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

Since taking office six months ago, Ismail Sabri Yaakob has flown beneath the radar of Malaysian politics, showing an ability to avoid crises that have beset former prime ministers.

This gray politician is “the anonymous prime minister, the man on the street could not identify him as their prime minister,” said one senior legal adviser to a former government.

Ismail was a little-known player when he took power, and his unlikely succession to high office marked the return of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) to its apex position after suffering its first and only general electoral defeat in 2018.

Muhyiddin Yassin, his prime ministerial predecessor, named Ismail as his deputy weeks before his resignation in August when his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) party lost control of the ruling coalition it led amid some feverishly complicated machinations.

As Malaysia’s ninth prime minister, Ismail is the first who is not a party leader and holds only the third highest-ranking position in UMNO.

“He is a transitional prime minister,” said Wong Chen, the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) representative in the Subang constituency of Selangor, who was appointed chair of the International Relations and Trade Select Committee in 2019.

“His reputation is very poor among the business community. He doesn’t understand economics, he has no idea about the big picture. He is trying to get a lot of advisers around him to make decisions and create a technocratic finance ministry,” said Wong.

“He has the virtue of not being corrupt, there are no corrupt deals going on, whereas the Muhyiddin government was quite corrupt,” he claimed.

Ismail’s government faced its first serious test in December when the worst flooding to hit the country in more than five decades wreaked havoc across Malaysia. His administration’s slow response to the deadly natural disaster was widely criticized.

An aerial picture of a flooded section in Kuantan, Pahang, during the December 2021 floods. Photo: WikiCommons

“The people are very angry and this was demonstrated with a wave of hostility to the government on social media,” said the former legal official.

The government’s relief response “took a long time, and there was a complete lack of coordination between the local and federal agencies,” Wong added. 

Ismail’s administration continues to wrestle with the financial consequences of the crisis, as roads were shut and national supply chains for food disrupted, said one adviser to opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

Estimates of losses nationwide on public property, businesses, factories and warehouses range from 10 billion to 20 billion ringgit (US$2.3 billion to $4.7 billion).

“Ismail is a weak prime minister. And ineffective. His handling of the recent flood crisis left much to be desired. Just no leadership,” said Ambiga Sreenevasan, a prominent Malaysian lawyer and human rights advocate.

The government’s generous compensation packages to those whose property had been damaged by the flooding helped to partly restore a reputation for competence.

“Ismail has come back quite strongly because he is giving quite a lot of money to the victims. Some people can get up to 35,000 ringgit [$8,360],” said PKR lawmaker Wong.

Now that pressure from the floods has subsided, Ismail’s government will be tested by two key decisions.

First, he is thought to be considering a cabinet reshuffle that would remove from the government members of Bersatu, who are at loggerheads with UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and former premier minister Najib Razak, both of whom are on trial facing corruption charges, with the latter having been convicted in July 2020.

Second, and more critically, the calling of a general election, which must take place by or before July 2023.

Talk of a reshuffle has been met with denial from the premier. “Yes, people are talking, names are being mentioned, it’s normal. I have said it before, my focus is now on the floods, so I don’t want to talk about whether or not there will be a Cabinet reshuffle. I didn’t announce any, so there’s none,” said Ismail in early January.  

While Ismail might want to remove some officials responsible for the slow handling of the flood crisis, the risk of destabilizing a coalition that has only 114 members in a parliament of 220 would suggest great caution. “You only need one member to get upset and the coalition wobbles,” said one observer.

Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the prime minister who manages to mostly stay in the background. Photo: WikiCommons

The case for a quick election, say by the end of the year, looks much stronger. UMNO’s strong showings in recent state elections in Melaka on November 20 and Sarawak on December 18 have given the ruling party new confidence.

UMNO trounced its coalition partner Bersatu as well as the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition in both elections. Another win in a state election in Johor – expected imminently as the state’s Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition government is very unstable –would put pressure on Muhyiddin and his Bersatu party given that Johor is his home state.

The message being conveyed by friends of the premier is that UMNO needs to strike quickly toward a general election with the aim of cementing its position as the country’s ruling party. “They have discovered that they don’t need another party so now is the time to go out alone,” said one observer.

