Spotlight - Malaysia: August 5, 2021
August 5, 2021
by Sophie Lemière, Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has found his way out of another major political storm and maintains his power, at least until the next Parliament session in September. At that time he will call for a confidence vote, as announced today. Malaysian politics has gone wild in the past few days as the tension between the king and the prime minister intensified due to the cabinet’s decision to repeal the Emergency Ordinances, under which the country has been operating, without royal consent. The announcement was made during an extraordinary Parliament sitting. That was initially scheduled for July 26 to August 3, but Parliament had to be closed again on July 29 for Covid-related reasons. This closure was interpreted by the opposition and the leaders of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which is nominally part of the governing coalition even though its leaders have withdrawn their support, as another convenient move for Muhyiddin to avoid a vote of no-confidence.
The next day, a few hundred individuals from a coalition of youth organizations demonstrated in the streets of Kuala Lumpur brandishing black flags and calling for the resignation of the prime minister and a moratorium on students’ loan payments. The Malaysian youth movement is just emerging and does not have the base or the initiative of other youth movements in the region. For these reasons, and in a context total lockdown, the movement of the black flags offered a strong symbol of the despair which many Malaysians feel. The color chosen by the demonstrators echoed the flags brandished by contractual doctors who demonstrated for a few minutes the week before to denounce the precarity of their status in front of the public hospitals. It also evoked, by contrast, calls by civil society for struggling families to put a white flag in front of their house to signal their need for help.
On August 2, 107 members of the opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim, who was soon met by former premier Mahathir Mohammad, marched symbolically to Parliament. They were stopped by the Federal Reserve Unit, the anti-riot police. In the following hours, a member of the cabinet resigned and the UMNO leadership announced it had the majority needed to form a new government. Malaysians expected to wake up the next day to that new government but, against all odds, Muhyiddin survived again. Not only did the premier not tender his resignation, but he also bought time. The next month could be enough for the premier to secure the support needed to get through a no-confidence vote if Parliament is effectively called for a sitting in September.
As of August 5, one member of Muhyiddin’s cabinet has resigned and UMNO is pressuring him to step down immediately rather than wait until September. If the king receives irremediable proof that the prime minister has lost the confidence of Parliament, Muhyiddin will be asked to resign. The king then may choose to appoint a new prime minister or dissolve Parliament and call for elections, an option that seems improbable in the context of the pandemic.
Sophie Lemière is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.