Year In Review 2020: Political developments that left Malaysians floored

Nicholas Yong
·Assistant News Editor
·6-min read

In the never-ending soap opera that is Malaysian politics, 2020 saw enough developments to leave Malaysians’ heads spinning.

Above all else: the rise of a backdoor government - the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, which is currently clinging on to power by a razor-thin majority. The old warhorses Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim found themselves sidelined, while the Pakatan Harapan (PH) collapsed like a house of cards.

Here are the political developments that left Malaysians floored.

The Sheraton Move

A combination photo shows Malaysia's former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (L-R), Leader of the Opposition Anwar Ibrahim and Senior Minister for Economy and the Minister of International Trade and Industry Azmin Ali in Malaysia on 28 March, 2019, 17 May, 2018 and 5 September, 2018. REUTERS/Stringers
A combination photo shows Malaysia's former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (L-R), Leader of the Opposition Anwar Ibrahim and Senior Minister for Economy and the Minister of International Trade and Industry Azmin Ali in Malaysia. (PHOTOS: REUTERS/Stringers)

Ten months after the fact, the identities of the true masterminds of the Sheraton Move, which saw a breakaway faction of PH meeting with opposition MPs at the Sheraton Petaling Jaya Hotel to plot the formation of a backdoor government, are still in dispute.

Was it Azmin Ali, one-time ally of Anwar Ibrahim and would-be poet, who supposedly harboured ambitions for the premiership? Were his actions undertaken at the direction of the wily Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who saw this as his chance to clean house and vanquish his old nemesis Anwar? Was Dr M right or simply disingenuous in blaming his predecessor Najib Razak for his resignation? No one truly knows.

For all Azmin’s protestations of a lack of ambition, few are convinced – a group of Gombak voters have even filed a lawsuit against him for his alleged role in the Sheraton Move, with no less than Dr M offering to be a court witness. Ultimately, it matters little – faith in Malaysian institutions was greatly damaged in the saga, and with a pandemic still raging, few are in the mood for reform.

The fall of Pakatan Harapan

Supporters wave flags of Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) as Anwar Ibrahim arrives for by-election nomination in Port Dickson, Malaysia, Saturday, 29 September, 2018. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Supporters wave flags of Pakatan Harapan as Anwar Ibrahim arrives for by-election nomination in Port Dickson, Malaysia, on 29 September 2018. (PHOTO: AP)

The so-called alliance of hope will go down in history as the shortest-lived administration in Malaysian history, lasting just 22 months. But the writing had been on the wall for months, with voters losing patience in their inability to deliver on electoral promises, and murmurings of internal discontent. Then there was the eternal struggle between Mahathir and Anwar, with the erstwhile protege agitating for power and the former reneging on his promise to hand over the premiership within two years.

Before anyone knew it, the coalition, which had only been tenuously held together by the Mahathir-Anwar alliance, had fallen apart.

Mahathir resigns

Malaysia's interim leader Mahathir Mohamad speaks during a press conference after Muhyiddin Yassin was appointed as new prime minister in Kuala Lumpur, Sunday, March 1, 2020. Malaysia's king on Saturday appointed seasoned politician Muhyiddin as the country's new leader, trumping Mahathir's bid to return to power after a week of political turmoil that followed his resignation as prime minister. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Malaysia's interim leader Mahathir Mohamad speaks during a press conference after Muhyiddin Yassin was appointed as new prime minister in Kuala Lumpur on 1 March 2020. (PHOTO: AP)

At first glance, it seemed a masterstroke – despite his resignation as PM amid an attempted backdoor coup, Dr M was poised to emerge the winner. He was mooted by various factions as the head of a new unity government, one in which Anwar would again take a back seat.

In the “Game of Thrones” that is Malaysian politics, the old warhorse still seemed the only one who could claim the Iron Throne of the premiership. As one analyst put it, “Mahathir's resignation had the opposite effect of making him the most apt statesman to bring sanity to a political circus.”

But then things went awry, as they are wont to do in Malaysia. Dr M declared that he would not work with his former party UMNO. UMNO, PAS and Gabungan Parti Sarawak all declined to work with the DAP, a key component of PH. Slowly but surely, Mahathir lost the initiative, then found himself blindsided by the ascension of an old ally.

