Ismail Sabri Yaakob will have his work cut out for him as Malaysia's next premier. Photo: Facebook

SINGAPORE – Ismail Sabri Yaakob, vice president of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), will be sworn in as Malaysia’s ninth prime minister on Saturday (August 21), less than a week after his predecessor Muhyiddin Yassin resigned after lawmakers withdrew support for his government.

Few foresaw Ismail’s rise from a mid-tier party leader to Malaysia’s next prime minister prior to recent developments that put him in pole position to claim the top job. Ismail, 61, served as deputy premier in Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition and broke ranks with his own party’s leadership to support the previous government.

But with a razor-thin governing majority, his new administration will be as vulnerable as the last to being toppled by a small handful of defectors. Ismail secured the support of 114 lawmakers, only three more than required for a simple majority, leaving him with the exact composition of PN’s previous legislative support.

The Istana Negara, or national palace, announced Ismail’s appointment following a special Conference of Rulers (CoR) meeting of the country’s nine royal households on Friday and issued a statement expressing hope that political agendas would be immediately put aside in the interests of dealing with the country’s severe Covid-19 crisis.

Malaysia’s rate of coronavirus infections and deaths are Southeast Asia’s highest per capita, with over 13,000 killed and a new daily record of 23,564 cases coinciding with Ismail’s appointment as premier. With many of the same politicians set to be in charge, it remains to be seen how the incoming administration intends to differentiate its pandemic response.

Ismail’s appointment puts UMNO fully back in power, undoing the historic 2018 election defeat it suffered in the wake of the multibillion-dollar 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) corruption scandal. The Malay nationalist party governed consecutively for 61 years prior to losing power and spent 22 months as the opposition.

Former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob inside a bus before departing for a meeting with the King in Kuala Lumpur on August 19, 2021. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto / Mat Zain

UMNO initially returned to government after conspiring with Muhyiddin’s smaller splinter party, Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), to topple the democratically elected Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition last February. UMNO ministers had then served in a Bersatu-led coalition government, whereas now they will lead the next government outright.

Ismail’s ascent marks yet another defeat in a painful string of losses for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who received support from 105 lawmakers, including his former boss and frequent detractor ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad, and was only six short of clinching the number needed to form a government.

Analysts have mulled the possibility of Ismail taking over a reconfigured ruling coalition since July when he was appointed as deputy premier amid a schism within UMNO that led to party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and 14 other legislators withdrawing their support for Muhyiddin, citing failures of governance and Covid-19 management.

Ismail and other UMNO ministers serving in Cabinet defied Zahid’s calls for them to resign and stuck with Muhyiddin to the end. Zahid initially took aim at Ismail’s bid to succeed Muhyiddin and launched populist jabs at the pro-PN wing of UMNO amid questions over which candidates UMNO’s supreme council would formally nominate as premier.

UMNO’s leadership ultimately closed ranks in support of Ismail’s bid by a process of elimination after Zahid, who is on trial facing dozens of money laundering and corruption charges, reportedly withdrew his name from consideration. A majority of UMNO legislators backed Ismail, who also won conditional support from Muhyiddin’s PN coalition.

“Zahid knew Ismail had more UMNO MP’s behind him than he could muster, and would fail if he were to pit himself against Ismail in a party vote,” said Harrison Cheng, associate director of consultancy Control Risks. “Ismail likely offered some concessions to Zahid, such as Cabinet representation for some of the leaders in his faction.”

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

Muhyiddin, who is PN’s chairperson, said all 50 members of his coalition would support Ismail provided no one facing criminal charges is included in his Cabinet. The ex-premier similarly accepted support from lawmakers like Zahid and ex-premier Najib Razak but excluded them from his Cabinet, opting for figures like Ismail with no known corruption baggage.

Muhyiddin claimed during his resignation speech he could have remained in power if he compromised with “kleptocrats” but instead chose to stick by his principles. Analysts believe Zahid’s camp withdrew support from PN mainly due to Muhyiddin’s unwillingness to intervene in court cases that could see top UMNO leaders jailed if convicted.

An unnamed UMNO source quoted in a Malaysiakini report stated the party viewed the conditions attached to Muhyiddin’s support as a “threat” and raised the prospect of Bersatu defections toppling Ismail’s government just as UMNO lawmakers withdrew from PN. “There is no guarantee that a stable government can be formed,” said the source.

