Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin now has emergency powers to contain a third wave of Covid-19. Picture: Facebook

SINGAPORE – With daily Covid-19 cases hitting new record highs and political tensions at a breaking point, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s declaration of a nationwide state of emergency could give him the power and time he needs to stabilize the country and retain the premiership.  

Malaysia’s king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, consented to a state of emergency on January 12 under which Parliament and the holding of elections have been suspended. Under emergency rule, the premier has broader and more enhanced powers to enact new laws as emergency ordinances, which the military has been empowered to enforce.

“Let me assure you, the civilian government will continue to function. The emergency proclaimed by the king is not a military coup and curfew will not be enforced,” said Muhyiddin in a televised address as he sought to dispel alarm over the measures, which could last until August 1 or end earlier if transmissions are contained.

Malaysia hasn’t declared a national emergency since the bloody race riots and civil unrest of 1969. The announcement has strengthened the 73-year-old premier’s shaky grasp on power, ending speculation that a snap election could soon be called and forestalling any attempt by his political opponents to force early polls.

Muhyiddin has spent months hanging on by a fraying thread, facing down challenges to his leadership on both sides of the aisle. More than two dozen motions of no-confidence were lodged by opposition members against the premier during parliamentary sessions last year, which were all procedurally blocked to avoid a test of his legislative majority.

His emergency decree came just a day after the announcement of a nationwide interstate travel ban and a 14-day movement control order (MCO) affecting six states, including the capital Kuala Lumpur, enacted to stem a surging Covid-19 caseload that authorities say threatens to overwhelm the nation’s healthcare system.

A worker wearing protective clothes disinfects the interior of a mosque as a preventive measure against the spread of Covid-19 in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Mohd Daud/NurPhoto via AFP

Total cases stood at around 10,000 in late September when a third wave of virus infections was declared. The tally has since risen dramatically to 144,518 cases with a five-fold increase in deaths, which now total 563. Daily infections hit a record high with 3,309 cases on Tuesday, announced in the hours after emergency rule was declared.

With between 70% to 100% of intensive care unit (ICU) beds being used in public hospitals across the hardest-hit areas of the country, according to official data, private sector health facilities will now be compelled to assist authorities and can even be temporarily taken over by the government while emergency rules are in place.

But critics and observers believe the emergency declaration will impact politics more than public health. The imposition of emergency rule coincides with the loss of the ruling government’s parliamentary majority and has been labeled by Muhyiddin’s political opponents as a means of delaying elections that his party could conceivably lose.  

Two allied lawmakers from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which props up Muhyiddin’s unelected Perikatan Nasional (PN) government, withdrew their support for his administration in recent days, rendering the coalition a minority government with just 109 out the 222 seats in Parliament, including two vacancies that must be filled.

According to Westminster convention, a prime minister would ordinarily resign on principle when their government’s legislative majority is upended, followed by the dissolution of Parliament and a general election to determine who forms the next government. But emergency rule has provided Muhyiddin with a crucial lifeline as the country faces down a health crisis.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has helped Muhyiddin stay in power. Malaysians, even the opposition, have not been too keen to cause more chaos than is the case at present,” said Ooi Kee Beng, executive director of the Penang Institute, a think tank. “The chaos has provided space to act for the sovereigns as anchors of stability.”

Under Malaysia’s constitution, the king, known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, carries out his duties with the advice of the premier and the Cabinet, but also has the power to decide if an emergency should be declared. The heads of the country’s nine royal houses, known as the Conference of Rulers (CoR), were consulted prior to the king’s consent to emergency rule.

Malaysia’s King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah has declared a Covid-19 state of emergency. Photo: AFP/Nazri Rapaai

But as recently as October, the Agong and CoR rejected an earlier request by Muhyiddin to declare emergency rule, with the palace saying there was “no need” to do so. The premier’s failure to obtain royal consent was seen as a devastating rebuke that prompted calls for his resignation as critics lambasted him for attempting a power grab.

Before assenting to emergency rule, the 61-year-old king responsible for appointing Muhyiddin to power last March agreed to narrower state of emergency declarations to stop by-elections from being held in two constituencies, which could have resulted in a loss of majority and change in government if their outcomes were unfavorable to the premier. 

Sultan Abdullah has played a larger political role than past Malaysian monarchs in the ten months since Muhyiddin came to power in the aftermath of a political coup, making repeated appeals to the country’s warring politicians to put aside tensions and personal agendas in favor of focusing on public welfare.

“The Yang di-Pertuan Agong and a number of Rulers have strongly advised politicians against indulging in political maneuvers and concentrate instead upon taming the pandemic and overcoming our economic woes. In spite of increasing Covid-19 infections and rising fatalities, their plea has fallen upon deaf ears,” said political scientist Chandra Muzaffar.

Discontent within the PN coalition appeared to be coming to a head prior to the emergency declaration as UMNO ranks poured pressure on its president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi to break with Muhyiddin’s smaller Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) and contest the next general election under the party’s own banner.

A rift between the two Malay Muslim parties has widened in recent months amid UMNO’s dissatisfaction with the prevailing distribution of power and positions between parties in the ruling coalition, sentiments that drove UMNO leaders to issue various ultimatums and threaten an intra-government split.

“UMNO views Bersatu as a threat, so it may not want to negotiate with Bersatu for electoral seat allocations,” said Saleena Saleem, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Liverpool. “UMNO has so far refused to join PN officially, which suggests that it may be prepared to contest against Bersatu if necessary.”

