The prime minister’s advice to implement restrictions may have cut off his own political oxygen supply.
As the COVID-19 death toll in Malaysia continues to mount, Malaysia’s King Al-Sultan Abdullah has called a state of emergency for the first time in 50 years.
– Some have criticised Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s request for the King to declare a state of emergency as self-serving, as it suspends parliament and allows the prime minister to ‘rule by decree’.
– The precarious nature of Muhyiddin’s political position, a shattered economy and the dire medical situation caused by COVID-19 cases pushed Muhyiddin to request a state of emergency.
– Barring a robust economic recovery and successful handling of the outbreak, the state of emergency is likely to only prolong the end of Muhyiddin’s tenure as prime minister.
Al-Sultan Abdullah, the King of Malaysia, has called a state of emergency in Malaysia in order to deal with the current outbreak of COVID-19. Officially lasting to August 1, the call was made on January 12 at the request of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who stressed that the latest outbreak of infections was straining the country’s healthcare system. In the week the emergency declaration was made, the number of new COVID-19 infections in Malaysia jumped to over 3,000 per day, the highest increase since the beginning of the pandemic. Over the past two months, the Malaysian government has increased pandemic restrictions, implementing travel restrictions that eventually progressed into a full-scale lockdown in all states except for one.
Though case numbers are beginning to drop, the state of emergency declaration has spurred anger in Malaysian politics. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim filed a lawsuit against Muhyiddin and the government in late January claiming that Muhyiddin gave the King unlawful advice to suspend Parliament. Ten former presidents of the Malaysian Bar Council released a joint statement claiming that the declaration was unconstitutional and that it set a dangerous precedent that “insulates the executive from accountability” and does not fulfil the constitutional requirements of there being an imminent danger to the security, economic life, or public order of the nation. Muhyiddin’s political rivals, including former prime minister Mahathir Mohammad, have claimed the prime minister is becoming dictatorial and merely trying to protect himself from losing power. As the state of emergency suspends both parliament and any elections, Muhyiddin is safe from political manoeuvring or being ousted both within and outside of his government coalition.
LONELY IS HE WHO WEARS THE CROWN
The economic situation in Malaysia has worsened under the pandemic. The initial lockdown in March 2020 cost the country close to US$600 million in economic output. According to the International Monetary Fund, the Malaysian economy contracted by 6% in 2020, more than reversing the 4.6% growth seen in the previous year. Exports and imports shrank and the number of foreign tourists also dropped sharply due to worldwide travel restrictions. The government has attempted to mitigate the damage through the Prihatin Stimulus package, which, according to the deputy finance minister, blunted the short-term impact of the economic crisis on Malaysian households by maintaining 1.46 million jobs. However, growth has remained sluggish. Economic forecasters anticipated that Malaysia would bounce back from the pandemic induced economic turmoil, but the state of emergency has thrown that projection into dark waters.
Muhyiddin is politically in a very precarious situation. He was appointed prime minister by the King in February last year after the previous government collapsed due to shifting political alliances and power plays. Muhyiddin’s government is formed by a patchwork of different parties that are not natural allies and do not work easily with each other. Muhyiddin’s conservative nationalist party Bersatu found itself dealing with the larger and historically dominant United Malays National Organisation, which holds 39 seats in parliament to Bersatu’s 31. These difficult circumstances meant that Muhyiddin’s government was often unable to easily get laws passed and that Muhyiddin has constantly faced assaults against his leadership. Before the state of emergency was declared, Muhyiddin was staring down calls to step aside amid fears that he would lose in the next election. Thus, the state of emergency could be viewed as a way to delay his ouster.
A BOLD STRATEGY
If Muhyiddin’s critics are correct that the state of emergency is a play to protect his political power, the move could backfire. The postponement of elections does give Muhyiddin time to build greater political support, but it has also angered Malaysian citizens, some of whom see these latest measures against COVID-19 to be authoritarian and overzealous. Muhyiddin could be banking on a boost in political support stemming from the effective handling of the pandemic, similar to what happened to other leaders at the start of the pandemic such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but such a boost is unlikely to have a lasting impact. If and when the state of emergency ends, the calls for a snap election will likely be even louder, and should fail to Muhyiddin shore up his support and public goodwill during this period, he looks unlikely to survive politically.
The economic future of Malaysia is even more uncertain. When the state of emergency was announced, economists reacted by reducing forecasts for Malaysia’s economic growth. The main stock index declined by 1.6% almost immediately and the currency exchange rate also dropped steeply against the US dollar. Since then, the Malaysian government has made efforts to ensure that the economy remains open during the state of emergency, while also insisting that businesses follow COVID-19 precautions. Current lockdown measures have focused on social activities, allowing businesses that account for 90% of the country’s GDP to continue to operate. In addition, the emergency grants Muhyiddin the authority to rule essentially by decree, meaning his coalition can implement their economic plans without first going through parliament. His government could use this opportunity to enact a strong economic recovery plan that keeps Malaysia from falling into greater economic stagnation. This includes the upcoming 12th Malaysia Plan (known as 12MP), which Muhyiddin has stated will focus on “physical and digital infrastructure [to] be built in urban and rural areas.” This plan includes pushing forward the construction of a 5G network and could breed greater digital innovation and technological capacity. Such a plan would revitalise the economy and would leave Muhyiddin with a far more secure footing for the next election.
The prime minister’s political survival depends entirely on his success in dealing with the pandemic and the economy. Case numbers have only just started to drop and the economy shows few signs of growth or recovery. Muhyiddin is slowly drowning, and unless he is able to solve both of these issues, then the King’s call will be nothing but a delay to his political defeat.