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

SINGAPORE – Malaysia’s constitutional monarch delivered an unprecedented rebuke of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s administration on Thursday (July 29), accusing the government’s law minister of “misleading” Parliament over the alleged revocation of emergency ordinances that have been in effect since January to stem a rising tide of Covid-19 infections.

A strongly-worded statement issued by the Istana Negara, or national palace, accused the government of issuing “conflicting and confusing statements” earlier this week in Parliament that had not only “failed to respect the sovereignty” of the nation’s laws, but “sidelined the function and powers” of the king as enshrined in the federal constitution.

King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah was “very disappointed” in particular by the conduct of de facto law minister Takiyuddin Hassan and Attorney-General Idrus Harun, who the palace said had failed to fulfill their promise to table and debate the annulment of the emergency ordinances in a special legislative session that opened on Monday (July 26). 

The emergency proclamation, which the king assented to earlier this year, effectively suspended Parliament and state legislatures, disallowed elections and gave the premier powers to enact emergency ordinances without legislative scrutiny, supposedly to enable the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government to more effectively manage the health crisis.

But the pandemic has worsened dramatically with an infection rate that is per capita the highest in the region. That is despite a strict lockdown and a months-long state of emergency, which is set to expire on August 1. The virus-battered nation is now at risk of being plunged into a major constitutional crisis on the other side. 

With the emergency coming to an end, the constitution stipulates that the various ordinances promulgated to govern the country be presented to the legislature to either approve or annul. But in a surprise turn, Takiyuddin told lawmakers in Parliament the ordinances had already been revoked on July 21 and would not be renewed.

The announcement was seen as a bid by the government to sidestep an annulment vote, which would have functioned as a proxy confidence vote, one that it could have conceivably lost owing to persistent uncertainties over lawmaker support for Muhyiddin’s shaky ruling coalition.

No prior announcement of the July 21 revocation was made, leading to an uproar from the opposition camp, which demanded that Takiyuddin explain when the ordinances were revoked and through what mechanisms. A gazette formally acknowledging the annulment of the ordinances has yet to be issued, miring the revocation in legal ambiguity.

A resident receives packed food from a food delivery rider through the barbwire at the Segambut Dalam housing area which was placed under the enhanced movement control order due to a surge in Covid-19 cases, Kuala Lumpur, July 4, 2021. Photo: AFP via EyePress Newswire / FL Wong

Takiyuddin dodged queries by lawmakers asking whether or not Malaysia’s king had actually assented to the annulling of emergency laws and said he was bound by a ruling issued by the Speaker of Parliament to only address questions over the legal specifics of the supposed revocation on August 2, a day after the state of emergency expires.

The palace’s statement made absolutely clear that the annulment had no royal endorsement, describing Takiyuddin’s remarks as “inaccurate and misleading.” Moreover, the statement cited an agreement reached on July 24 during an audience with the king, who is known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, that the ordinances would be tabled and debated.

“If there is no gazette, the revocation of the ordinances have no force of law. It is thus misleading for the law minister to have made that statement,” said Lim Wei Jiet, a lawyer and author of several publications on constitutional law, and vice president of youth-led opposition party the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA).  

“What we can clearly see is that this government is trying every means to prevent the emergency and ordinances to be voted upon, and thereby avoiding any possibility of a vote of no confidence. This definitely demonstrates not only an abuse of process, but a mockery of the institution of Parliament.”

With the expiry of the emergency looming, it remains to be seen how the government may attempt to rectify the situation following the palace’s censure. A separate government minister claimed earlier this week that the ordinances were still “in the process” of being annulled, possibly alluding to an attempt to seek royal assent for the revocation.

“This has certainly thrown a political spanner in the parliamentary works, but I think what will happen is that the government and the palace will have a closed-door meeting to avert a constitutional crisis,” said Mustafa Izzuddin, a senior international affairs analyst at consultancy firm Solaris Strategies Singapore.

What is clear is that the government’s bid to sidestep a vote has backfired dramatically. In Parliament, the entire royal statement was read out by Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance, and met with applause from opposition legislators, some of whom shouted “treason, treason.”

Anwar had earlier accused the government of royal insult during Monday’s sitting for resisting earlier calls by the king for a full parliamentary debate on the emergency and government’s Covid-19 policies. He said that the emergency ordinances required the palace’s assent to be revoked if not annulled through Parliament. 

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim makes a speech at a press conference after meeting with Malaysian King Yang Di-Pertuan Agong Sultan Abdullah, Kuala Lumpur, October 13, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency / Surya Fachrizal Aprianus

Malaysia’s king and royal households had earlier issued an unprecedented directive pressing the prime minister to reconvene Parliament before the state of emergency officially ends. Muhyiddin initially indicated he would only call for a sitting in September at the earliest but bowed to royal pressure earlier this month by agreeing to a five-day special sitting.

“The PN administration relies heavily on Malay institutions for their legitimacy and needed to pay appropriate deference to the wishes of the king and royalty more widely by allowing some form of parliamentary sitting,” said Francis Hutchinson, coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Program at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Public pressure on Muhyiddin to reconvene the legislature had been building for months as critics widely accused him of declaring a state of emergency to hold on to power. The government, however, was adamant that the emergency was needed to avert a runaway surge in Covid-19 cases that could overwhelm the public health system.

But seven months on from the start of emergency rule, the total number of cases has risen nearly eightfold, exceeding 1 million, while the number of deaths has risen nearly sixteen-fold to more than 8,550.  The country recorded 17,405 new infections on Wednesday (July 28), the latest in a recent string of record-shattering daily caseloads. 

“The king’s outrage is understandable, but he will not want to deal with a constitutional crisis in the midst of a pandemic. I do not think the issue will fester given the dire need to focus on battling Covid-19,” Mustafa said, who added that the government still appeared to have a political upper hand at a time of national crisis.

“The constraints placed on the parliamentary sitting are reflective of this political advantage. While the sitting may have demonstrated an abuse of power, from another perspective, it appears to be an advantageous political strategy to avert a power struggle that could further weaken the Muhyiddin administration,” he told Asia Times.

The special sitting from July 26 to August 2 has been widely perceived as a half-hearted attempt to satisfy the king’s request for Parliament to be reconvened given the limited scope for discussion and exclusive priority given to government matters, constraints that lawmakers have taken House of Representatives Speaker Azhar Azizan Harun to task over.

Azhar, seen as an ally of the embattled premier, was heckled by opposition legislators and called a “government lapdog” for rejecting motions to debate and annul the emergency ordinances, a stance that he maintained is entirely constitutional, and giving exclusive priority to government matters with no time or scope for other bills.

Azhar Azizan Harun, Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives), addressing a special session at the Parliament in Kuala Lumpur on July 26, convening for the first time since January after being suspended under a coronavirus emergency. Photo AFP via Malaysia’s Department of Information / Nazri Rapaai

“This parliamentary sitting has further weakened Muhyiddin and his Cabinet’s public approval. There has certainly been an abuse of process to avoid any vote, fearing that it would be construed as a substitute to a vote of confidence,” said Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist at the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development.

On Monday, law minister Takiyuddin confirmed that the PN administration would not ask the king to extend the state of emergency past its August 1 expiry, which means that Muhyiddin can no longer, as critics accuse, count on the health crisis to avoid holding votes in Parliament that would serve as tests of his governing majority.

The extent of Muhyiddin’s support is uncertain due to a factional rift within the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the ruling coalition’s largest component party, which remains split on the question of continued political cooperation with PN. UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi notably withdrew backing for the premier earlier this month. 

Other UMNO ministers serving in the Cabinet have declined to toe the party line and voiced support for Muhyiddin. In a renewed bid to topple the premier, Zahid tellingly called on all UMNO ministers and appointed heads of government-linked companies to resign from their posts if the emergency ordinances were allowed to remain in effect beyond August 1.

Some UMNO figures have credited Zahid for pressuring the government into revoking the ordinances, though in effect the move reduced his leverage to pressure resignations. Zahid also admitted that none of UMNO’s nine cabinet ministers, including the deputy prime minister, informed the party leadership that the ordinances were already revoked.

When Muhyiddin delivered a parliamentary address earlier this week, UMNO’s lawmakers were still seated on the government bench as he defended his administration’s handling of the pandemic and detailed the government’s so-called National Recovery Plan (NRP) and road map for reopening the economy in a 40-minute speech.

Movement curbs in most of Malaysia’s states would be eased by October at the earliest, and the national vaccine rollout would be hastened with the aim of fully immunizing 100% of the adult population by October, he said. Malaysia has so far administered nearly 19 million vaccine doses, with a full vaccination rate of nearly 19% of the 32 million population.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin arrives at a quarantine facility at the Malaysia Agro Exposition Park (MAEPS) in Serdang, outside Kuala Lumpur, January 19, 2021. Photo: AFP via Malaysia’s Department of Information / Aqilah Mazlan

“The government understands that the people are restless and worried when the daily number of Covid-19 cases shows an increase [and] is trying its best to overcome the crisis by speeding up the vaccination program,” said Muhyiddin. “The important thing is that we must show solidarity in facing these difficult times. Let’s not argue and point fingers.”

Rather than address criticism or take questions on the government’s coronavirus strategy, Muhyiddin left Parliament midway through the session to chair a virtual National Security Council meeting and assigned his finance minister, Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz, to deliver a wind-up speech, stoking the ire of opposition benches.

The prime minister’s office has yet to comment on the royal statement. Though the PN government has been accused of undermining democratic processes, accusations of treason committed willfully against the palace are far more serious. Calls for the resignation of Muhyiddin and his Cabinet can only be expected to grow louder.