With the two parties on the cusp of a schism, the unceremonious January 5 sacking of Barisan Nasional (BN) secretary-general Annuar Musa, an UMNO stalwart and Muhyiddin ally who advocates for a closer alliance with Bersatu, appeared to indicate that UMNO was moving fast toward a politically destabilizing rupture with Bersatu.

After his dismissal, Annuar issued a scathing statement against Zahid, accusing him of colluding with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in his bid to topple the PN government and holding backroom negotiations with the Democratic Action Party (DAP), an ethnic Chinese majority opposition party that UMNO ranks view as an anathema.

Ahmad Zahid Hamidi speaks to reporters during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on May 14, 2018. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman

UMNO’s official stance is to not collaborate with Anwar or the DAP, a component party of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition alliance. The former BN secretary-general accused Zahid of using the party to advance a personal agenda and said his former boss may not be in the “right frame of mind” due to a slew of criminal charges against him.

Zahid faces 87 criminal charges for various counts of corruption initiated by the previous PH administration. The fact that the present government hasn’t dropped those charges and has also overseen the criminal conviction of former prime minister Najib Razak has caused a powerful faction within UMNO and its supporters to oppose Muhyiddin.

Anwar is widely viewed as attempting to draw support from this faction in a bid to unseat Muhyiddin through defections and claim the premiership for himself, a strategy that fell flat when the two camps failed to jointly muster the numbers needed to vote down the premier’s 2021 budget, which was narrowly approved by Parliament in December. 

PH leaders have condemned Muhyiddin’s emergency proclamation and said that MCO measures are adequate enough to address the pandemic. Anwar has hailed the two UMNO lawmakers’ withdrawal of support for the premier as a “smart decision”, though he stopped short of encouraging them to publicly endorse the opposition.

On January 14, the opposition leader shared a letter he wrote to the king on social media asking the latter to rescind the emergency declaration and decree that Parliament be reconvened, claiming that Muhyiddin had misled the monarch and was in no position to lead as his government no longer has majority support among federal lawmakers.

Muhyiddin used his recent televised address to assure Malaysians that he will not use his emergency powers to interfere with the judiciary, which he said would function as normal. In other words, court cases involving UMNO leaders will continue to be heard, while emergency rule has narrowed opportunities for the party to politically retaliate.

UMNO was slated to deliberate its future ties with Bersatu at its general assembly on January 31, though unless conducted virtually, the gathering isn’t likely to go ahead. It isn’t clear what further renunciations of support by individual UMNO lawmakers or an en bloc withdrawal could mean for Muhyiddin while emergency rule is in place.

“If UMNO does officially declare a withdrawal of support for Muhyiddin during the emergency and whether that would constitute a fall of government is not clearly defined in the constitution. It would bring us into uncharted territory,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

But the premier “could potentially wield a very big and heavy stick against UMNO by defining MP’s withdrawal of support for his government as undermining the fight against the pandemic,” Oh added, referencing remarks by Muhyiddin that “stern action” would be taken against those who “disrupt” the government’s Covid-19 response.

A woman undergoes nasal swab testing for Covid-19 in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia on October 22, 2020. Photo: Zahim Mohd/NurPhoto via AFP

“Towards the beginning of his speech, Muhyiddin mentioned that the emergency could be broadly defined. Well, by the same token, what constitutes an undermining of the pandemic fighting effort could also be widely defined,” said the analyst. “This gives almost unfettered power to the executive, becoming in a sense rule by diktat.”

Much now depends on the duration of emergency rule and whether the Covid-19 situation necessitates that it be continued until August 1 or rescinded earlier. Health director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah projects that it could take 12 weeks to flatten the curve of new Covid-19 cases with current MCO measures in place.

Authorities were able to curtail past outbreaks with strictly enforced movement curbs in force from last March. Though devastating for the economy, measures were gradually eased beginning in May when cases dropped, with Muhyiddin’s popularity bolstered by what was then seen as an effective overall pandemic response.

At present, though, infection rates are several orders of magnitude higher with the Ministry of Health (MoH) projecting that cases could rise by 8,000 daily by the third week of March if the reproduction number used to measure the virus’ spread, known as the R0, rises to a value of 1.2, or to 5,000 cases a day by April if the R0 remains at 1.1.

An independent committee made up of health experts and bipartisan lawmakers is slated to deliberate how long emergency rule needs to be in place. The national rollout of vaccines also has important political implications given that Muhyiddin has promised to call a general election once the pandemic is over.

Malaysia has so far arranged to procure enough vaccines for roughly 60% of its population of nearly 33 million. A vaccine developed by US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German firm BioNTech is slated to be made available by the end of February. Authorities have set aside around 3 billion ringgit (US$741 million) for vaccine purchases.

Success in flattening the curve could be politically beneficial to Muhyiddin ahead of a snap election. While there is no denying that the current spate of runaway Covid-19 transmissions constitutes a grave threat to public health, the premier risks a backlash if he is perceived to be using the emergency declaration as cover for political maneuvering and consolidating his grip on power.

Though with his premiership on the line, analysts expect that he will leverage the interregnum to strengthen Bersatu’s position in rural Malay constituencies that will be crucial to a post-pandemic electoral victory, putting him in a better position to leverage the advantages of incumbency and confront rivals such as UMNO at the ballot box.