A Malaysian man waves a white flag at his flat in Puchong in a call for help amid the Covid-19 pandemic, June 29, 2021. Image: Twitter/The Star/Azhar Mahfof

SINGAPORE – As Malaysia’s political dysfunction worsens, so too has the country’s health crisis. Successive days of record-shattering Covid-19 caseloads have followed a political rupture between the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition government and its largest component party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

Daily infections hit an all-time high on Wednesday (July 14) with 11,618 cases. Despite a strict lockdown in force since June 1, the national infectivity rate, which stands at 1.16, is higher than it was before tough curbs on movement and economic activity were put in place. Record levels of severe illness and fatalities have been reported in recent days.

Noor Hisham Abdullah, Malaysia’s top health official, has attributed the surge to the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant, now the dominant coronavirus strain in the country. Cases breached the five-digit threshold for the first time on Tuesday with 11,079 infections, ravaging Kuala Lumpur and the surrounding states of Selangor and Negeri Sembilan.

Total cases now stand at 867,567 with over 6,385 coronavirus-related deaths. Malaysia has one of Southeast Asia’s highest per-capita infection rates, though with more than 400,000 vaccine doses now being dispensed daily, it also has one of its highest rates of inoculation. About 25% of its 32 million people have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.

But with the public health system under severe strain, concerns are rising among foreign business chambers and even within the armed forces’ Health Service Division, whose chief Brigadier General Mohd Arshil Moideen said in a recent interview that the government’s approach lacked “top-down unified action and coordination.”

Malaysians who have seen their incomes vanish under the ongoing lockdown have begun hoisting white flags from their homes in pleas for assistance. Known as the White Flag Movement (#BenderaPutih), the initiative went viral on social media as a call for those in economic desperation to overcome the social stigma of appealing for aid. 

Families in lower-middle-class neighborhoods and suburbs across the country have been seen putting up white flags with the hope that neighbors, good samaritans and non-government organizations (NGOs) would offer help in the form of food or donations, stepping in where politicians are increasingly seen to have failed. 

A resident checks her mobile phone behind barbwire as she waits for the Covid-19 swab test at the Segambut Dalam housing area which was placed under the enhanced movement control order (EMCO) due to a surge in the number of Covid-19 daily cases recorded in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on July 3, 2021. Photo: AFP via EyePress Newswire / FL Wong

On social media platforms like Twitter, the widely used hashtag #KerajaanGagal, or failed government, reflects rising anger and frustration with embattled Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s administration and its handling of the pandemic under a nationwide state of emergency that critics say the premier has leveraged to remain in power.  

Citing government failures on multiple fronts, including its Covid-19 response, UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi declared on July 8 that the party would retract its support for Yassin and called for an interim prime minister to be installed to oversee vaccination efforts and steer the hard-hit nation through the pandemic.

Despite announcing the move as the decision of UMNO’s supreme council, the party’s apex decision-making body, UMNO ministers serving in the government have so far not complied with the directive. Their failure to toe the party line has prevented the PN government’s collapse while underlining deep schisms within the once politically dominant UMNO.

The faction opposed to Muhyiddin is led by Zahid and former premier Najib Razak, who were deputy prime minister and prime minister respectively when UMNO lost its hold on power in its historic defeat at the 2018 general election. Both men are on trial facing criminal charges involving money laundering, abuse of power, and other offenses.

Newly-appointed Deputy Prime Minister Ismail Sabri and Senior Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who were both promoted by Muhyiddin in a surprise cabinet reshuffle on July 7 just hours before Zahid announced the supreme council’s withdrawal of support, lead a pro-PN faction that has prioritized political stability amid the worsening health crisis.

Their unanimous support for the premier was affirmed following a Cabinet meeting on July 14, with ministers issuing a statement saying that government decisions were being made collectively and that the focus of the administration is to implement its pandemic-focused National Recovery Plan (NRP).

The personnel appointments were seen as a last-ditch maneuver by the premier to placate UMNO’s leadership, who have complained that UMNO ministers did not hold enough senior positions in government despite being the coalition’s largest party. Some also interpreted the move as an attempt by Muhyiddin to drive a wedge between the party’s factions.

“Muhyiddin’s cabinet reshuffle was a political masterstroke to shore up his fragile position in Parliament while triggering tension within the factionalized UMNO with his choice of Ismail and Hishamuddin over others in UMNO, principally Zahid,” said Mustafa Izzuddin, a senior international affairs analyst at consultancy firm Solaris Strategies Singapore.

