Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin waves as he enters the National Palace to meet the King to hand in his resignation. Photo: AFP / EyePress News

SINGAPORE – After weeks of political turmoil, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin handed his resignation to Malaysia’s king on Monday (August 16) after losing his legislative majority, bringing an end to a tumultuous 17 months in office marred by legitimacy questions, leadership challenges and a tragically mishandled pandemic response.

“It is obvious that I have lost the majority support, so there is no longer a need to ascertain my legitimacy as the prime minister in Parliament,” said the 74-year-old in a nationally televised speech. “I have therefore tendered my resignation as prime minister and also the resignation of my entire Cabinet as required by the federal constitution.”

A statement issued by the Istana Negara, or national palace, said that Muhyiddin would serve as Malaysia’s caretaker prime minister until the monarch, who is known as Yang di-Pertuan Agong, appoints a new prime minister from elected lawmakers on the basis of who he thinks is most likely to command a majority in the Lower House.

But it is far from clear who may form the next government. While opponents of Muhyiddin have succeeded in toppling his Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition and forcing his resignation, no alternative candidate from any other political party has so far managed to cobble together a clear majority in Parliament, casting uncertainty over the transfer of power.

“As a consequence of Muhyiddin’s resignation, a power vacuum has materialized, which will lead to a political scramble,” said Mustafa Izzuddin, a senior international affairs analyst at consultancy firm Solaris Strategies Singapore. “Muhyiddin may also stay on as a caretaker for quite a while as there is no clear frontrunner with a parliamentary majority.”

Televisions at a shopping mall show Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announcing his resignation. Photo: AFP / Arif Kartono

Among his possible successors are outgoing deputy premier Ismail Sabri Yaakob, opposition leader and long-time prime ministerial hopeful Anwar Ibrahim, and 11-term parliament veteran Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah who could emerge as a compromise candidate amid a factional spilt between supporters and opponents of the outgoing premier.

The palace also stated that a fresh general election to decide Muhyiddin’s successor was not the best option given the severe Covid-19 crisis, which has claimed more than 12,000 lives despite months of strict lockdown measures. Malaysia’s rate of infections, with daily cases exceeding 20,000 per day, and deaths per million rank as the highest in Southeast Asia.

Reflecting on his legacy in a farewell speech, the outgoing premier expressed confidence that Malaysia would exit the pandemic “very soon” and assuranced that the 87 million vaccine doses ordered by his administration would enable the next government to fully inoculate all adults and achieve herd immunity by October.

Muhyiddin also fired a parting shot at his political opponents in the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) who launched an assault on his leadership on August 3 when 11 lawmakers withdrew support for his administration, claiming he was “threatened politically” for refusing to intervene in court cases involving leading UMNO politicians.

“I could have taken the easy way out by sacrificing my principles to stay as prime minister. I chose otherwise. I will never cooperate with the kleptocrats, who are waiting to be freed by the courts and have shown contempt of the federal constitution to be in power,” Muhyiddin said, without naming the individuals facing corruption charges.

He was referring to UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and former premier Najib Razak, who managed to turn 15 of the 38 party legislators against the premier, bitterly dividing the former ruling party into pro-PN and anti-Muhyiddin camps, with the bulk of UMNO ministers defying party directives to resign from their posts.

But even after Zahid’s faction withdrew their support, Muhyiddin resisted calls to resign and dubiously claimed that he still commanded the majority support despite appearing to have the backing of fewer than half of Malaysia’s 220 elected lawmakers. He vowed to prove his government’s legitimacy in a vote of confidence in Parliament on September 7.

After earlier censuring the government over procedural flaws relating to the revocation of health-related emergency powers, the king assented to Muhyiddin’s plans for a vote, but reportedly pressured him to bring forward the parliamentary sitting amid uncertainty over the latter’s legitimacy as prime minister.

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

In a last-ditch effort to rebuild his majority, Muhyiddin addressed opposition lawmakers directly in a televised speech on August 13 and promised to enact a raft of institutional and electoral reforms in exchange for bipartisan support to “enable the current government to continue managing the pandemic until it is time for elections to be held.”

The premier committed to holding fresh polls by July 2022 and promised term limits on the prime minister’s tenure, increased funds for opposition lawmakers, among other things. But the overture was widely perceived to be an admission that his government had lost its governing majority and was rebuffed by Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition leaders.

“Muhyiddin has thrown in the towel as he would rather resign than lose the confidence vote, which is perhaps a better political option,” said Mustafa. “The straw that broke the camel’s back was the opposition’s refusal to accept Muhyiddin’s olive branch of bipartisanship, compelling the premier to resign with his Cabinet in tow.”