Spotlight - Malaysia: October 1, 2021
Over the past month Malaysia has witnessed great political change… almost. The resignation of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin came after months of tensions between the government and the palace. Parliament had been suspended amid the state of emergency declared in January 2021 and lifted in August. Facing great public pressure from the opposition and public discontent, the king repeatedly asked the prime minister to allow Parliament to reconvene, which Muhyiddin failed to do. Finally, Muhyiddin’s resignation paved the way for the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), which had enjoyed a 61-year monopoly on power until the general election of May 2018, to regain the highest post.
Despite the hope of the opposition alliance, Pakatan Harapan, to see its candidate Anwar Ibrahim rise to power, UMNO veteran Ismail Sabri Yaakob was appointed the ninth Malaysian prime minister by the king. This government does not reflect the reshuffling most had expected, as Ismail has maintained Muhyiddin’s cabinet with only minor changes. In fact, the influence of Muhyiddin over the country’s government remains, and the former premier and political survivor has been appointed as chairman of the National Recovery Council—a position that allows him to oversee the entire Covid-19 recovery plan.
Meanwhile, UMNO top leadership is pursuing its quest to restore its image, and it is believed that former prime minister Najib Razak, still entangled in the 1MDB financial scandal, could be appointed as economic adviser to the prime minister in the next few weeks. Despite the controversies and corruption accusations, Najib has been able to maintain his popularity and is perceived as a sharp critic of successive government economic policies.
Not many reforms are to be expected from this new government which remains on the conservative side of the Malaysian political spectrum. Already several elements seem to be further pushing away the mirage of democratic reforms which Malaysia has yet to achieve. The harsh policies against foreigners and minorities initiated under the Muhyiddin administration are intensifying with recent announcements of measures hindering the rights of foreign workers and illegal migrants, transgender individuals, religious minorities, and women. These announcements contrast with the message of unity promoted by the new prime minister at the United Nations General Assembly this month under the newly-coined expression of the “Malaysian Family.”
While the vaccine rollout continues with a little less than 60 percent of the total population vaccinated (82 percent of adults), the vaccination of teens (12-17) has just started and discussion of the vaccination of children (5-11) is on. The country is slowly reopening with different regulations in each state and the creation of a tourism bubble in Langkawi. But borders will remain closed for a while with the potential exception of a special channel with Singapore and other neighboring countries. In this climate, the next national election is likely to be held in the second half of 2022.
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.