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

UMNO has since been beset by a war of narratives, with opponents of Zahid accusing him of misrepresenting the supreme council’s actual stance. Though a number of supreme council members have not disputed the directive, many within the 56-member body had reportedly voiced concerns the gambit would undermine the government’s pandemic response.

Zahid’s camp is widely viewed as having majority control over the supreme council, which does not include most of the ministers serving in the PN government, while the majority of UMNO’s 38 elected lawmakers are aligned with deputy premier Ismail and Hishammuddin, who was recently rumored to have been organizing moves against the party president. 

“There are talks and rumors about Hishamuddin challenging Zahid’s leadership,” said Nik Ahmad Kamal bin Nik Mahmod, a professor and legal advisor at the International Islamic University Malaysia. “Those who want to oust the party president are slowly working on their strategies. Zahid is definitely charting his move to defend his post.”

UMNO’s supreme council announced in late June that it would delay its internal election, where Zahid would have likely faced a leadership challenge, until 2023 on public health grounds. Many saw irony in the decision considering that Zahid has repeatedly accused Muhyiddin of leveraging the pandemic to undermine democratic institutions.

With electoral avenues to challenge Zahid’s leadership temporarily closed, it remains to be seen whether the party’s bitter divisions will manifest into an internal coup against him. UMNO ministers likely see Zahid’s gambit as a case of personal interests taking precedence over party policy and are are not willing to voluntarily quit their jobs to serve his agenda.

“Zahid wants to seize the premiership for himself and or UMNO and shake off multiple corruption charges and trials hanging over him and close allies,” said Peter Mumford, a Southeast Asia analyst with the Eurasia Group consultancy. “These legal battles lie at the heart of divisions within UMNO and worsen broader political instability in Malaysia.”

Attorney-General Idrus Harun has said Zahid’s directive has no legal effect on the government as it was made outside of Parliament, and thus does not directly translate to a loss of confidence, which can only be determined by individual lawmakers, a stance that opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition has refuted.

After being effectively suspended under emergency rule since January, Parliament is slated to hold a special sitting for five days from July 26 to August 2. No budgetary or fiscal policy votes are expected to be brought forward, with the government declaring plans to brief lawmakers on its Covid-19 strategy and present emergency ordinances before the House.

UMNO President Zahid Hamidi outside the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on March 1, 2019. Photo: Adli Ghazali / Anadolu Agency via AFP

In a further stinging blow to the UMNO president, a joint statement by the government that cautioned against “abusing” the upcoming Parliament session was signed off by the information chief of component parties belonging to the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which have thrown their support behind Muhyiddin. 

Though the PN government has held together, recent maneuvers have increased political uncertainty and run the risk of backfiring against UMNO’s current leadership. Zahid’s position as party leader is now seen as being more tenuous than ever, and attempts to tighten his hold over the party’s leadership appear to reflect weakness rather than strength.

On Tuesday, he fired Tajuddin Abdul Rahman, a supreme council member previously seen as one of his loyalists, after he was heard in a leaked recording, purportedly made during last week’s supreme council meeting, opposing Zahid’s withdrawal plans and instead making the case for deputy premier Ismail, an UMNO vice-president, to be given space to govern.

“This is the time for Ismail Sabri to show that UMNO controls the government – one that defends the people and party. It could be Ismail Sabri’s government – let him do his job,” Tajuddin was reported as saying, while apparently questioning his party’s ambivalence towards his appointment to the government’s second-highest position.

Ismail’s promotion has also been assessed amid questions about Muhyiddin’s health after being hospitalized with a digestive tract infection. If the premier were to tender his resignation in the near future on health grounds or for other reasons, analysts believe Ismail could be named as an interim prime minister.

Such an outcome would be broadly acceptable to UMNO’s anti-Muhyiddin camp while also side-lining Zahid. Without a clear majority, though, the premier continues to remain critically vulnerable to backroom deal-making aimed at forging a new political configuration, a fact that could intensify elite-politicking as the nation loses ground to Covid-19.

“The next couple of weeks pose a more immediate danger for Muhyiddin,” said Eurasia Group’s Mumford. “It remains unclear whether Zahid or another MP can muster the majority support needed to be appointed prime minister by the king. Muhyiddin will also hope that hanging on longer raises the odds of an internal coup against Zahid within UMNO.”