Muhyiddin Yassin as Malaysia’s new PM sparks fears of return to ‘Umno politics’

Tashny Sukumaran

After a week of political chaos, Malaysia on Sunday swore in its eighth prime minister – Malay nationalist politician Muhyiddin Yassin – only to face immediate resistance from the former ruling coalition now forced into the opposition, who argued the appointment was against the rule of law.

Muhyiddin, 72, the previous home affairs minister, was picked by the country’s king to replace ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad, whose shock resignation came amid claims of political skulduggery that tore apart an administration that had only been in power for 21 months.

Scores of Malaysians took to the streets on Saturday and Sunday to protest Muhyiddin’s appointment while police arrested a man for insulting the king on Facebook – an offence under the nation’s colonial-era sedition laws – following the monarch’s political intervention.

Three others are being investigated under similar allegations.

Malaysia's incoming Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (left) receives documents from King

On social media, Malaysians expressed fear that Muhyiddin’s leadership – he has espoused staunch pro-Malay values – would lead to worsening ties between the nation’s Malay-Muslim majority and other groups.

There were also concerns that the new prime minister’s willingness to work with his former political party – the scandal-tainted United Malays National Organisation (Umno) – would herald the return of politicians that are currently facing multiple charges of corruption and abuse of power.

Umno, a race-based party that ruled Malaysia for more than six decades, was ousted in the May 2018 election after Mahathir came out of retirement to join forces with his on-again, off-again rival Anwar Ibrahim, 72, in the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition.

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But the PH government was often plagued by internal communication issues, while its jockeying to win over the majority Malay-Muslim vote bank saw leaders at loggerheads as the right-wing Umno pandered to Malay voters by telling them they were being sidelined.

Mahathir, 94, struck a defiant tone on Sunday, telling the press that he would challenge Muhyiddin’s appointment in parliament to see if the leader had majority support from its 222 members.

“We are going to see a man who does not have majority support become prime minister,” Mahathir said.

The king had on Saturday said his one-on-one interviews with lawmakers established that Muhyiddin commanded the backing of a majority of members in the Dewan Rakyat (lower house of parliament), but Mahathir rejected this and said the palace refused to grant him an audience so he could make his case.

Pakatan Harapan in a statement on Sunday said that it had 112 MPs supporting Mahathir – two down from its previous number announced late Saturday – and that parliament was the best place to gauge support for who should be premier, implying that it would raise a confidence motion.

However, the Speaker of the House subsequently said that the sitting, scheduled for March 9, might be postponed – a move that PH said was an attempt to induce MPs supporting Mahathir to defect to Muhyiddin’s camp.

WHOSE FAULT?

Behind closed doors, Mahathir on Sunday laid blame for the week-long political imbroglio at the feet of both Muhyddin – who formed the Bersatu political party with him – and Anwar. Muhyiddin’s willingness to work with Umno was not acceptable, Mahathir said, suggesting that this had prompted him to initially resign as Bersatu chairman and prime minister last Monday. He did so after factions of Bersatu and Anwar’s People’s Justice Party (PKR) – both part of the PH coalition – attempted a coup to set up a back-door government. Bersatu then left the PH coalition.

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“I feel betrayed, mostly by Muhyiddin. He was working on this for a long time and now he has succeeded,” Mahathir said.

He also criticised Anwar’s eagerness to become premier, saying it was why the remnants of the PH coalition had withdrawn its support for Mahathir after pledging otherwise.

Anwar was meant to take over the premiership from Mahathir before 2023 but no deadline had been set for the transition, exacerbating tensions within their coalition. It had sparked a power struggle in recent days though at the eleventh hour, both men banded together again to counter Muhyiddin.

“We could have had the majority. He wanted to be the candidate, even though he should have known he could not have gotten it,” Mahathir was quoted as saying.

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Political scientist Awang Azman Awang Pawi of the Institute of Malay Studies said the appointment of Muhyiddin would surely “bring back Umno politics, including former premier Najib [Razak]. Umno will recover quickly … and return to active mainstream politics”.

Najib, who was defeated in the 2018 polls, is currently on trial for multiple counts of corruption and abuse of power linked to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad global corruption scandal.

Mahathir Mohammad speaks to the media during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: EPA

Muhyiddin, who is president of Bersatu, is known to be publicity-shy and conservative. He was born in the southern state of Johor next to Singapore and was Anwar’s contemporary in Umno, although the latter’s star shone brighter and he became Mahathir’s chosen successor during his first stint as premier, before both men fell out.

Muhyiddin was chief minister of Johor from 1986 to 1995 and is an MP for the northern Johor town of Pagoh.

In 2010, he made national headlines for announcing that he was “a Malay first” after a rival politician asked him to clarify if he was Malay or Malaysian first. “How can I say I’m Malaysian first and Malay second? All the Malays will shun me,” he said.

Muhyiddin served for several years as Najib’s deputy prime minister but was sacked in 2016 for criticising his boss.

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