Malaysia in crisis as Prime Minister Mahathir throws in towel

He's the boss: Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has been appointed Malaysia's eighth prime minister, replacing Dr Mahathir Mohamed. (AP: Johnshen Lee)

Barely two years after coming to power on the promise of ending corruption, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government of Malaysia appears to be dead in the water.

He’s the boss: Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has been appointed Malaysia’s eighth prime minister, replacing Dr Mahathir Mohamed. (AP: Johnshen Lee)

In what was a watershed event at the 14th general elections held on 9 May 2018, the National Front (BN) government led by Najib Tun Razak was removed from office amid allegations of corruption on Najib’s part. BN had ruled the country since its independence in 1957 and for the first time, a new bloc, PH, was in charge. The component parties of PH included the multiracial Democratic Action Party (DAP) and People’s Justice Party (PKR) as well as the moderately Islamist National Trust Party (Amanah) and former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed’s Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM). Amanah had split from the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) that had been erstwhile allies of DAP and PKR while PPBM were made up predominantly of former members of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the main BN component party. Dr Mahathir, his son Mukhriz and future prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin were founder-members of PPBM. Muhyiddin had earlier been sacked from Najib’s cabinet and expelled from Umno over his criticism of the Prime Minister’s role in corrupt dealings that involved 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

The election of PH marked Dr Mahathir’s second coming. At 92, he was the world’s oldest elected leader. He had stepped down as Prime Minister 15 years prior but was disgusted by the direction his successors was steering the country towards. Following his return, former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who had been in and out of prison on fabricated charges of sodomy for the last two decades, was pardoned and allowed to take part in politics. He resumed his position with PKR, which had been established by his wife Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, now the country’s deputy prime Minister. Dr Mahathir promised to step aside after two years in favour of Anwar, whom he had possibly framed back in 1999 and imprisoned.

Following a string of by-election defeats in the past year, it appeared that the cracks were starting to show in the PH government in early 2020. Amid speculation that Dr Mahathir had delayed the handover of the premiership to Anwar, a group of senior PKR members associated with cabinet minister Azmin Ali were preparing to roll Anwar. Azmin had been a close aide of Anwar and had joined PKR during its early days while Anwar was facing trial for sodomy. His own sister was one of the prosecution witnesses, and rumoured to be the author of the book Fifty Reasons Why Anwar Cannot be Prime Minister.

In late February, the leaders of various political parties held talks about forming a new government to take the reins from PH. This led to Dr Mahathir handing in his notice to stand down as PM on 24 February. Although the Malaysian King appointed him as interim PM, it was clear his government was finished. Umno and PAS had become close associates following their crushing defeat at the 2018 general election and had managed to convince PPBM to work with them in a unity government. PPBM thus pulled out of PH. The rebel faction of PKR led by Azmin was later admitted into PPBM.

Dr Mahathir was not keen to work with Umno, having intimate knowledge of how corrupt its members are. At the same time, the National Alliance (PN) was happy to have him lead the country on the condition he broke contact with DAP. An Australian newspaper likened the situation to one where the Coalition and Labor both were trying to form government with an elder statesman such as John Howard as their chosen prime minister. Although DAP had hoped Dr Mahathir would stay on as PM, this was not to be as Muhyiddin was put forward as PPBM’s preferred candidate and endorsed by Umno and PAS. He thus received the King’s assent to take over as PM. This in effect was a coup, as Amanah president Mohamad “Mat” Sabu, a minister in the PH government, said. Instead of waiting for the next election, Umno and its allies returned to power via the back door.

It was hardly surprising that many Malaysians have used the hashtag #NotMyPrimeMinister to describe Muhyiddin. They also see a potential return of Malay supremacist politicians to the new Cabinet. PN is, in essence, right-wing by nature. The main parties are Umno and PAS after all. Having Malay nationalists working together with hardline Islamists is a recipe for disaster. It certainly does not bode well for the country’s economy, and the ringgit has lost ground against the Singapore dollar as a result. Another worrying sign is that the new government may decide to go easy on Najib and his cohorts. Under PH, corruption charges were filed against Najib for his involvement in dodgy dealings with 1MDB. It is noteworthy that Muhyiddin had lost his post within the BN government for standing up to Najib, only to jump back in bed with the same people who treated him horribly.

Although Muhyiddin has named his Cabinet, it still does not excuse the fact that he is presiding over an illegitimate government. They may have the King’s assent but certainly do not have the popular mandate. Muhyiddin has as much legal authority as General Augusto Pinochet. He may not have taken power through violent means but he did not become PM through lawful means.

On this note, it is imperative that fresh elections be called soon. However, given the global health crisis caused by SARS-COV-2, it would seem highly unlikely that elections would take place in the near future. That being said, Malaysians deserve the right to choose who they want as their government once the contagion blows over. The longer Muhyiddin remains in power, the less legitimacy he has.