Ismail Sabri Yaakob leaves his house to take the oath of office as prime minister on August 21, 2021. Photo: AFP / Malaysian Information Department

SINGAPORE – A historic agreement signed this week between Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s government and the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition looks set to ease months of political instability and shore up the government’s position as it grapples with Covid-19 and an economy hit hard by the pandemic.

Following a decree for more bipartisanship by the constitutional monarch, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on “Transformation and Political Stability” was inked on September 13, which will see the newly appointed government implement several policies and institutional reforms sought by the opposition.

In exchange, PH has agreed not to obstruct the government on critical votes in Parliament that could have an implication on its survival, such as budgetary matters. The agreement, seen by analysts as a de facto a confidence-and-supply deal, is good news for Malaysia’s ninth premier, who leads the country’s third government in as many years.

The MoU is being seen as a form of political insurance for Ismail, whose administration will be better insulated from lawmaker defections that led to the collapse of the previous two governments. The premier, sworn in on August 21, presides over a government that commands just 114 out of 222 seats in Parliament, where two seats are vacant.

A rival faction of his party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), withdrew support for his predecessor and ally Muhyiddin Yassin, resulting in his August 16 resignation following months of infighting that is widely regarded as having undermined Malaysia’s continuing efforts to combat its deadliest yet wave of Covid-19.

Camps aligned to both Muhyiddin and the UMNO faction led by party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi that toppled him have since come together in a political ceasefire to support Ismail. By clinching a deal with PH, analysts say the premier has gained leverage to confront internal pressure and ultimatums that would jeopardize his governing majority.

“This is the first time the federal government has ever signed a deal with the opposition, which means that it is setting a precedent, and that’s a good thing. It’s basically a temporary truce between the government and the opposition until the next general election,” said James Chin, inaugural director of the University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute.

“But whatever peace we see between the two sides isn’t real and came due to very specific circumstances, mostly because of Covid-19,” Chin added. “The way I look at it is that Ismail Sabri is not a reformer, but he managed to pull a fast one by bringing the opposition to the table, mainly because the opposition really have no more cards to play.”

The United Malays National Organization faction withdrew support for previous premier Muhyiddin Yassin. Photo: AFP

Opposition leader and PH chairman Anwar Ibrahim attempted but failed to form a government following Muhyiddin’s resignation last month, renewing questions about his leadership that have swirled since he mounted an unsuccessful leadership challenge last September claiming to have enough lawmaker support to form a government.

Peter Mumford, a Southeast Asia analyst with the Eurasia Group consultancy, said the MoU suggests that Anwar “belatedly recognizes that he is unlikely to secure the numbers needed to become premier without elections, and that his best bet in the meantime is to extract concessions from the government.”

Proposed reforms include limiting the prime minister’s term to 10 years, expediting the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18, equal treatment of opposition lawmakers on policy engagement and allocations, and the tabling of anti-party-hopping law which, if passed, would prevent elected politicians from switching parties.

The government also agreed to a 45 billion ringgit (US$10.8 billion) fiscal injection for Covid-19 recovery measures that PH had pushed for, which will go toward the healthcare system, additional aid for vulnerable groups and support for businesses that have struggled to sustain their operations amid strict lockdowns and movement curbs.

The MoU mandates the formation of a 10-member steering committee comprising government and opposition representatives who will meet on a mutually agreed schedule to oversee the implementation of reforms within a set time frame. Any violation of the agreement or backtracking on commitments would render the deal invalid.

Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist at the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development, has long advocated a confidence-and-supply deal to hasten reforms and remedy stability issues resulting from both the previous and current governments commanding razor-thin governing majorities in Parliament.

The academic told Asia Times that the MoU “will set a precedence on how the Malaysian democracy can be stable and sustainable under a hung parliament,” explaining that in the current political landscape it will be difficult for any electoral bloc to outright win near a simple majority of 112 seats at the next general election.

As per the MoU, both sides agreed the next election would be held after August 2022. Eurasia Group’s Mumford said the premier will likely survive in office until then, “though the timescale [for elections] could shift further back as Ismail may want more time to establish himself and secure his position within UMNO and consolidate his grip on power.”

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim failed to form a government following Muhyiddin’s resignation. Photo: Syaiful Redzuan / Anadolu Agency

Despite holding the nation’s highest office, Ismail is only a vice president in UMNO. Zahid, who initially resisted Ismail’s bid for the premiership, holds the more-senior role of party president but faces corruption charges that could bar him from contesting the next election. Analysts don’t rule out Ismail at some point challenging Zahid’s position as party president.

Smaller opposition parties from eastern states Sabah and Sarawak and Pejuang Tanah Air (Pejuang), a party headed by former premier Mahathir Mohamad, have snubbed the MoU. Anwar has countered critics by holding up concessions on reforms and arguing that PH isn’t obligated to support the government in a confidence vote under the agreement.  

Malaysia’s king Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah lauded the bipartisan deal in a royal address to Parliament on September 13 as a step toward political “maturity”. The monarch, noting that two prime ministers have resigned since his tenure began in 2019, urged lawmakers to practice “deliberative democracy” to find solutions to political issues.

Sultan Abdullah, who is known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, appointed Ismail after conducting interviews with legislators and previously directed the incoming government to table a confidence vote in Parliament so that its legitimacy is not in question. Observers, however, noted that the king did not reiterate this call in his speech.

Nor is a motion for a vote of confidence scheduled in the order paper for the current Parliament sitting. A failure to test his legislative majority, which albeit slim is not in doubt, could draw unfavorable comparisons to the manner in which Muhyiddin attempted to sidestep tests of his support in the legislature, some observers say.

The former prime minister insisted on keeping Parliament closed from January to August amid a nationwide state of emergency invoked on public health grounds. The premier begrudgingly allowed a brief sitting of the House in July but disallowed a vote of confidence and debate on the emergency, eventually receiving a harsh royal rebuke.

Attorney General Idrus Harun recently argued that a confidence vote would undermine the king’s prerogative powers by implying that “his sole discretion can be overruled by others”, while de facto Law Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said earlier this month that the king had, in fact, consented for Ismail not to undergo a vote of confidence.

Academic Wong told Asia Times that Ismail would not seek a vote of confidence “because PH seemingly is not prepared to promise a more express support for the government,” explaining that there is no immediate incentive for the premier to push for a confidence vote if he cannot get the motion passed beyond the 114 votes he already has.

“I hope the growing trust between both sides would still lead to an investiture vote even if it comes much later, in exchange for some more concession to the opposition. It will not just give Ismail a stronger immunity from political stability like a vaccine dose, but also lay down a constitutional convention for future government,” said Wong.

Analysts say the 2022 federal budget vote due to be tabled by Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz in Parliament next month will serve as an alternative confidence vote, the passage of which “now seems a near certainty”, according to Mumford, “assuming Ismail fulfills his promise to consult PH as proposals are developed.”