By James Chin
The year 2021 marked another tumultuous one for Malaysia. There was a third regime change in less than four years, combined with state elections in Melaka (Malacca) and Sarawak, while Malaysian society and the economy continued to struggle under the COVID-19 pandemic. By year’s end there was continued political instability caused by divisions in the Malay political class. The political tussle between the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) meant that, while the government was on paper a Malay-centric administration pursuing a Malay-First policy, there were deep-seated tensions as to which Malay party was the dominant one.
Fall of Muhyiddin and Rise of Ismail Sabri
On 15 August, the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government under Bersatu’s Muhyiddin Yassin fell when UMNO pulled its support from the coalition. The PN had survived for a mere seventeen months. The origins of its fall lay in the way the PN came to power. In the 2018 elections, Bersatu was part of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, which successfully removed the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional (BN) from power. In February 2020, however, in what was dubbed the Sheraton Move, Muhyiddin led a Bersatu breakaway from the then-ruling PH government.
Muhyiddin’s Bersatu faction then formed the Malay-centric PN government with UMNO and Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS). The major incentives for UMNO to prop up the PN was that Zahid Hamidi, UMNO’s current party president, and Najib Razak, Malaysia’s former premier and Zahid’s predecessor, were both on trial for corruption, money laundering and other charges. In addition, half a dozen other UMNO leaders had also been charged during the PH administration. This group, commonly known as the “court cluster”, were probably of the opinion that should UMNO become part of the new government many of these criminal charges would be set aside or dropped.
Under Malaysian law the attorney general can offer discharge not amounting to an acquittal (DNAA). In December 2020, a member of the “court cluster”, former minister Tengku Adnam, was given a DNAA in his corruption trial. Muhyiddin had claimed in August 2021, during the twilight days of his premiership, that he had refused to bow to pressure from certain politicians to intervene in their ongoing court cases.1 Though he did not identify these politicians by name, it was commonly understood that he was referring to Najib and Zahid. Najib denied these allegations, however, and sued Muhyiddin.2 In his legal response to Najib’s suit, Muhyiddin’s lawyers drafted a letter revealing that Najib did ask Muhyiddin to remove the lead prosecutor in Najib’s ongoing court case. To Muhyiddin’s credit, he refused to intervene in any of these court cases, and in July 2020 Najib was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to twelve years’ jail.
Henceforth, the Zahid/Najib faction in UMNO began to threaten the removal of Muhyiddin. In January 2021, Muhyiddin managed to get the king to declare a six-months’ state of emergency. From the government’s view, the emergency was about COVID-19, but for the opposition it was a political ploy. In reality, the state of emergency was to stop any moves to topple Muhyiddin as it gave the government extraordinary powers, including being able to shut down large areas of the country and the economy, to use the army for civilian policing duties, and to issue ordinances that had the force of law. Most importantly, Parliament and elections were suspended and political activities were curtailed, making an overt move against Muhyiddin impossible. In March 2021, during UMNO’s annual convention, a resolution was passed calling on the party to pull out of the PN coalition and to contest the next general election alone.
With the resolution, Zahid and Najib now had the political authority to ask the thirty-eight UMNO Members of Parliament (MPs) to withdraw their support from Muhyiddin. Without the UMNO MPs, the PN government would lose its majority. For practical reasons, Zahid and Najib had to wait until 1 August, when the emergency ended, thus giving Muhyiddin four more months of breathing space. Muhyiddin threw his support for the anti-Zahid/Najib faction in UMNO and asked them to keep UMNO in the PN government to provide political stability since the pandemic was still raging. On 7 July 2021, Muhyiddin promoted Ismail Sabri Yaakob to the vacant post of deputy prime minister. The elevation of Ismail Sabri, the most senior UMNO leader in Muhyiddin’s cabinet, signalled that Sabri and his faction were not going to heed the party’s order to withdraw support for the PN. This tactic appeared to work until a sudden intervention by the king completely changed the political scenario.
On 29 July 2021, the king issued an unprecedented statement accusing the minister in charge of Parliament and law, Takiyuddin Hassan, and the attorney-general, Idrus Harun, of misleading Parliament and of breaking their earlier promise to allow Parliament to debate the lifting of the state of emergency. The PN government had wanted to avoid that debate and had thus instead lifted the emergency at the cabinet level prior to the parliamentary sitting. In Malay political culture, one of the most serious political transgressions is “derhaka”, or disobeying the king. Many immediately called on Muhyiddin, as the head of government, to resign for disloyalty and lying to the monarch. After Zahid and Najib made a public call for all UMNO MPs to instantly withdraw from the government, two UMNO ministers resigned.
Muhyiddin went to see the king on 4 August 2021. He informed the monarch a confidence vote would be called in early September to prove his government still commanded a majority despite UMNO’s formal withdrawal and emphasized that there were still UMNO MPs serving in his cabinet. Despite his public confidence, in reality Muhyiddin had lost his two-seat parliamentary majority following the departure of the Zahid/Najib parliamentary faction consisting of eleven MPs. On 13 August 2021, in a last-ditch attempt to remain in office, Muhyiddin went on live television to offer his former PH allies from the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah), now in the opposition, extraordinary political reforms in return for supporting his government. These included a new two-term limit for the prime minister, the immediate implementation of the law passed in 2019 to reduce the voting age from 21 to 18 years, extra community funds for MPs, and according ministerial status to the leader of the opposition. Many of these items had been on the opposition wish list for decades.6 The PH rejected Muhyiddin’s public offer, claiming it had come too late and that Muhyiddin had no legitimacy to make the offer since he had already lost the majority. This rejection by the PH was the final nail in his political coffin, and Muhyiddin formally resigned on 16 August.
