Malaysia Isn't Remotely Done With Its Political Upheaval
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The resignation of Muhyiddin Yassin as Malaysia’s prime minister closes one chapter in the country’s political travails. The exit is unlikely to end the parliamentary bloodletting or solve the economic and health crises rocking a nation that was once a bastion of stability in Southeast Asia. As long as the ethnic-Malay ruling class is split, questions of legitimacy that undermined Muhyiddin will hang over his successor.
For all its imperfections, Muhyiddin’s departure at least does offer some accountability for poor governance. What Malaysia really needs is an election, which is an almost impossible ask right now. State polls in Sabah, on the island of Borneo, last year became a Covid-19 super-spreader event. Nationwide, daily infections hit a record of 21,668 on Thursday even as the vaccination campaign makes progress; about a third of the adult population has received two shots and more than 60% have gotten at least one. Economic growth forecasts have been slashed. The best hope in the short-term is a leader without Muhyiddin’s baggage who can cobble enough support to be functional and get to a point where divisions can be addressed at the ballot box at some point. That is how low the bar has descended. At a bare minimum, the next leader should have to demonstrate through a confidence motion that they have the backing of parliament.
Muhyiddin was wary of seeking such transparent displays of confidence, probably because he sensed an unfavorable result. His fractious 17 months in office came to an end Monday when he handed his resignation to the king, Abdullah Ahmad Shah. He will remain as a caretaker until a successor is appointed. Muhyiddin’s grip on power, never particularly strong, had been particularly tenuous since the constitutional monarch admonished the government’s maneuvering in parliament last month. The rebuke was more a tipping point than the underlying cause of Muhyiddin’s undoing. A clutch of lawmakers from the premier’s bloc announced they would leave, stripping him of a majority in the lower house of the legislature. He made an 11th-hour pitch for support to opposition parties that went nowhere.
The intrigue doesn’t inspire confidence in an economy that enjoyed only brief respite from a protracted Covid-induced slump. Hours before Muhyiddin made his plea Friday, the central bank took the axe to its projections. Gross domestic product will expand 3%-4% this year, Bank Negara Malaysia said, down from an earlier estimate of as much as 7.5%. The country has missed much of the broad upswing that’s benefited Singapore, China, South Korea and Western economies. Last month saw Malaysians in distress — suffering hunger, needing shelter, and feeling disgust at politicking — wave white flags from homes. The flag movement became an indictment of the government.
Muhyiddin was the first premier since independence in 1957 to get the job without leading his party to an election victory. He took office after a coalition led by Mahathir Mohamad — then on his second stint as prime minister in his 90s — collapsed just as Covid swept the planet. Muhyiddin convinced the king, who usually occupies a ceremonial role, that he could muster a majority. Whatever new cabinet emerges doesn’t have to be the best and brightest. It does need to be moderately competent and less constrained by the constant second guessing on support that plagued Muhyiddin’s crew. The first criteria is more attainable than the second.
Ultimately splits in parliament reflect cleaves in society, especially among politically dominant ethnic Malays. For most of Malaysia’s existence, one party claimed the allegiance of a commanding majority of Malay voters. That party, the United Malays National Organization, led governments from independence until it lost power in 2018 amid the 1MDB corruption scandal. It’s since become merely one of a handful that seek support from Malays. Malaysia has become more urbanized, educated and — current downturn notwithstanding — prosperous than in the early years of the country when race-based parties took shape. That’s eroded UMNO support and bolstered the opposition bloc led by Anwar Ibrahim, along with UMNO splinters, of which Muhyiddin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu is one. Northern sections of the country have become more conservative and attracted to political Islam, giving the fundamentalist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, a reservoir of support in the hinterland. UMNO and PAS sat uncomfortably together in Muhyiddin’s ramshackle coalition, enjoying ministerial perks while maneuvering for separate electoral advantage.
This is a combustible mix and the divisions resemble those that underpinned the 2016 Brexit vote in the U.K. and Donald Trump’s election to the White House a few months later. Malaysia’s old one-party model has crumbled and something more fluid is in the process of developing. If there is a consolation to be had in this saga, it’s that parliament has at last — and maybe fleetingly — become something more than a rubber stamp for the executive. It’s an unedifying and chaotic spectacle, but democracy isn’t always easy on the eye. Too bad Muhyiddin tried to shut it down. It would be a pity if every time a leader looked to have shaky numbers, parliament was suspended. Talk about shooting the messenger.
Malaysia’s conflicts aren’t close to being resolved. This saga has a long way to run.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. Previously he was executive editor of Bloomberg News for global economics, and has led teams in Asia, Europe and North America.
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