Ismail is due to become Malaysia’s third prime minister in three years, and the second consecutive leader to form a government through declarations of lawmaker support rather than an election. Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, the country’s king, interviewed 114 lawmakers this week to confirm that their support for his bid was not under duress.  

A native of Pahang state and lawyer by education, Ismail has held various federal portfolios in past UMNO-led governments since 2008. He was a central figure in Malaysia’s initially successful, then widely criticized Covid-19 response. He served as a senior minister for security and headed the defense ministry prior to his appointment as deputy premier.

Often overshadowed by his party’s more prominent personalities, Ismail became a household name through daily coronavirus briefings he conducted and appeared in internet memes noting his penchant for colorful batik shirts. Human rights groups have previously criticized him for defending a crackdown on undocumented migrants and refugees.

Last March, he offered assurances that those coming forward for Covid-19 testing or treatment would not be arrested based on their immigration status, only to reverse course and greenlight raids and mass arrests. Ismail had also previously proposed compulsory “surveillance” wristbands for migrant workers.

Malaysia’s king earlier this week decreed that the newly appointed prime minister must seek a vote of confidence in Parliament to establish his legitimacy. Prior to resigning, Muhyiddin promised to hold a confidence vote on September 7 at the next sitting of the legislature, and analysts expect Ismail will test his majority on that date.   

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

The constitutional monarch also called on the new premier to reach across the political aisle to reconcile with opposition opponents. “Everyone should be working as a team. In other words, the winner does not win everything while the loser does not lose everything,” said Comptroller of the Royal Household Ahmad Fadil Shamsuddin in a statement.

Intra-coalition infighting and bitter partisan divisions were a hallmark of Muhyiddin’s tenure, and analysts cite his neglect of bipartisan outreach as one of his critical missteps. In a last-ditch effort to rebuild his majority, Muhyiddin offered to enact a slew of institutional and electoral reforms days before resigning in exchange for opposition support.

Recognizing that the alternative to such a deal would have likely resulted in UMNO’s return to power, some opposition lawmakers signaled an openness to Muhyiddin’s offer. But political leaders in the PH coalition promptly rebuffed the olive branch, likely fearing a grassroots backlash at the next general election for throwing the premier a lifeline.

“With the king’s direct intervention and rebuke of politicians on both sides of the parliamentary divide, Ismail’s administration would likely be compelled to be more consultative with other parliamentarians, as well as with private sector entities, when it comes to drafting and designing regulations,” said Cheng.

“Failing to do so would earn a stern rebuke from the king and probably trigger a new round of instability. Institutional reforms that Muhyiddin proposed might be considered to keep relations with the opposition less than wholly adversarial, at the very least – but it is still early days and we would need to see the composition of the new Cabinet,” he added.

Ismail is expected to appoint a Bersatu leader as deputy prime minister, with party secretary-general Hamzah Zainuddin and supreme council member Mohamed Azmin Ali seen as the top contenders. More effective pandemic management will be the top priority of Ismail’s administration, but analysts see more signs of continuity than change.

“The fact that Ismail would be drawing from essentially the same talent pool as Muhyiddin, broadly speaking – plus Zahid’s faction in UMNO which was previously denied entry to the cabinet by Muhyiddin – suggests that on the whole the management capacity of the new government would not be significantly different from Muhyiddin’s,” Cheng added.

Malaysia’s outgoing Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin wearing a face mask, face shield and rubber gloves arriving at a quarantine facility for people with the Covid-19 coronavirus at the Malaysia Agro Exposition Park (MAEPS) in Serdang, outside Kuala Lumpur, January 2021. Photo: AFP via Malaysia’s Department of Information / Aqilah Mazlan

Peter Mumford, a Southeast Asia analyst with the Eurasia Group consultancy, said the political transition would not slow the rapid pace of Malaysia’s vaccine rollout, which is among the fastest in Southeast Asia with nearly 37% fully immunized. But Ismail’s administration, he said, will ultimately be “same-same, but different” from the previous government.

“Movement restrictions will be gradually lifted as vaccination rates rise and once cases start to subside. Institutional reforms are unlikely to be Ismail’s immediate priority, though will continue to be pushed by the opposition. Economic and fiscal policy under an Ismail-led administration will also look broadly similar to that of Muhyiddin’s government,” he said.

Having clawed their way back to power, analysts expect UMNO to leverage incumbency advantages to favorably position itself ahead of a general election expected to be held in 2022. But it remains to be seen whether the altered configuration of the incoming UMNO-led government will ease or accentuate Malaysia’s pandemic era political turmoil.