“The general election is likely to be in July this year when the memorandum of understanding between the government and Pakatan Harapan expires,” said Wong.

A so-called Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed between Ismail’s government and Anwar’s PH opposition coalition in September shored up his administration’s stability and enabled the passage of a national budget in December.

Anthony Loke, the national organizing secretary of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) and a member of the PH coalition was at odds with Wong, saying he expected an election in 2023.

“This prime minister is quite weak, so he has had to consult the opposition from time to time,” Loke told Asia Times.

Newly released Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim gestures during an interview with AFP at his house in Kuala Lumpur on May 17, 2018. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman
Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim at his house in Kuala Lumpur on May 17, 2018. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman

The MOU has three key reform targets: The Parliamentary Services Act set to be passed in March, which would enable the legislature to run its affairs more independently by selecting its staff and controlling its expenditure.

The Separation of Powers Act is expected to follow shortly afterward, which would separate the offices of the Attorney-General (AG) and the public prosecutor to ensure greater transparency in the country’s justice system.

A law that would clamp down on bribery-induced political defections by prohibiting party-hopping is also likely to be passed in June.

“Once these measures are met, I think there will be no love lost between Pakatan and the government,” said Wong.

Ismail’s persistence in following through on the MOU, whose measures are considered reformist if legalistic, has surprised opposition members. One said: “You would never have thought he was a reformer, but then he needs our parliamentary support. He has shown he will do anything to survive.”

The long-running saga of former prime minister Najib’s involvement in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal presents another moving part in the decision when to pitch the general election.

Najib is now free on bail and appealing his corruption conviction, which saw him sentenced to 12 years in jail and fined 210 million ringgit ($50.1 million). The court’s appeal decision will likely be due in May or June this year, and although Najib is fighting tooth and nail to postpone it, observers say Ismail wants it to take place as quickly as possible.

The Federal Court, which is Najib’s last point of challenge to his conviction and prison sentence for corruption associated with SRC International, a former business unit of 1MDB, is expected to confirm the Appeal Court judgment handed down in December, which unanimously upheld the landmark conviction. 

“[Ismail] will want Najib to be out the way and buried. His advisers are telling him that there is no mileage in showing leniency to Najib. If he is allowed to persist strutting the political stage, you cannot rule out another bid to challenge Ismail,” said the former legal adviser.

Former Malaysian PM Najib Razak, seen here with his wife Rosmah Mansor, has been accused of pilfering a vast sum from the 1MDB development fund before his shock poll defeat in May. Photo: Reuters/ Athit Perawongmetha
Former Malaysian PM Najib Razak with his wife Rosmah Mansor after voting in a recent election. Photo: Agencies

The general will is for the rule of law to be upheld, which will appeal to the wider electorate, he said. “Once the court has ruled on Najib and the case put to bed, Ismail will want to call a general election. It will almost certainly be this year,” the adviser added.  

Moves to put the timing of the election back to the middle of 2023 are thought to be coming from Najib’s camp in the hope that they can engineer political instability that would result in a change of government and the appointment of more lenient judges.

“I suppose they [Zahid and Najib’s camp] will threaten to withdraw support [for Ismail’s government]. So, it is pretty uncertain,” lawyer Ambiga told Asia Times.

A later election would also benefit opposition parties that are now in disarray after failures in state elections. Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the PH coalition, has taken much blame.

One PKR member, who did not wish to be named, said: “He is in trouble, the public doesn’t like him. He is trying to consolidate his own political power within the party, and that’s causing problems.

“There is going to be a party election and that will then divide the party. That will drive the party apart before the general election. It’s complete nonsense. Everything is falling apart,” he said.

“He is going to align all his lieutenants to take over the party,” the PKR source added. “The coalition is not working. They don’t want a divorce, it’s more like a separation.”

Ismail’s first six months in office shows that the country would rather have a gray and uncharismatic leader whom they may not know, than one who cries out for recognition but ultimately upsets the complicated balance that is Malaysia’s politics.

Follow Nick Kochan on Twitter: @NickKochan

Nick Kochan is a financial and political journalist based in London. He has written extensively on financial and white-collar crime. He writes for UK newspapers and international magazines, and has written and co-written books. Kochan is also a lecturer and conference speaker on financial crime and politics.