October 2020 was turning out to be Malaysia’s most mediocre, mismanaged and meandering month. It being budget month traditionally there is almost always some optimism. But this year there was first the overly optimistic expectation emanating from the nation’s opposition leader, Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s  audience with HM the Agong. Anwar believed he would emerge the prime minister.

Anwar is the country’s most tried, tested and tenacious political leader. When he reported he had the numbers to claim the prime ministership a concerted effort was mounted  to trivialise that claim. Soon those promised allies of his who had obviously given commitments to support him faded away but Anwar held his own with his core allies. He lost that round but he is still on firm ground, very much a formidable force, clearly feared by his political foes.

October’s 2nd Audience

Exactly 10 days after Anwar’s audience with the King, prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Mohd Yassin sought to replicate a similar but higher profile audience for an entirely exotic purpose. Prior to that audience Muhyiddin convened and chaired a special cabinet meeting. October 23rd was a Friday. Cabinet meetings are usually held midweek on Wednesdays. Following this special cabinet meeting and Friday prayers the country’s press and media carried news clips, sound bytes and videos of the Prime Minister and his entourage travelling by road to Kuantan, Pahang.

These clips of the travelling bigwigs in a convoy with police outriders were shown on public information networks. It seemed to be a symbolic 180km motorcade drive to seek, as it was broadly understood , the King’s assent for the proclamation of a nationwide Emergency.

From this limited insight into the prime minister’s declared mission Malaysian chat groups and social media circles began to buzz with an informed dissection and discussion  of the Constitution’ s emergency provisions, the tacit acknowledgment of the absence of any grave situation that imperils the security, public order, economic health, health situation and the national unity of the country.

It was widely recognised that while the COVID-19 pandemic posed a threat to the wellbeing of society it was not of a scale or seriousness to disrupt the normal lives of families and individuals. Malaysians and the six million or so foreigners domiciled in the country have lived through lockdowns, movement control restrictions and other limitations quite impressively and peacefully for the past seven months.

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This sudden recourse to a draconian nationwide state of Emergency with the concomitant conferment of extraordinary powers on a precarious prime minister not only surprised but alarmed large segments  of the population. What new non nonsense measures were in store? Almost every notable political leader and legal expert spoke against it and the social media was saturated  with valid concerns about the negative effects of a possible imposition of a state of Emergency.

It would seem that PM Muhyiddin in advising and recommending to the King the need for a proclamation of emergency had assumed that the King would, without any qualms and questions, consent that a perceptibly grave security, political, health or economic crisis existed in the country. This was an unsustainable assumption and it was rather naive for the Prime Minister to have pursued this course of action.

His entourage consisted largely of senior political operatives. The  technocrats who were included in the entourage would not, given customary palace protocol, have expressed views contrary to that of their political masters. Plainly the narrative presented by the Prime Minster to the King was at variance with the prevailing situation on the ground.

The truth was that there was by no means a consensus on the existence of an extraordinarily grave  economic, security or unsustainable health situation.

Given this situation the King wisely deferred a decision with a caveat that he would consult his brother Rulers. The King also affirmed that his government valued continuity in the conduct of the nation’s affairs. That was a hint that a general election was not a realistic option with the prevailing Covid-19 pandemic.

Apprehensions About An Emergency

Immediately after the Prime Minister’s audience there was widespread concern and speculation that the assumption of vast powers by the Prime Minister would have far more negative than positive effects.

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The country was already reeling from a sharp economic decline caused by Covid-19. There was the closure and pending closure of thousands of small businesses, the collapse of the travel and tourism industry, massive loss of earnings and employment and an inability to meet scheduled financial obligations including payments of rentals, instalments on vehicles, home mortgages and project loans.

Covid-19 had had a particularly adverse impact on the food and beverages business, entertainment outlets and social get togethers. There is also the legitimate well founded fear that in the guise of clamping down on divisive politicking the authorities would resort to restrictions on the freedom of expression and other forms of control, even possible intimidation to curb legitimate political activities.

Those that were supportive of the government would, needless to say, be allowed to express their views while the others would become less privileged and disadvantaged.

Given the integral and strongest presence of the extremist Islamic Party, PAS, in Muhyiddin’ s government there was the added  apprehension of the imposition of unreasonable curbs on social and cultural interaction along the lines that have been  imposed in the PAS-ruled states of Kelantan and Trengganu.

These fears are particularly relevant in the context of the unusual degree of freedom of expression and political flexibility the country has experienced since May 2018 when a new government had assumed office.

More pertinently  there were real fears that a state of emergency would unleash a rather repressive authoritarian environment which while not addressing the COVID-19 pandemic professionally will dampen the equities market, business and investment environment and slow down the prospects for recovery from the current economic downturn. All emergencies entail exceptional restrictions and the fear was that this would be no different.

While the Covid-19  pandemic has been particularly severe in Sabah the rest of the country was relatively normal and coping well with it. Sabah accounted for almost three quarters of the new cases for the most recent period with an excess of 500 to 889 new cases per day. It was Sabah that needed special and extraordinary measures, perhaps even a health emergency.

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After the meeting of the Malay Rulers on Sunday, October 25 Istana Negara issued a 12-paragraph statement which acknowledged that the Covid-19 pandemic was being handled appropriately and effectively.

In highlighting the need for national unity  politicians were urged to refrain from politicking and to seek conciliatory ways to resolve issues relating to the upcoming budget session. The King, in consultation with his brother Rulers had decided that as the situation in the country was well managed it was not appropriate to declare a state of Emergency.

The Way Out

The elephant in the room is not the Covid-19 pandemic, the over-exuberant politicking or the incapacity of the civil service to handle the current law and order situation, economic or health crisis or the security situation. The core problem is the precariousness of the Muhyiddin government.

It came in without a proper people’s mandate. The government has a tenuous hold on parliament and suffers from acute parliamentary nervousness. It is Tan Sri Muhyiddin’s responsibility to engage his political adversaries across the parliamentary aisle and work out a modus vivendi and operandi that strengthens the unity within the national political leadership.

He has to approach this issue by not offering sinecures as has been his wont. He has to approach this matter with humility and honesty and engage his detractors. He should have the courage and integrity to indicate that he would relinquish  his position to someone whom he considers more capable and qualified in order to serve  and save the country.

Rulers Save the Day

Muhyiddin must realise that what  may be lawful by a stretch need not necessarily be logical or legitimate. Escalating an issue of a pure national governance character to the discretionary wisdom of the Rulers showed a weakness of leadership. It reflects poorly on  the governing capacity of the Muhyiddin administration and its highest officials.

The  Rulers acted discerningly and rescued the country in a timely manner.

Dato M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador