Then-Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin takes questions from the press, February 29, 2020, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto / Mohd Daud

KUALA LUMPUR – “I am not a traitor,” declared new Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in his first televised address since his March 1 inauguration.

The newly appointed leader was addressing criticism from his immediate predecessor, elder statesmen Mahathir Mohamad, who in recent days has accused him of “betrayal.”

Mahathir, 94, resigned last week in the midst of a political crisis that shattered his Pakatan Harapan (PH) governing coalition, with Muhyiddin, his home minister, filling the vacuum after being appointed by the nation’s constitutional monarch.

That, however, hasn’t stopped the wily nonagenarian from challenging the legal standing of Muhyiddin’s days-old premiership.   

Mahathir’s PH coalition, which he claims has support of at least 112 of Parliament’s 222 lawmakers, the minimum needed to form a simple majority government, has promised to launch a no-confidence debate against Muhyiddin at the legislature’s next sitting.

Analysts expect Muhyiddin to delay a scheduled March 9 session of Parliament to bide time to win support from East Malaysian lawmakers whose backing would numerically give him a clear and comfortable majority.

Muhyiddin could legally delay Parliament’s convening until May at the latest, giving his coalition ample time to lure on-the-fence parliamentarians to his side of the political divide.

Malaysia’s outgoing Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad after meeting with King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah at the National Palace, February 24, Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFP Forum via EyePress Newswire/FL Wong

With Mahathir still in alliance with his twice-jailed former protégé Anwar Ibrahim, 72, both veteran politicians again find themselves in the opposition with common cause to unseat an incumbent.

“Never count Anwar out, that’s Rule Number 2 in Malaysian politics. Rule Number 1 is to never count Mahathir out,” said Tom Pepinsky, associate professor at Cornell University’s Southeast Asia Program.

“They could return to power if they manage to push through a no-confidence vote, and even if not, they will be shaping the debate in anticipation of the next round of elections, which isn’t too far off in any case.”

General elections must be called by 2023 under local law. “That very fact will put pressure on Muhyiddin’s government to ‘perform’ in order to shore up popular support for their government which, it must be remembered, has no electoral mandate,” said the academic.

Analysts see Muhyiddin’s first priorities, beyond seeing down the no-confidence motion, as shoring up public confidence in his unelected administration and stabilizing his Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition in a fluid and uncertain political climate.

His political party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), or Bersatu, was initially formed to end abuses of power by the previous long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.

But after last week’s shock political realignment, PPBM is now in coalition with BN and its lynchpin party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), whose current and former leaders, including disgraced ex-premier Najib Razak, are on trial for money laundering and massive corruption.

Demonstrators hold placards during a protest against Malaysia’s newly sworn in prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, March 1, 2020, Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Chris Jung

Muhyiddin had served as Najib’s deputy premier but was unceremoniously sacked in 2015 after criticizing his handling of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, after which he joined forces with Mahathir to form PPBM.

The party had been part of PH until Muhyiddin, PPBM’s president, withdrew it last week.

Despite a clean record and reputation for integrity, Muhyiddin’s perceived betrayal of his PH coalition partners in favor of leading a new “backdoor” coalition government with the tainted UMNO and Islamist party Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) is already raising questions about his commitment to justice and reform.

“One sticking point in the public domain now is a fear that the ongoing corruption trials against key UMNO leaders would be dropped. Muhyiddin may well be motivated to stay clear from interfering in the judiciary process,” said Saleena Saleem, a PhD candidate in sociology and teaching fellow at the University of Liverpool.

“A key early indicator on this new government’s commitment to rule of law measures would be to see who Muhyiddin appoints as the new attorney general,” she told Asia Times. “We can expect the new PN government to tread very carefully over the next few weeks in order to consolidate its position.”

In his March 2 national address, Muhyiddin claimed he did not previously aspire to become prime minister, but rose to the occasion to “save the country from a continued crisis.”

Malaysians want “a government that is clean, with integrity and free of corruption,” he added while promising to elect members who fulfill those criteria to his Cabinet.

He also appealed to Malaysians across ethno-religious and class lines in a bid to allay concerns that his new Malay-centric coalition will prioritize ethnic Malay Muslims, who account for around 60% of the population and are granted special status as bumiputera, or “sons of the soil.”  

Muhyiddin, in a widely quoted remark made in 2010, controversially claimed to be “a Malay first” in a multiethnic country which has sizable Chinese and Indian minorities, most of whom are non-Muslim.

