After Toppling Mahathir, Malaysia’s Newest Leader Needs Allies

(Bloomberg) -- For a week, he patiently waited in the shadows as Malaysia’s two political giants -- Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim -- vied for the numbers to become the nation’s prime minister.

But when the dust settled earlier this month, it was little-known Muhyiddin Yassin who bested his former allies to emerge on top, shifting power back to Malay-dominated parties that have ruled Malaysia for most of its 63-year history. Now he’s bought more time to consolidate power, delaying parliament -- and a potential leadership challenge -- for at least two months.

It was a stunning turn of events for Muhyiddin, who survived cancer two years ago and has managed to keep a relatively low profile despite holding some of the country’s top jobs during a political career that began nearly 50 years ago. Mahathir appeared shocked by the move from a man who served at his side for much of the past three decades, saying he felt “betrayed.”

In fact, Mahathir could’ve seen this coming: Muhyiddin had publicly split with Malaysia’s previous two prime ministers after serving in their cabinets. That he didn’t do so speaks volumes about Muhyiddin’s personality. Those who know him personally describe a calm, composed and meticulous man who easily works across the political aisle -- a stark contrast with Malaysia’s more outspoken, high-profile politicians.

Born into a family with dozens of children led by a prominent Muslim cleric in Johor, Malaysia’s second-most populous state bordering Singapore, Muhyiddin had to learn from a young age how to build alliances and stand out from the pack. Those skills allowed him to continue developing relationships with the opposition even while he served as a minister in Mahathir’s government.

“As long as I’ve known him, he’s been very humble, not at all arrogant -- approachable and easy to talk to,” said new Environment Minister Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man, deputy president of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party or PAS, one of the former opposition parties that joined Muhyiddin’s coalition.

“He was easy to negotiate and discuss with, he would listen to other people’s opinions,” Tuan Ibrahim said. “Even though we were from different political sides, there was no gap.”

Challenges ahead

Muhyiddin will need to summon all of those political skills to get Malaysia through one of its most tumultuous periods in recent memory. His own coalition barely has the numbers to command a majority in parliament, and Mahathir has vowed a confidence vote when lawmakers reconvene on May 18.

And if the political headaches weren’t enough, Muhyiddin is facing the weakest economic growth seen since 2009. The coronavirus outbreak, now entering its second wave, has punished the ringgit this year while dragging trade and investment.

One of his biggest challenges will be convincing investors that his administration won’t simply mimic the corruption-tainted former government he helped oust in 2018. The biggest party in his new coalition is the United Malays National Organisation once led by former leader Najib Razak, who faces dozens of charges linked to a scandal involving billions of dollars siphoned from state fund 1MDB.

“The perception is that this government coup was undertaken to save Najib and UMNO leaders currently on trial from being convicted,” said Ong Kian Ming, former deputy international trade and industry minister.

He’ll also have to fight concerns that his government will only cater to the majority Malay population. Muhyiddin is remembered for his infamous pronouncement 10 years ago that he’s a “Malay first,” and the composition of his coalition signals a return to policies favoring the country’s conservative Malay majority -- a stark departure from the multiracial coalition under Mahathir.

So far in his two-week tenure, Muhyiddin has largely kept to his predecessor’s policies. He plans to increase, rather than overhaul, Malaysia’s 20 billion ringgit ($4.7 billion) stimulus package while also continuing with Mahathir’s 2030 vision for more equal distribution of wealth in Malaysia.

Still, compared to the blunt and acerbic former prime minister, Muhyiddin is seen as rather quiet and unlikely to openly opine on the plight of Muslims in Palestine or India, said Ahmad Martadha Mohamed, a professor of government at Universiti Utara Malaysia in the northern state of Kedah. Mahathir had lambasted India for its new law that discriminates against Muslims, while also taking Muslim countries to task over rising negative views of Islam.

“I don’t think he will venture into something that is quite radical from what the previous prime minister has done, especially with regard to foreign policy,” Ahmad Martadha said. “He will not be very expressive, forthright and will not be as critical,” even as he’s likely to keep Malaysia’s existing foreign policy stance.

Relations with Singapore may also improve: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was quick to invite the new premier for a visit, saying they “have much to discuss.” Under Mahathir, the neighbors had bickered over water supply and airspace.

Political rise

Part of that has to do with Muhyiddin’s upbringing in Johor. After obtaining an economics degree from the prestigious University of Malaya, he spent a few years in the corporate sector before joining UMNO. His ascent up the ladder was slow and steady, with 15 years holding small leadership roles before being named Johor chief minister, his first cabinet post.

During his time as chief minister, Muhyiddin was involved in talks that led to Malaysia allowing Singapore to build a water reservoir while overseeing other agreements on gas and transport links. After nine years on the job, in 1995 he was appointed to federal roles in Mahathir’s cabinet.

He continued his rise even after Abdullah Badawi succeeded Mahathir in 2003. Five years later he stirred controversy, calling on Abdullah to step down earlier than planned after leading the coalition to its smallest election victory since independence. Abdullah had promised to hand over to then-Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2010.

“I’m surprised that a member of my cabinet came out with that kind of statement, against what has already been agreed,” Abdullah said in response. He later wrote in his biography that Muhyiddin’s actions were tantamount to disloyalty.

The move foreshadowed the end of Muhyiddin’s time with UMNO. As deputy to Najib in 2015, he publicly questioned the prime minister’s role in the 1MDB scandal. That July, while celebrating Eid -- traditionally a month of forgiveness and joy -- the two men sat across the table from each other and barely made eye contact. The tension was palpable. The next day, Najib fired Muhyiddin.

Muhyiddin’s willingness to speak out over 1MDB shows “he is a man of some principle,” said Wong Chen, a lawmaker with Anwar’s People’s Justice Party, or PKR, which is now in the opposition coalition.

Taking a stand turned out well for Muhyiddin. He made a political comeback a few years later, joining forces with Mahathir to successfully oust Najib from power through the new party they jointly set up, Malaysian United Indigenous Party, or Bersatu.

Even after Mahathir resigned abruptly on Feb. 24, Muhyiddin had publicly backed him. A split only emerged after Mahathir refused to work with UMNO lawmakers, opening the door for Muhyiddin to take power.

While Mahathir saw it as a betrayal, others close to the two men sided with Muhyiddin. Rais Hussin, a senior member of Bersatu, called him a father-like figure who stepped up out of a sense of duty.

“He hasn’t been controversial, always taking a step back, trying to do what is necessary,” Rais said. “And this time that’s what he has to do.”

Muhyiddin still wants Mahathir’s endorsement of his government. Days after his inauguration, he sent the former leader a letter to apologize and to ask for a meeting. Mahathir declined, saying it’s not yet the time.

In his first televised address, Muhyiddin had sought to fight the notion that he’s just another power hungry politician.

“I know there are some who are angry with me,” he said. “As expected, some quarters are calling me a traitor.”

He paused briefly.

“Listen carefully,” he continued in his measured baritone. “I am not a traitor.”

He’ll find out soon whether the nation agrees.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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