Tricky balancing act in Malaysia

While ruling camp gains win on speaker’s post, its slim majority leaves PM exposed

A wafer-thin majority adds to the challenges facing Malaysia’s ruling coalition as its battles in the Parliament with an assertive opposition are set to test the stability of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s four-month-old government, analysts said.

Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional, or PN, coalition drew an initial win on Monday in the opening session of the legislature’s current sitting when it succeeded in ousting Mohamad Ariff Mohamad Yusof as speaker. He was replaced with the former chairman of the Election Commission, Azhar Azizan Harun.

Deputy speaker Nga Kor Ming resigned and was replaced by Azalina Othman Said, a member of Parliament from the Pengerang constituency in the southern state of Johor. The new deputy speaker is a member of the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, one of the major parties in the ruling coalition.

Analysts said that the PN managed to win the battle over the speaker’s position by just two votes and only after a heated debate. Muhyiddin’s role in the coming three weeks that the lower house of the legislature is in session is to shore up support in the chamber, as the coalition’s razor-thin majority is not enough to deter an aggressive opposition.

By putting a PN-backed speaker in the Parliament, Muhyiddin can at least control what motions will be prioritized and discussed. This is seen as a timely gain for Muhyiddin, with analysts citing a call by his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad for a no-confidence motion against Muhyiddin. Mahathir filed the motion as an MP for the Langkawi constituency in the northwestern state of Kedah.

Azmil Mohd Tayeb, a senior lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the Universiti Sains Malaysia, said that even with the ruling coalition’s slim majority, Muhyiddin has shown that he has enough votes in the Parliament to fend off any attempt to debate Mahathir’s motion.

This week marks the second time this year that the 14th Parliament has convened, holding a session amid a pandemic and a stuttering economy. The Asian Development Bank forecasts that the Malaysian economy will contract by 4 percent this year. One of the bills that the 222 MPs are expected to discuss concerns measures to mitigate the socioeconomic impact of COVID-19.

James Chin, director of the Asia Institute Tasmania at Australia’s University of Tasmania, expects the current sitting to remain “fiery” and that the opposition will focus on “making the government lose face”.

“The opposition will try to paint this government as illegitimate, a backdoor government (that was installed) without going through a general election,” Chin said.

Muhyiddin, who was sworn in on March 1 as prime minister, came to power after Mahathir resigned from his post. Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah said he appointed Muhyiddin as he had gained the trust of the majority of MPs in the House of Representatives.

Analysts said that it remains to be seen if Muhyiddin indeed has that trust, noting that the infighting in the PN is threatening his tenuous hold on power.

Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said the ouster on Monday of Ariff, who had been appointed speaker by the previous Pakatan Harapan government, marked “a victory for Muhyiddin, but a razor-thin one”.

Oh said that just two defections from the ruling camp would be enough to deprive Muhyiddin of a majority, and his bigger concern now is how to manage the power struggle within the PN.

“It’s this very delicate balance that’s keeping Muhyiddin politically afloat,” he said.

Azmil said the infighting will keep Muhyiddin from any temptation to call for snap elections.

“It’s doubtful that Muhyiddin will call for a snap poll now until he can be sure that his position and that of his party will remain secure,” said Azmil, referring to the Malaysian United Indigenous Party, or Bersatu.

Muhyiddin is the president of Bersatu, which Azmil said was in a weak position compared with the bigger parties in the PN, such as the UMNO and the Malaysian Islamic Party.

However, the rival Pakatan Harapan is also beset with its own internal struggles, and this bodes well for Muhyiddin, he said.

“Pakatan Harapan is too fragmented now to even ponder a snap poll. So, I think Muhyiddin and Bersatu will survive in the next two and a half years until the next general election is held,” he said.

The next general election is scheduled to be held in 2023.

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