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Explainer: Why Malaysia’s PM resigned and who looks likely to replace him

SINGAPORE — Malaysians are on track for the second change in government in just 18 months after Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin resigned on Monday (Aug 16).

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announcing his resignation on television on Aug 16, 2021.

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announcing his resignation on television on Aug 16, 2021.

  • Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin had lost majority support in Parliament
  • Analysts said this left him with little choice but to resign
  • The frontrunners for the top job include Ismail Sabri Yaakob, of Umno, who was deputy prime minister
  • Another contender is long-time aspirant Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition
  • Analysts said if Mr Ismail becomes PM, it could affect the corruption trial of former PM Najib Razak

 

SINGAPORE — Malaysians are on track for the second change in government in just 18 months after Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin resigned on Monday (Aug 16).

While Mr Muhyiddin will continue with his duties temporarily as a caretaker, Malaysia’s king has asked Members of Parliament (MPs) to submit their choice for the candidate to take over the premiership to the palace by 4pm on Wednesday.

Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah announced that the candidate he appoints would have to table a motion of confidence in Parliament to prove that he has the support of the majority of MPs, something which Mr Muhyiddin did not do despite repeated calls from various parties.

This marks an end to Mr Muhyiddin’s hold on to power, almost one-and-a-half years since he took over the premiership following the collapse of the former ruling coalition Pakatan Harapan, headed by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, which had won the general election in 2018.

It is not clear when the king will announce his pick, but Malaysian news outlets have reported that he will hold a meeting with the other Malay rulers on Friday to discuss nominations for the next prime minister.

Based on news reports, the former deputy prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, from the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, have emerged as the two frontrunners for the top job.

TODAY explains what factors led to Mr Muhyiddin's resignation and what it means for Malaysia's political landscape.

WHY DID MUHYIDDIN YASSIN RESIGN?

Mr Muhyiddin had essentially lost the majority support in Parliament, with the withdrawal of support from several Umno MPs, and the refusal of opposition MPs to back him.

Umno had initially supported Mr Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional government after a weekend of political wrangling in February last year within the Pakatan Harapan ruling coalition led to its collapse and the shock resignation of former prime minister Mahathir.

Mr Muhyiddin’s party Bersatu then kicked Dr Mahathir out of the top job when it defected from the Pakatan Harapan coalition and formed an alliance with Umno, with Mr Muhyiddin then being appointed as premier by the king.

Despite cobbling together a coalition, Mr Muhyiddin’s government had only a razor-thin parliamentary majority and never enjoyed a secure majority.

This left him susceptible to threats of a withdrawal of support from his coalition partners, said Ms Ariel Tan, the coordinator of the Malaysia programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University.

“He had also lost the confidence of the public and the palace, particularly over his government's handling of the pandemic and economy,” she added.

Analysts had previously spoken about the uneasy relationship between Mr Muhyiddin and Umno, given that many Bersatu members were formerly from Umno.

Mr Muhyiddin’s tenuous grip on power soon became apparent when several Umno leaders threatened to withdraw their support for the premier as early as October last year.

Another reason for the tension is that Umno’s president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and former prime minister Najib Razak are unhappy that their corruption trials are still ongoing despite being part of the ruling government.

Mr Ahmad Zahid finally announced in July that the party would withdraw its backing due to his failure to tackle Malaysia’s escalating Covid-19 situation, and 11 Umno MPs proceeded to do so in early August.

While Mr Muhyiddin initially insisted that he still had majority support, and said that he would prove it by convening a vote of confidence when Parliament sat in September, analysts said it was clear he no longer commanded a majority, and therefore had no choice but to resign.

His fate became all the more apparent when his promise to opposition members that if they joined him he would implement reforms — such as limiting a prime minister’s tenure to two terms — was rejected by opposition parties.

Professor Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia, said that Mr Muhyiddin's olive branch to the opposition came too late.

“He has no choice but to resign. If he was removed by parliament, he would lose more face and credibility… If he knows he is going to lose, no point hanging around,” said Professor James Chin, who teaches Asian studies at the University of Tasmania.

“He knew there was no way he could get the numbers for a confidence vote... There was no way he could have survived.” 

Dr Norshahril Saat, a senior fellow at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, a think-tank located at the National University of Singapore, said that Mr Muhyiddin’s government had run out of options.

While Mr Muhyiddin could have extended the state of emergency, which was imposed in January this year to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr Norshahril said the king would not be likely to support it given that the declaring of a state of emergency had not improved the country’s public health crisis.

WHO ARE THE TOP CONTENDERS TO BECOME THE NEXT PM?

News reports and analysts suggest that Mr Ismail and Mr Anwar are the frontrunners to take over from Mr Muhyiddin.

A simple majority of 111 seats is needed in Malaysia’s 222-seat federal parliament as two seats are currently vacant.

Malaysian news outlets reported that Bersatu, Umno and other Barisan Nasional component parties, as well as Parti Islam Se-Malaysia — all component parties of the Perikatan Nasional coalition — are throwing their weight behind Mr Ismail.

He was recently appointed by Mr Muhyiddin to be deputy prime minister just a month before the former leader resigned. This was in addition to being the Minister of Defence when the Perikatan Nasional government was first formed in March last year.

Ms Tan believes that Mr Ismail is likely to win a simple majority.

“Unlike Muhyiddin, Ismail Sabri has naturally been more circumspect in his dealings with top Umno leaders... He would need to cultivate a broad base of support in the party if and when he seeks to run for the party presidency when the party elections are next held,” she said.

If Mr Ismail were to be selected as premier, there may be a chance that it would impact the corruption trials involving both Ahmad Zahid and Najib, given that he is also from Umno.

“Interference may happen but whether it works may depend on the judge. On prosecution, the Attorney-General may simply give in. But the public may not be so forgiving,” said Prof Wong.

Analysts say a lot would depend on whether Mr Ismail, assuming he wins, gets a wide enough majority.

Prof Chin believes that a majority of at least 130 seats is required to ensure some form of political stability for Malaysia. When the margin is too little, the prime minister would lose the majority if just a handful of MPs pulled their support.

If the margin is wide enough, Mr Ismail need not be concerned if Najib and Ahmad Zahid choose to withdraw support. Otherwise, he would have to consider other options.

It has also been reported that Pakatan Harapan and other opposition parties will be backing Mr Anwar.

If Mr Anwar — who had been promised by Dr Mahathir in 2018 that he could eventually take over the premiership — becomes the next prime minister, analysts say he will introduce fundamental reforms, such as those promised during the 2018 General Election.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Analysts have largely ruled out any elections from taking place in Malaysia for the rest of 2021 due to the worsening Covid-19 situation. The country hit a fresh record daily high of more than 22,000 Covid-19 cases on Wednesday.

If there is no candidate with a clear majority, Dr Norshahril said that a unity government could be formed.

Though not mentioned in its Constitution, he said that the MPs can discuss forming a minority government, where there is bipartisan support to pass confidence and supply bills.

Otherwise, the king may have to consider Dr Mahathir’s proposal of a national operations council.

The former premier had said that the council would not be placed under the government and report directly to the king to oversee issues relating Malaysia’s economy and Covid-19 situation.

While the king had called for a halt to the political bickering, Ms Tan believes that any lull in political manoeuvring is not likely to last, unless the next government enjoys a “challenge-proof majority”.

In addition, with Malaysia expected to head for an election next year, Dr Norshahril believes there will be more politicking in the lead-up.

Related topics

Malaysia Politics Covid-19 Muhyiddin Yassin Dr Mahathir Mohamad Anwar Ibrabim Ismail Sabri

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