Malaysia has a new prime minister this week, with the appointment of Ismail Sabri Yaakob – formerly deputy prime minister and vice-president of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the country’s ruling party from 1957 to 2018. He replaces Muhyiddin Yassin, who had held the job since March of last year.
To understand what’s going on here, you should start with my account last year of how Muhyiddin came to power. It was the culmination of a complicated political crisis, in which his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, tried unsuccessfully to play off his own political coalition, the Alliance of Hope, against UMNO, and ended up distrusted by both. Instead of reappointing him, the king turned to Muhyiddin as a compromise candidate.
Muhyiddin took over leadership of Mahathir’s party, Bersatu (originally a breakaway from UMNO), and formed a government relying mostly on UMNO for support. The Alliance of Hope, now led by former deputy prime minister and long-time Mahathir rival Anwar Ibrahim, cried foul, especially after Muhyiddin postponed the sitting of parliament to prevent his majority being tested.
Despite his precarious position, Muhyiddin managed to survive for almost a year and a half. He was greatly helped by the health crisis, which was used to justify a state of emergency imposed last January. But he never looked secure for the long term: the opposition repeatedly claimed that it had majority support, and although this never quite materialised – the government was always able to pick off a few stray MPs when needed – the prime minister’s personal base remained small.
Muhyiddin depended on the continued goodwill of both UMNO and the king, and he forfeited the latter last month when he announced the end of the state of emergency before the king had signed off on it. UMNO took longer to resolve its position; some of its leaders, including Ismail Sabri, stayed loyal to Muhyiddin, but there was a steady drift away by those who were keen to collect all the spoils of office for themselves. After a vain attempt to win over Anwar and the opposition, Muhyiddin recognised the inevitable and resigned a week ago.
The king proceeded to consult with the parties as to who could now command a majority, and in the end received pledges of support for Ismail Sabri, UMNO’s nominee, from 114 of the 222 MPs: a notional majority of just six seats. Ismail Sabri was duly appointed and sworn in on Saturday.
The new leader immediately struck a conciliatory note, calling for national unity to fight the pandemic and offering positions to the opposition on a committee dealing with it. Anwar has suggested that his supporters should accept Ismail Sabri’s appointment and focus on winning back power at the next election, due in the middle of 2023.
None of this, however, can disguise the fact that the change represents the return of the old guard to power, and in particular the triumph of those who see government as primarily for the benefit of the majority ethnic Malays rather than the country as a whole.
The 2018 election result was more a verdict on UMNO’s rampant corruption than a direct repudiation of that vision. It looks as if the battle will have to be fought again in 2023 – or maybe sooner, if Ismail Sabri’s grip on power turns out to be as fragile as that of his predecessor.
PS: There’s now a very good account of the whole situation by Amrita Malhi at Inside Story.