Malaysia’s New Leader Carries Old Baggage
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- So much for a changing of the guard in Malaysia. The new governing coalition looks a lot like the one that collapsed last week amid defections, record Covid-19 cases and a diminished outlook for economic recovery. The resemblance doesn’t bode well for the durability of Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob's administration.
Ismail Sabri, a former deputy premier, was sworn in by the king Saturday to be Malaysia's third leader in less than two years. The parties backing him, which can expect to be rewarded with plum jobs, also comprised the alliance helmed by Muhyiddin Yassin, who resigned last week. Muhyiddin's bloc was plagued by factionalism — lawmakers seeking concessions or those with grievances often threatening to join the opposition. The new premier's legislative support doesn't appear to be much better. He has the backing of 114 lawmakers, a very thin majority in the 220-seat lower house of parliament.
The king wants Ismail Sabri's support tested by a confidence vote in parliament. That is the very motion Muhyiddin strove to avoid, fearing he didn’t have the numbers. The prime minister could do worse than establish a cabinet of national unity — a kind of war council — to get the country through the worst of the pandemic and hopefully a general election can be called. In a speech Sunday, Ismail Sabri made a pitch for the opposition to join a group advising the government on economic revival and a committee working on Covid-fighting measures.
Much will be made of Ismail Sabri's partisan credentials. He is a member of United Malays National Organization, which led every government until its epic 2018 election loss amid a corruption scandal. He served as a minister under Najib Razak, who was convicted of graft related to the 1MDB state investment fund (Najib is appealing).
It may be tempting to see the latest turn of events as restoration of the old regime, and such complaints aren’t new. They were made when Muhyiddin came to power in March last year and UMNO was a major component of his doomed coalition. The reality is more nuanced. This time UMNO will sit in the prime minister's chair. But it's a constrained and chastened version of itself — one forced to compromise and horse-trade — not the utterly dominant group it has been for most of the Malaysia's existence. A likely majority of a handful of seats, assuming Ismail Sabri wins the confidence vote, doesn't allow too much scope for heavy-handedness. UMNO once commanded overwhelming support from the ethnic-Malay majority. No party can credibly make that claim now.
Ismail Sabri must also contend with the pandemic. Despite decent progress on vaccinations, infections have been climbing and hit a daily record of 23,564 on Friday. The global economic upswing this year has only brought passing relief to the economy, which shrank 2% last quarter on a seasonally adjusted basis from the prior three months. The central bank recently made big cuts to annual growth projections.
Malaysians need to get comfortable with their new prime minister. Ismail Sabri is a longtime member of parliament, but has had a meteoric, if slightly accidental, ascent over the past month. He was only elevated to the role of deputy prime minister in the final days of Muhyddin's tenure. One way to think of him is the Malaysian version of Gerald Ford, who succeeded Richard Nixon as U.S. president in 1974 without being elected vice president.
Ford was underrated. Despite a reputation as the modest guy next door and the flak he received for pardoning Nixon of any Watergate crimes, Ford nearly won office in his own right in 1976, beaten narrowly by Jimmy Carter. Ismail Sabri might surprise. But given Malaysia’s torturous politics the past year, I wouldn’t bet the house on it. The next general election must be held by 2023. Campaigning effectively begins now.
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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