Malaysia's King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah has taken issue with the government. Photo: AFP / Nazri Rapaai

SINGAPORE – After a special meeting of Malaysia’s nine royal households, King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah said on June 16 that Parliament, which was effectively suspended at the beginning of the year under an emergency decree on public health grounds, should reconvene as soon as possible.

In a reproach to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, the palace called for reducing bureaucracy, speeding up the national vaccine rollout, and allowing elected lawmakers to debate emergency ordinances and the government’s coronavirus recovery plan.

Despite fewer new infections since a nationwide lockdown went into effect on June 1, Malaysia still has the highest number of Covid-19 cases per capita in Southeast Asia. The acute health crisis prompted the king to summon political party leaders for dialogue, culminating in a special meeting of the Conference of Rulers (CoR) earlier this week. 

A separate statement by the CoR, a powerful but mainly ceremonial body that includes the king and eight other hereditary sultans, concluded there wasn’t sufficient cause to extend the nationwide state of emergency, which gives the premier enhanced powers to enact new laws and approve spending, beyond its original end date of August 1.

Malaysia’s constitution allows the federal monarch, known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, to declare an emergency based on threats to security, economy or public order on the advice of the premier. Consented to by Sultan Abdullah, critics say Muhyiddin has abused the royal decree to keep his fragile Perikatan Nasional (PN) governing coalition in power.

The CoR also said they supported the king’s stance that parliamentary proceedings should be allowed to convene immediately on both federal and state levels. The body stated tellingly that authorities’ plans to curb the pandemic should be understood and supported by the public “without raising any doubts or the possibility of a hidden political agenda.”

Malaysian King Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah stands in front of his image after giving certificates to the painter in Selangor, Malaysia, on July 10, 2020. Syaiful Redzuan / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Only a day earlier, Muhyiddin laid out a National Recovery Plan (NRP) stipulating conditions that must be met in order for the nationwide lockdown to be lifted. In a televised speech, the premier said Parliament could reconvene by September at the earliest, but only if the average number of daily coronavirus infections falls to under 2,000.

The current seven-day moving average (June 12-18) is over 5,500 cases. Other conditions for the lockdown to be lifted in phases under the plan include intensive care unit (ICU) bed usage and vaccination rates. Authorities aim to have less than an average of 500 cases daily by November, after which it will permit inter-state travel and most social activities.

Muhyiddin’s government is now in a tight bind. Though constitutionally it is the prime minister who must advise the king when Parliament should convene, the recommendations of the palace and royal households carry weight and defying their advice would likely come at a political price amid rumors of fresh backroom political maneuvering.

“There will be tremendous political pressure on Muhyiddin to recall parliament much earlier,” said James Chin, director of the University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute. “The bottom line is that the rulers don’t want to be seen to be intruding into politics, so they have pushed all the politicking of the process back to Muhyiddin and Parliament.”

Beginning on June 9, the king held a series of audiences with political party leaders that the palace said was conducted on the monarch’s own initiative. That has led to speculation of a royally brokered reconfiguration of politics amid suggestions of the potential formation of a sultan-endorsed unity government.

But politicians said the discussions dealt only with the battle against Covid-19, the suspension of Parliament and the duration of the emergency. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, for one, spent an hour with the king, at which he reportedly said the national emergency has done more harm than good and appealed to the ruler not to extend the decree.

Given the sharp rise in Covid-19 cases since April, many suspected Muhyiddin would seek to extend the emergency. The Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement on June 17 saying that the government had “taken note” of the king’s views and that it would “engage in follow-up measures” in accordance with the constitution and national laws.

“It is uncertain whether the embattled prime minister formally requested an extension,” said Peter Mumford, a Southeast Asia analyst with the Eurasia Group consultancy. “The royal intervention seems preemptive, though [Muhyiddin] would have likely welcomed a longer political timeout.”

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin during his meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince in the capital Riyadh, March 9, 2021. Photo: AFP / Bandar Al-Jaloud

At the heart of Muhyiddin’s apparent reluctance to convene Parliament, despite mounting demands to do so from opposition parties and civil society, is a divisive political rivalry between the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), his coalition’s largest partner, and his own smaller party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu).

Friction between the two Malay nationalist parties has been building since PN formed a government in March 2020. A faction of UMNO led by corruption-accused party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and former premier Najib Razak, both of whom are currently on trial facing various charges, has functioned as a de facto opposition within the ruling coalition.