Incoming Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (L) receives documents from King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah (R) at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur, March 1, 2020. Photo: AFP Photo/Malaysia’s Department of Information/Maszuandi Adnan

Though long-standing pro-Malay affirmative action policies were not dismantled under the PH government, then-opposition UMNO and PAS accused it of diminishing Malay Muslim rights.

Analysts believe Muhyiddin’s government could aim to court ethnic Malays with generous cash handouts and subsidies, as well as changes to ethnic quotas and licensing rules, in a bid to shore up Malay majority support ahead of the next election.

“Policy-wise, it will be a lot more Malay-centric,” said James Chin, director of the University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute. “UMNO itself will try to take revenge against the non-Malays because they blame the Chinese primarily for their defeat in 2018,” he believes. “They can restrict business licenses, setup new quotas and what have you.”

Pepinsky foresees narratives shifting alongside policies. “I anticipate that we’ll see a more public show of aligning the Malay and Muslim identities as part of Perikatan’s basic messaging strategy. Malay-first policies are bound to be both substantive and symbolic.

“As far as governing goes, gaining public confidence could mean one of two things: doubling down on Malay-first policies, or continuing the reform efforts that had gotten underway – if haltingly – under Mahathir. It is hard to see both of those happening at the same time, because they appeal to two entirely different constituencies,” he said.

The addition of conservative PAS to the governing coalition, the first time it has held federal power since 1974, means that there will be “renewed pushes for religious legislation,” Pepinsky added.

For decades, PAS has sought to implement harsher sharia criminal laws and turn Malaysia into an Islamic state.

Demonstrators march during the rally to celebrate the government's decision not to ratify the United Nations International Convention on The Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) organized by several pro-Muslim-Malays NGOs at Independence Square, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, December 8, 2018. Photo: AFP Forum via EyePress Newswire/FL Wong
Demonstrators march during a rally to celebrate the government’s decision not to ratify the United Nations International Convention on The Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) organized by several pro-Muslim-Malays NGOs, Kuala Lumpur, December 8, 2018. Photo: AFP Forum via EyePress Newswire/FL Wong

“Watch carefully what the Islamic party does. They say they want to make Malaysia an Islamic state, so they will try to control the religious ministry and the education ministry to that end,” Chin said.

Analysts say Muhyiddin will need to act quickly and boldly to boost public and investor confidence. That, some say, will be difficult considering that many at home and abroad already regard Muhyiddin’s PN coalition as a “putsch” regime.

Polarizing politicking over race and religion over the last year has, moreover, severely affected inter-ethnic relations in the country, Seleena remarked.

“While this new government is supported by a fairly significant segment of the Malay population, it lacks ethnic minority representation, which will further fuel ethnic minority distrust.”

She said Muhyiddin’s fragile coalition “is in a precarious position” facing “public outrage that is particularly pronounced in the urban areas” and “challenges” from politicians in PPBM still aligned to Mahathir and PH’s component parties.

Despite leading “a Barisan Nasional reincarnate,” academic and political analyst Mustafa Izzuddin believes Muhyiddin could turn out to be an efficient and capable premier.

“He is a steady and experienced steward and safe pair of hands who avoids histrionics and focuses on deliverables,” he told Asia Times. 

“Muhyiddin’s most urgent priority as prime minister is to get the government up and running by choosing a Cabinet that comprises ministers who are able to rise above party interests.”

A woman wears a mask in Kuala Lumpur’s Bukit Bintang shopping district as Covid-19 worries spread, February 2, 2020. Photo: Nile Bowie

Another will be to shore up the economy, which is growing at its slowest pace in a decade and faces further downside risks as the Covid-19 outbreak disrupts travel and business.

Some 43.4 billion ringgit (US$10.3 billion) was wiped off the local bourse amid last week’s political turmoil. While investors appeared to react more positively to Muhyiddin’s maiden speech as premier, local markets opened at their lowest levels since November 2011 on Monday.

Investors are clearly wary of the potential for more political instability in the weeks and months ahead.

“Uncertainties surrounding the make-up of the new government and its future policies only serve to further cloud Malaysia’s outlook, which has already been dulled by pandemic fears in global markets,” Han Tan, a market analyst at forex broker FXTM, told Asia Times. 

“Until both onshore and extraneous uncertainties are meaningfully diluted, an air of caution is likely to linger around Malaysian assets in the interim.”