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CWA # 247, 28 March 2020

Southeast Asia
Malaysia: New PM, Old Challenges

  Aparupa Bhattacherjee

For the new PM, there are more challenges than just proving a majority. Unfortunately, the first meeting of the Parliament on 18 May will witness the starting of the next set of turmoil in Malaysian politics. 

 

On 1 March, the King appointed Muhyiddin Yassin as the new PM of Malaysia. The political mayhem started on 24 February with the collapse of the ruling coalition and the resignation of Mahathir Mohamed. 

Yassin needs to gain the majority in the Parliament. For Mahathir, Yassin is a "political opportunist"; he is confident that his former ally will fail to get the required majority. Besides gaining majority, will the new PM succeed in restoring political stability in Malaysia and address the challenges facing the country?

In brief: Anatomy of the political crisis in Malaysia

The problem started when on 23 February ten renegade members of People's Justice Party (PKR) had met members of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPMB) party and also members of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), with the intention of forming a new government. The next day, Mahathir's resignation led to the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan (PH), the ruling coalition. The PH assuming power in the 2018 election was an exception in Malaysian politics. This was the first time that a coalition removed UMNO from power since independence. 

Mahathir previously was a member of UMNO; he formed the coalition with PKR, headed by his former adversary Anwar Ibrahim, and other parties. This coalition was formed on the promised that Mahathir would hand his position over to Anwar within two years. However, after being in power for two years, Mahathir refused to fulfil his promise. This and also the betrayal of his party members infuriated Anwar who met the King to seek justice. After several discussions with all the 222 members of Parliament, other Kings of the provinces and members of the Army, King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmed Shah appointed Yassin.

Yassin was previously a member of UMNO; he had joined PPMB along with Mahathir. He is a seasoned politician who has worked with Mahathir during both the tenures and also had worked with Najib Razak. Nevertheless, until the appointment,  he was never prominent and lived in the shadows of the aforementioned leaders. Additionally, the fact that he created a faction of PPMB is considered to be treachery by several politicians and MPs, especially those of Mahathir and Anwar's camp. He might have the support of UMNO but that does not assure the majority for his newly formed coalition. He has to fight Mahathir a doyen of Malaysian politics and also known for his hunger for power. The recent events make his zeal to retain power bulbous. Even after Mahathir's resignation on 28 February, he claimed he patched with Anwar and wanted to re-instate as the Prime Minister again with the support of PH as a coalition. Immediately after Yassin's appointment, Mahathir has challenged him of a vote of no confidence in the first seating of the Parliament. Hence Yassin's appointment has not brought peace; it is just the silence before the storm.

Challenges ahead: For the new PM and Malaysia

Yassin may or may not get the majority in the Parliament, but apart from that hurdle he also has three more challenges that he needs to cope with immediately. First, similar to the politicians and MPs, Yassin has to put extra effort to get mass acceptance. He was not elected by people; this has angered several Malaysians. Immediately after the announcement of his appointment, '#Notmyprimeminister' began trending on Twitter. Several youngsters voice their opinion that 2018 they had voted for a change, and this not the change that they have foreseen. 

Also, he does not have the charisma of Mahathir or the empathy that many voters have for Anwar. Hence gaining voters' acceptance will be an uphill task for Yassin.
Second, because of UMNO's support, it might help him to appease the ethnic Malay voters easily. But this will make it difficult for him to get the support of voters from other ethnicities. Malaysia has a majority Malay population; but also has 30 per cent of other ethnicities of which Chinese and Indian are the most predominant. 

Malaysian politics since its inception has been divided into ethnic and religious lines, and each party represents this division. UMNO has been known for its pro-Malay policies and this along with the rising corruption has been the key factor for its downfall in 2018. Cashing on this PH came to power with the promise of united Malaysia which assured it the support of the Chinese and Indians. Yassin's appointment has made them worried. Not only his association with UMNO, but he also is known for his pro-Malay stand. In 2010 he in-famously announced that he was a Malay first and then a Malaysian. After assuming power, he has assured development of Malaysia as a whole; he has to work towards gaining the confidence of other ethnicities apart from Malays.

Lastly, the economic slowdown is another giant hindrance in the path of Yassin. In 2018, the PH was successful because they assured economic growth which their previous government failed. Mahathir, who had a track record of economic upliftment in his previous tenure, had also encouraged the voters further. Now, Yassin has to live up to that expectation. Given the massive impact of the Covid-19 virus on already struggling Malaysian economy, revival will not be an easy task. 

For the new PM, there are more challenges than just proving a majority on 18 May; unfortunately, the first meeting of the Parliament will witness the starting of the next set of turmoil in Malaysian politics. 

Aparupa Bhattacherjee is a PhD Scholar at the School of Conflict and Security Studies in NIAS.

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