail's Barisan Nasional coalition government remains fragile, and that a general election might be the only way to resolve the political impasse.
Put to a guess on when that might be, Mr Ibrahim said: "If the political situation continues to be very challenging, we might see elections take place perhaps at the end of the second quarter next year.
"But if the situation has become more stable, then the new prime minister would probably want to take time to improve on his delivery and strengthen his base, so the election might happen only in early 2023."
Some key quotes from the webinar:
What are opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s chances of ever leading the government?
"For Anwar, the chances at the next election for Pakatan Harapan really depend on how long people's memories are. If people remember the misery they have suffered for nearly a year now, since restrictions were reinstated, then the ruling parties are in trouble.
But if elections are held in 2023, things might be fine by then and people might have forgotten... Many people are saying that by next year, there could be elections, but I don't see a good reason for Ismail Sabri not to go to a full term, unless he's really forced into a corner." - ST Malaysia bureau chief Shannon Teoh
On why Umno remains so influential and why Datuk Seri Anwar has failed to garner majority MP support
"The two issues are intertwined. Umno's history is entrenched practically into the fabric of Malaysia's nationhood... The party remains influential because it seems to speak on behalf of so many Malay families that are in the majority electorate in Malaysia...
The party is bigger than any particular individual in the party. It was bigger than Najib Razak, it's bigger than Zahid Hamidi now...
When it claimed that Anwar's Pakatan Harapan government was undermining Malay interests, trying to tear down all the privileges and special rights that Malays and Muslims enjoy, people listened... And this is linked to why Anwar can't put together the MPs to form the government, because if you're an Umno MP right now, even PAS (Parti Islam SeMalaysia), which is the Islamic party, you wouldn’t prop up an (anti-Malay) Anwar government because it would hurt you with your electorate...
There's another added element: The Sarawak establishment also does not favour Anwar. Anwar's PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat) and his partner DAP (Democratic Action Party) are their rivals in the state, whereas Umno is not present there. So if you asked the Sarawak ruling parties, they'd prefer to be with Umno, who is not a rival." - Mr Teoh
On the reluctance to let younger ministers lead the government
"I think the reluctance is just built on a politician's self-interest... A lot of people obviously want to be prime minister, but so few people have had the opportunities to rise to the top. So they stay there, hoping that this time, it's their chance.
There is a push from younger Malaysians to see their peers in decision-making positions. So you have people like Syed Saddiq, who's not even 30 yet but has started a new party to give the young a voice... We're not sure if it can make an impact at this coming elections, but... this could be the start of something that might change the dynamics with regard to age in Malaysian politics." - Mr Teoh
How Malaysia can ensure credible regeneration of leadership
"The key element in getting better representation and better political talent has to do with the party structure...
If parties were to make leadership selection easier, online means and things like that, I think you will get more people on board. And when they select candidates to run for office, rather than just start from a shortlist of a few individuals, perhaps more people can be considered, and these candidates can undergo a primary of some sort for them to be selected... This could be a way to gain better talent and better representation for political parties in Malaysia." - Merdeka Centre’s executive director Ibrahim Suffian
Malaysia's Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz speaks about his plan to revive the country's flagging economy. Catch him on The Straits Times Connect webinar series on Sept 2, 9pm on YouTube.