Malaysia is at the crossroads. Sunday’s swearing- in of Muhyiddin Yassin as the country’s Prime Minister hasn’t exactly lessened the chaos ~ instability too ~ that has gripped the country ever since the resignation of Mahathir Mohamad. The latter has lost the battle for power against a little known former interior minister.
At the ripe old age of 94 and once the world’s oldest leader, Mahathir has raised questions over his legitimacy amidst nationwide protests. He has called for an urgent session of Parliament since the palace, as he claims, refused to hear him out. Muhyiddin had once described himself as a “Malay first” and is backed by Malaysia’s ethnic Muslim majority.
Pretty obvious is the resentment among minority communities. Regretfully, with the political change of guard the communal and ethnic divides have become still more pronounced. Muhyiddin was named as Prime Minister after a week of political chaos in which the ruling coalition collapsed, alliances were reversed and rival camps rushed to forge backroom deals.
He was named as Prime Minister by the king, who the palace had earlier said would meet individually with all 222 MPs to find a way out of the crisis. Muhyiddin relies on support from Umno, a party plagued by corruption scandals, as well as a fundamentalist Islamic party that backs strict Islamic laws. It is open to question whether there will be a paradigm shift in governance, veering to the theocratic construct.
His appointment follows growing dissatisfaction among many in the Malay majority, who accused the previous ruling alliance of surrendering to Chinese interests. About 60 per cent of Malaysia’s population are ethnic Malay Muslims, while the country also has large ethnic Chinese and Indian communities. In his previous decades in power Mahathir had prioritised Malay interests, but the coalition he formed with his more liberal rival Anwar Ibrahim in 2018 was remarkable in terms of diversity.
Muhyiddin’s government is expected to boast more Malays in key positions and to be more religiously conservative. With Mahathir seeking to move a no-confidence motion against Muhyiddin in Parliament, the power struggle is likely to continue. By virtue of his appointment as Prime Minister, Muhyiddin has the power to decide on cabinet positions and thus has an advantage in winning the support from MPs.
But there is little doubt that his government remains fragile and it shall not be easy to prove his legitimacy as a leader. His major difficulty must be that the critical process of governance has over the past week come under a cloud and the point of contestation must be whether he really has the numbers. Malaysia will have to contend with a cocktail of legislative uncertainty, ethnicity and religion. The government in Kuala Lumpur had imploded last Monday when Mahathir resigned. The crisis festers still.