On Jan. 12, Malaysia was placed under a state of emergency. The stated aim of this extraordinary measure is to tackle the surging COVID-19 pandemic, as it empowers the government to focus on tackling the scourge unhindered.
At first blush, the reasoning is irreproachable. The day the emergency was declared, Malaysia reported 3,309 new cases, breaking a record for the highest daily tally. The number of new reported cases daily has on the rise since September 2020.
However, many politicians and civil society groups have argued that the emergency is unnecessary, as the government has many measures at its disposal. The existing powers provided under the prevailing Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act are considerable.
In addition, a Movement Control Order (MCO) was instated on Jan. 13, which will last until Jan. 26. This is a repeat of the measure applied from March to May last year, which was credited with reducing infection levels to negligible levels by mid-June.
Furthermore, the King can authorize the government to take over private healthcare facilities in the event the public healthcare system is under excessive strain.
Beyond the public health dimension, however, the emergency has far-reaching political implications. Scheduled to last until Aug. 1, the measure means that parliament and state assemblies will not sit, and there will be no national, state, or by-elections. In addition, the government cannot introduce or pass new bills apart from issuing temporary laws – ordinances – effective for the duration of the Emergency.
In approving Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s request for a state of emergency, the King has given the prime minister much-needed breathing room. Based on the vote to pass the 2021 Budget last December, Muhyiddin only had the support of 111 members of parliament – the narrowest of majorities in the 220-seat parliament (two seats are currently vacant). Yet, with the country’s finances in order, Muhyiddin looked set to enjoy a reprieve of sorts.
However, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which contributes the largest number of MPs to the ruling Perikatan Nasional coalition, began the New Year in an ornery mood. Nursing grudges over its alleged shoddy treatment at the hands of Muhyiddin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), UMNO leaders such as party president Zahid Hamidi have persistently called for parliament to be dissolved, and a snap election called.
Just after the New Year three quarters of UMNO’s 191 divisions supported cutting ties with PPBM prior to the next general election. On Jan. 9, UMNO MP Ahmad Jazlan withdrew his support for the PN administration – theoretically leaving Muhyiddin with a hung parliament. Following the emergency declaration on Jan. 12, another UMNO MP, Nazri Aziz also withdrew his support.
While Muhyiddin’s leadership beyond Aug. 1 is far from certain, for now, the emergency removes the day-to-day pressure on him of proving he has the numbers to stay in power. Muhyiddin also has several assets he can capitalize on during this lengthy reprieve from parliamentary politics.
First, he clearly enjoys the King’s confidence, and royal support goes a long way – particularly in the country’s rural, Malay-majority heartland. Second, most people’s worries are squarely focused on their health and economic situation, not rushing to elections.
Third, many voters, particularly Malays, do not want UMNO to withdraw from the Perikatan Nasional administration – as shown by a poll carried out in early January by the Merdeka Center. Finally, people, including many in UMNO itself, suspect that the overriding motive for the push to topple the government is linked to the corruption cases against Najib Razak and Zahid Hamidi. Indeed, senior UMNO figure and sacked Barisan Nasional secretary-general Annuar Musa has argued this very point.
Over the next eight months, Muhyiddin can be expected to move on a number of fronts. First, an effective campaign to tackle COVID-19 is de rigeur, as the prime minister will not be able to face the public in August with the pandemic still raging. Second, it is highly likely that the corruption cases facing senior UMNO leaders such as Najib and Zahid will reach their denouement. While parliament may be suspended, the judiciary and courts will continue their work as per normal.
Third, the 12th Malaysia Plan, a five-year developmental roadmap for the country, was to be tabled in the March parliamentary session. While it will be a while before it is brought before parliament, it is likely that its focus of “Shared Economic Prosperity” will be widely disseminated beforehand. Beyond a mere list of planned projects in the pipeline, the Plan will be cast as the country’s new, unifying narrative.
Eight months is an eternity in politics and, for now, Muhyiddin has carte blanche to consolidate his position and articulate his vision for his administration. That said, facing more restrictions of their movements and a mounting economic cost from the pandemic’s resurgence, Malaysia’s citizens will have high and mounting expectations of their leader.
Windows of opportunity can open – and close.
Francis E. Hutchinson is a senior fellow and coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. Kevin Zhang is a research officer at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. The article first appeared in Fulcrum.