A week can be an eternity in Malaysian politics. The events which took place since Feb 23 proved that. Right up to that day, Pakatan Harapan was in power, Dr Mahathir Mohamad was Prime Minister and Anwar Ibrahim was the PM-in-waiting. Yesterday (Feb 29), Istana Negara announced that Muyhiddin Yassin will be sworn in today as the new PM. The question is: Will he last as PM until the next sitting of the Dewan Rakyat on March 9 just another week away?
Will he even last beyond today? Late last night (Feb 29), Dr Mahathir Mohamad announced that he has the support of 114 MPs — which exceeds the simple majority of 112 MPs — to be PM, and said he will notify the Malaysian King of this. And today is Muhyiddin’s swearing in day.
Meanwhile, remember the name Chong Fat Full. He is the Azmin Ali-aligned Parti Keadilan Rakyat assemblyman from Johor who told the media on Feb 23 that there would be a new coalition to replace Pakatan Harapan. The name? Perikatan Nasional, he said. Perhaps, at that time, not many people took him seriously or even bothered about the name. But now, they will have to. Perikatan Nasional (PN) is slated to be the new government in Malaysia, taking over from PH which was itself cobbled together under the leadership of Dr Mahathir to oust the former Barisan Nasional government led by Najib Razak.
By all accounts so far, PN, if it is confirmed, will be a Malay-oriented government. The biggest bloc in the coalition will be UMNO, then come Muhyiddin’s (and Dr Mahathir’s) party, the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia enlarged by a breakaway group from the PKR led by Aziz Ali, PAS and a couple of MPs from MCA and MIC. The Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) said it backed Muhyiddin as PM but would not be part of his coalition, reinforcing its stance to fight for greater autonomy for the state. It is also hedging its bets in case of a return of Dr Mahathir.
The King has, nevertheless, on Saturday determined that the PN coalition commands the support of a majority of MPs to form a government.
In that sense, this is arguably a better situation than having to endure two other scenarios – prolonging the imbroglio of an untidy hung government brought about by Dr Mahathir’s sudden resignation or forcing another time-consuming and costly snap general elections.
How did Pakatan Harapan, which looked so promising when it was swept into power by such a storm of liberation caused by the Najib Razak government, end up being toppled from within? Perhaps impatience and unease over Dr Mahathir’s final intentions, over whether he was genuinely keen to hand over the reins to Anwar.
As senior Singapore Institute of International Affairs Fellow Oh Ei Sun put it, Malaysians now can only hope good sense prevails.
“We can only appeal to the good sense of Muyhiddin such that he does not succumb to his racialist instincts (Malay first, Malaysian second) or give in too much to the predictably religiously extremist demands of PAS,” he told the Malay Mail.
Oh said it all began with Dr Mahathir refusing to let Anwar succeed him, which sent a signal to Muhyiddin’s allies to make their move: “I won’t say instigated or orchestrated but it certainly gave some sort of passive approval to what went on last Sunday (Bersatu supreme council meeting). Things quickly got out of hand and now we have what is going on here.”
As the two years handover deadline in the original pledge carved out from the historic General Elections in May 2018 drew near, PKR MPs who backed Anwar were pushing for their man to take over, probably as the Pakatan Harapan was losing support on the ground for not carrying out promises made in the elections. Their overall goals of reform and recovery were being bogged down by money and race politics.
It could well be that neither Dr Mahathir nor Anwar were all that fixated on the handover deadline. Both periodically made the right reassuring noises in public when asked.
Then came the infamous Feb 23 Sheraton Hotel dinner, the so-called Malaysian version of the Night of Long Knives (the night when Adolf Hitler got rid of his rivals in 1934). That triggered Dr Mahathir’s resignation and the entry and rise of Muhyiddin.
But the Sandiwara – or the Games of Thrones or Lord Of The Rings Helm’s Deep battles – may not be over just yet.
Dr Mahathir apparently got his 114th vote from former Works Minister Baru Bian, formerly from the rogue group led by Azmin Ali. In full view of the Malaysian press, Baru, who is a Selangor MP, was seen signing a statutory declaration affirming support for Dr Mahathir as PM. He was later given the number ‘114’ with which he posed for a photo next to Dr Mahathir.
So don’t write off the 95-year-old master politician. The 114 votes, if accepted by the King, would mean the return of the 7th PM as the 8th or 9th should Muhyiddin be serving for even a day. With or without intervention from the monarch, everything should be sorted out one way or another when the Dewan Rakyat sits on March 9.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of The Independent.SG, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.