Making sense of Malaysia

It hasn’t got as much coverage in the Australian media as it deserves, but you will probably have noticed a few stories over the last fortnight on the political crisis in Malaysia. It’s a complicated story.

I’m not going to try to explain all the twists and turns in it, for fear of losing either the reader or (more probably) myself. Instead I’ll have a go at setting out the basic problem and the lessons to be drawn from it.

The essential background is the Malaysian election of May 2018, in which the opposition Alliance of Hope (Pakatan Harapan) won a large and unexpected victory, defeating the incumbent government led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) of prime minister Najib Razak.

This was an earthquake in Malaysian politics. UMNO (nominally centre-right) had been in power since 1955, partly due to a seriously problematic electoral system bequeathed to it by the British. But even that was no proof against the public anger provoked by Najib’s blatant corruption.

The Alliance of Hope, however, was a diverse group. Most of its votes (and seats) came from the two traditional opposition parties, the vaguely centrist People’s Justice Party (PKR) and the centre-left Democratic Action Party (DAP). But its figurehead was Mahathir Mohamad, a former prime minister, who had emerged from retirement to lead Bersatu, a breakaway from UMNO.

Since Mahathir was 92 at the time, it was expected that his leadership would be a temporary affair and that in due course he would hand over the prime ministership to Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the PKR. But even in their 90s, politicians rarely like the idea of giving up power.

So tensions over the succession led to a complex set of manoeuvres at the end of last month in which Mahathir appeared to be scheming to desert his Alliance partners and lead Bersatu into a new coalition with UMNO, the Islamist party, PAS, and a dissident faction of the PKR.

In pursuit of this plan, Mahathir tendered his resignation to the king on 24 February and sought reappointment as prime minister in a non-partisan administration that would “focus on national interests instead of political parties.” But perhaps not surprisingly, this led not to him being, as he claimed, “supported by both sides,” but rather distrusted by both.

The remaining Alliance parties pushed for Anwar to become prime minister, while UMNO and Bersatu disowned Mahathir and instead put forward Bersatu’s party president, Muhyiddin Yassin.

At this point it’s useful to have a look at the Malaysian constitution. Section 43(2)(a) provides as follows:

the Yang di-Pertuan Agong [i.e. the king] shall first [before appointing other ministers] appoint as Perdana Menteri (Prime Minister) to preside over the Cabinet a member of the House of Representatives who in his judgment is likely to command the confidence of the majority of the members of that House

And sub-section (4) adds:

If the Prime Minister ceases to command the confidence of the majority of the members of the House of Representatives, then, unless at his request the [king] dissolves parliament, the Prime Minister shall tender the resignation of the Cabinet.

These are typical provisions to establish responsible government. The prime minister is chosen by the king, not by parliament, but must be chosen on the basis of their ability to command a parliamentary majority, and must resign if they lose that majority. Australia has the same rules, although ours are not spelt out in the constitution.

In a situation of doubt like this one, the sensible thing would have been for Malaysia’s king to make a best guess at who would have a majority and appoint them on the basis that they would immediately meet parliament and seek a vote of confidence.

Instead the king, Sultan Abdullah of Pahang, conducted a round of consultations with MPs to try to work out the lie of the land, and then appointed Muhyiddin as prime minister. Muhyiddin then ignored the objections of both Mahathir and Anwar and postponed the meeting of parliament, originally scheduled for this week, until 18 May.

So, a few lessons here. One is that it would be useful to have a constitutional provision requiring a new prime minister to face a vote of confidence, or at least enabling a majority of MPs to requisition a sitting when parliament is not in session.*

But secondly, even the absence of such provisions does not prevent responsible government, it just postpones the day of reckoning. If Mahathir and Anwar (who now seem to be working together again, although who knows how long that will last) can command a majority in parliament, the constitution provides them with the means to force their way back into office in May.

The worry in Malaysia comes from a different quarter: that while Muhyiddin may not currently have a majority, two months will give him the opportunity to assemble one by a generous use of government patronage. But the problem in that case is the corruption rather than the rules.

Another lesson, an old one that still needs repeating, is the toxic nature of racial and religious chauvinism. The Alliance’s win in 2018 was a victory for multiculturalism, and has produced a backlash from UMNO, as the voice of Malay ethnic nationalism, allied with the PAS as the voice of Islamic fundamentalism. If they succeed in re-establishing themselves in power it will be a bad omen for Malaysia and the whole region.

Finally, the whole saga is a warning of the perils of gerontocracy. The rule of the very old seems to be on the rise, with the United States reduced to choosing among a set of 70-something candidates for the presidency. But Mahathir at 94 is in a class of his own. It would be nice to report that he seems to have lost out from his latest round of intrigues, were it not that his country may end up paying the price for it.


* In a traditional Westminster system, the executive can prevent a sitting of parliament by prorogation. But last year’s decision by Britain’s high court in Miller/Cherry put a major dent in that power.


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