Known as the “court cluster”, this scandal-plagued faction wields formal control over the party and is motivated to return to federal power amid mounting legal troubles, while another faction, the so-called “cabinet cluster”, is comprised of UMNO ministers in Muhyiddin’s government who prefer to continue cooperation with PN.

UMNO, the largest political party in Malaysia, governed the country continuously for 61 years before being electorally defeated for the first time in 2018 by Pakatan Harapan (PH), the Anwar-led reformist coalition that initially included Bersatu, which itself is an UMNO splinter party formed by figures like Muhyiddin who spoke out against elite corruption.

UMNO’s leadership resents the notion of playing second fiddle to Bersatu and the fact that Cabinet appointments of ministers, deputy ministers and the deputy parliamentary speaker did not follow party hierarchy. They also suspect Muhyiddin of plotting to absorb UMNO and break up the party, not unlike what former premier Mahathir Mohamad had attempted.

Despite being among the most vocal critics of the PN administration, UMNO legislators who oppose Muhyiddin have yet to formally renounce their support for him, though UMNO’s president has said its ministers, deputy ministers and lawmakers would withdraw support from PN once a clear post-emergency exit date is decided.

Amid recent royal consultations, rumors have run rife that Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who is seen as a broadly acceptable figure by both the opposition and UMNO, was being floated within UMNO as a candidate to fill the currently vacant deputy prime minister’s post in what would be an apparent concession to the party. 

Some even speculate that Hishammuddin, who in April was on the receiving end of heavy bipartisan criticism for a perceived diplomatic faux pas after he referred to China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi as his “elder brother” in a press conference, could take over as the country’s ninth prime minister if Muhyiddin’s coalition falls in the months ahead.

Hishammuddin Hussein at the podium in a file photo. Some analysts see him as a future prime minister. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto / Chris Jung

Hishammuddin, who does not hold any senior leadership positions within UMNO despite his senior position in government, publicly denied the rumors on a Twitter post. Many, though, sensed that the foreign minister was telegraphing his political ambitions when he publicly critiqued the government’s Covid-19 handling in a recent newspaper column.

The foreign minister, who is the grandson of UMNO’s founder Onn Jaafar and the eldest son of Malaysia’s third prime minister Hussein Onn, called on Putrajaya to learn from its pandemic mistakes and took aim at government bureaucracy, seen by some as an attempt to dissociate himself from PN’s poor management of the country’s ongoing third wave.

“Hishamuddin probably can try to make a move to be DPM. But to do that, he has to make peace with Zahid and Najib’s faction because they are the largest faction,” said academic Chin. “If he is appointed deputy PM, then this will go a long way in placating UMNO’s unhappiness with Muhyiddin for sidelining it in government.”

Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist at the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development, said that in order for UMNO and Bersatu to reconcile and work together, the two parties would have to agree on the allocation of constituencies for contestation in the next general election, which is scheduled to be held on or before September 2023.

But that, he says, is a non-starter given that both parties aim to contest in predominantly Malay and Malay-dominated mixed constituencies and are unable to resolve incumbency disputes over half of Bersatu’s 31 seats brought in by UMNO defectors. “Between UMNO and Bersatu, only one will survive after the next election,” said Wong.

Amid frustration with Muhyiddin’s government and lockdown-related losses of income, most of UMNO’s leaders and grassroots figures see going it alone at the next election as the best option, he added. “For UMNO, a fresh election can crush Bersatu, increase its seats and possibly make it the largest party to dominate the next coalition government.”

Aerial view of UMNO’s assembly meeting, December 7, 2019. Photo: Facebook

Mumford of the Eurasia Group pointed to ongoing constitutional and legal uncertainty “over how quickly Parliament must resume after the emergency decree ends,” which he said is likely to be fiercely debated. Despite recent stances taken by the king, “the palace still seems broadly supportive of Muhyiddin,” said the analyst. 

The PN coalition is believed to command a slim majority of 113 out of 220 seats in Parliament. Muhyiddin is likely to avoid any immediate ouster through a confidence vote after the bicameral legislature reconvenes, said Mumford, unless the premier signals he could backtrack on his promise to hold elections once “normality” resumes.

In such a scenario, UMNO could collapse the government by withdrawing support for Muhyiddin, who in March vowed to hold an early general election once the pandemic is brought under control. That points to polls being held in late 2021 or early 2022, after the government’s “herd immunity” target has been achieved.