Muhyiddin becomes Prime Minister

Malaysia's new Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (C), pictured with his wife Noraini Abdul Rahman, heads a coalition dominated by the multi-ethnic country's Muslim majority and has faced criticism for controversial remarks about race
Malaysia's new Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (C), pictured with his wife Noraini Abdul Rahman

While Muhyiddin Yassin had served in a variety of Cabinet positions, including Deputy PM, hardly anyone expected the 73-year-old to rise to the top. But he received approval from the Agong to head a new government led by the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, just when the global pandemic ravaged Malaysia’s economy.

Despite a wafer-thin majority in parliament, multiple attempts to call a no-confidence vote against him and the king denying him emergency powers, Muhyiddin is still hanging in there. But how much longer can he hold on, with Mahathir waiting in the wings as head of his new party Pejuang and Anwar the Leader of the Opposition?

Mahathir and Anwar fall out. Again.

PORT DICKSON, MALAYSIA - OCTOBER 8: Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad (R) raises up Anwar Ibrahim's hand during by-election campaign, in Port Dickson, Malaysia on October 8, 2018. The support, given by Mahathir Mohamad as part of the agreement in the Pakatan Harapan Coalition (Alliance of Hope), decision to make him a Prime Minister within 2 years.  (Photo by Adli Ghazali/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (R) raises up Anwar Ibrahim's hand during by-election campaign, in Port Dickson, Malaysia on 8 October 2018. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

Back in 2018, it was the reunion that epitomised the old saying about politics making strange bedfellows. It was the Mahathir-Anwar axis that made PH’s victory possible. But for the second time, Mahathir’s promise to eventually hand over power to Anwar was broken.

At different points in the past year, both men have claimed to hold a parliamentary majority, to no avail. And while the age-old frenemies have dominated Malaysian politics for decades, and remain charismatic figures with significant support, one cannot help but ask: is their time long past?

But a quick look around the country’s political scene reveals a stark truth: there is no one to match Anwar or Mahathir’s stature and political nous. The two men may well be compelled by changing circumstances to work together again.

Anwar: I have a majority. Again.

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - OCTOBER 16: Anwar Ibrahim, head of Malaysia's main opposition, speaks to press members after he was summoned by Malaysian police to give a statement regarding a viral list of federal parliamentarians who allegedly back his bid to claim the premiership, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on October 16, 2020. (Photo by Syaiful Redzuan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - OCTOBER 16: Anwar Ibrahim, head of Malaysia's main opposition, speaks to press members after he was summoned by Malaysian police to give a statement regarding a viral list of federal parliamentarians who allegedly back his bid to claim the premiership, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on October 16, 2020. (Photo by Syaiful Redzuan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Not for the first time in his political career, Anwar claimed in September to have a parliamentary majority, and was even granted an audience with the Agong to prove his case. Not for the first time, he failed to prove his case.

Meanwhile, the Agong emerged as unexpected peacemaker, advising political leaders to “avoid plunging the country into another political crisis” during the pandemic.

Police later summoned Anwar to give a statement after 113 complaints were lodged over a purported list of 121 lawmakers allegedly backing Anwar that has spread on social media. He has even faced calls to step down as PKR and opposition leader.

What’s next for the 73-year-old? Will political developments in 2021 further underscore his legacy as the eternal bridesmaid?

Budget 2021 passes

The parliament hears the 2021 budget speech in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. (AP Photo)
The parliament hears the 2021 budget speech in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. (AP Photo)

It was expected to be a potentially fatal test for Muhyiddin, given his precarious position: if Budget 2021 was not passed by Malaysia’s parliament, there would be more than enough reason to call for a no-confidence vote against him. Anwar was also expected to galvanise the opposition into rejecting the Budget.

Instead, the RM322 billion Budget was passed by a slim majority, with barely any resistance from the opposition. While the likes of Dr M had voiced their opposition to Budget 2021, the decisive factor was the ongoing pandemic. With thousands infected and the economy struggling to restart, Malaysians are in little mood for more political shenanigans from any party.

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