Under Malaysia’s constitution, the king has absolute discretion over who may be appointed as prime minister as long as the king believes the person can command a majority in Parliament. In practice this meant he could choose another MP of the incumbent coalition or someone from the PH coalition.
Despite the removal of Muhyiddin from office, the component parties of the BN and the PN coalitions nominated Ismail Sabri as their prime ministerial candidate, while the PH backed its leader, Anwar Ibrahim.
Shafie Apdal, the leader of Parti Warisan Sabah (which had previously supported the PH government), initially offered himself as a new alternative but quickly dropped out when he could not muster enough support from Sarawak or the PH. Anwar, meanwhile, could not secure any additional support outside the PH coalition, especially from the Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS)—the ruling Sarawak Coalition. Anwar also faced long-held hostility from the elite Malay establishment and conservative Islamic groups. On 20 August 2021, the king asked all MPs to name their preferred candidate for prime minister. Ismail Sabri won with 114 votes from a total of 220 (two seats were vacant), securing a similar two-vote majority to that of his predecessor. The GPS found itself as kingmaker since the support of the GPS bloc of eighteen MPs was key to forming the next government.
On 21 August, Ismail Sabri formally became Malaysia’s ninth prime minister. Upon taking office, Ismail Sabri made it clear that very little would change. The core parties in his new coalition remained the same as Muhyiddin’s (UMNO, PPBM and PAS), except that UMNO now held the premiership. There were minimal changes to the cabinet, leading many to called it a “reshuffle”.8 Like all previous prime ministers, he came up with a new slogan to describe his governing philosophy—the “Keluarga Malaysia” (or “Malaysian family”). His definition of “family” appears, however, to be biased towards the bumiputera (lit., sons of the soil in Malay) community, which was revealed when he began announcing plans to have Malay quotas in shopping malls. A host of other direct government subsidies for the bumiputera community also came in the form of the Bumiputera Development Action 2030 (TPB2030), with Ismail Sabri taking personal charge as the chair of the Bumiputera Prosperity Council (MKB). His prioritization of the welfare of the Malay community was also reflected in the national budget.
To avoid Muhyiddin’s fate, Ismail started negotiations with the opposition to prevent any vote of confidence. He indicated that he was open to some of the deep political reforms offered earlier by Muhyiddin, leading to a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the Transformation and Political Stability between the Sabri government and the PH, which was signed on 13 September. The key elements of the MoU were:
• the government’s promise not to dissolve Parliament before 31 July 2022;
• the PH’s support or abstention for the passage of the national budget, related supply bills and motions that could be construed as confidence votes, with the condition that the PH would be consulted in their drafting;
• the introduction of legislation to prevent anti-party hopping and limit Malaysia in 2021
Combined with the massive win by the GPS, Sarawak now has the political strength to ask the federal government for more political autonomy. One other direct consequence of the Sarawak election is that there is no political space for Peninsula-based parties in the next election. Sarawak voters have made it clear they would rather support local state-based parties, both in the state government and state opposition.
UMNO vs. Bersatu: The Search for Political Stability
Throughout the year, Bersatu and UMNO fought for the status of being the dominant Malay party in government. The long period of political stability under the Barisan Nasional, which spanned nearly six decades of uninterrupted rule from independence until 2018, was due in part to UMNO’s position as the only dominant Malay party in the BN coalition. The BN could consist of multiple parties representing other ethnic groups (and interest groups), but there was space for only one dominant party to represent the Malays. This formula was replicated in the federal government. While all the BN component parties were given seats in the federal cabinet, it was always understood that UMNO was the final arbitrator in all government decisions.
The best analogy for Muhyiddin’s trouble in holding his PN government together is reflected in the old Chinese proverb that “One Mountain Cannot Contain Two Tigers”. When the PH fell apart in 2018, the new PN government consisted of two core Malay parties (UMNO and Bersatu) and the Islamic party PAS. UMNO and Bersatu could not find an equilibrium in their working relationship since both wanted to be the dominant Malay party in government.
Bersatu thought it had that status since a member of the party held the office of the prime minister. After UMNO’s Ismail Sabri assumed the prime ministership in August, it began to behave as the dominant party in government, but this was challenged by Muhyiddin, who insisted that the new government was still a PN administration—even though it was clear that the post-August Malaysian government was an UMNO government.22 These tensions cannot be resolved until the next election when the Malay voters will determine which party is dominant. In the 2018 elections, the Malay vote was split almost evenly between Bersatu and UMNO.
By the end of 2021, UMNO was in a much better shape, largely because of its success in the Melaka state election. If similar voting patterns emerge in the next election, Bersatu is likely to be wiped out by the electorate, while UMNO would regain its crown as the dominant Malay party.
Editor’s NOTE: James Chin is Professor of Asian Studies. He was inaugural Director of the Asia Institute Tasmania, University of Tasmania. He is an expert on the governance issues in Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. He also works on island states in the South Pacific. His views are regularly sought by major news agencies around the world, including The New York Times, The Financial Times, BBC World TV, CNBC and Bloomberg.