On December 15, the Malaysian parliament passed its final reading of next year’s budget. The measure, which was passed 111 to 108, was – in reality – approval of the country’s biggest-ever budget as well as a vote of confidence in the ruling Perikatan Nasional (PN) administration. Led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin , the PN coalition has faced repeated criticism from former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition for being an illegitimate government – given that it was forged in the tumult of Mahathir’s resignation as prime minister in February and contains controversial leaders of the previous Barisan Nasional government. In recent months, opposition members of parliament have submitted numerous no-confidence motions against Muhyiddin, which have been passed over by the parliamentary speaker on grounds of government bills having precedence. That said, rumours of disgruntled PN MPs breaking ranks to cross the floor have been legion. Given this, the budget’s passing is a big boost for Muhyiddin, and will buy him some much-needed breathing room. Malaysian MP guilty of corruption, case highlights fractured government Conversely, the political fortunes of PH leader Anwar Ibrahim are on a downward trajectory. Unease at what is perceived as his centralised and personalistic leadership style and lack of strategy have fed a growing chorus calling for new blood at the head of PH. Not least among the complaints is Anwar’s penchant for announcing parliamentary majorities that, ultimately, fail to materialise. The latest such attempt took place in September, when he claimed to have a “solid and convincing” parliamentary majority, yet declined to provide the names of those supporting him as prime minister. This was because, most likely, these supporters included the likes of former prime minister Najib Razak and his deputy, Zahid Hamidi, two controversial leaders and current MPs of the PN ruling coalition. Indeed, in the days following this statement, opposition members such as the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah) have stated their unwillingness to work with politicians either convicted or on trial for corruption, including Najib and Zahid. This decision has caused many to question if Anwar’s perennial struggle is for reform or is exclusively focused on his political ambitions. In the end, these machinations came to naught, and the budget was passed. Indeed, PH’s parliamentary performance was not up to par, with its component parties not acting in unison at crucial junctures. Apart from veteran and one-time finance minister Tengku Razaleigh, all other PN MPs voted in support of the budget. Perceiving a vacuum, Shafie Apdal, president of the Sabah-based Parti Warisan, has sent strong signals that he is competing for the coalition’s top leadership post. Although Warisan is not a component of PH, the party has been allied with the coalition since 2018 under the “PH plus” umbrella. This is not the first time that Shafie’s candidature has been floated. In June this year, Mahathir surfaced his name as an alternative to Anwar as the head of opposition. While not openly rushing to accept the nomination – which would have been perceived as too aggressive – Shafie, tellingly, did not reject the elder politician’s suggestion. At 64, Shafie is almost 10 years younger than Anwar. He has a credible claim to aspiring to national leadership, having served as chief minister of Sabah under the Warisan-led state government. Shafie also has extensive contacts in the civil service, having held key positions in three ministries: rural and regional development; domestic trade and consumer affairs; and national unity, culture, arts and heritage. Shafie is also no stranger to the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) – where he was vice-president until 2016, when he left the party after falling out with then-prime minister Najib over the 1MDB scandal . While an unexpected development, the idea of an East Malaysian serving as the nation’s prime minister has gained currency. None of the seven prime ministers to date has come from Sabah or Sarawak. These two states jointly account for a quarter of all parliamentary seats, and an opposition leader from either could expect to harvest a considerable portion of these constituencies. However, Shafie’s leadership bid was dealt a blow in September, when the Warisan-led coalition he heads lost the Sabah state elections. Furthermore, Anwar’s decision to announce his “solid and convincing” parliamentary majority during the Sabah election campaign period refocused national attention on him – rather than Shafie’s profile. Nevertheless, Shafie’s star may yet be rising again. He has pushed hard to restore his national profile over the past months. And, as the budget was going through the committee stage before the final vote on December 15, Warisan MPs were instructed to abstain from voting against the measure. Given the relatively equal weight of the ruling and opposition coalitions, this substantially weakened PH’s efforts to block the budget. Muhyiddin pleas for unity on Malaysia budget amid potential revolt During the Warisan General Assembly on December 12, Shafie argued that a change of leadership within PH was sorely required if the coalition was to stand a credible chance of winning the next general election. He explained that there were “many capable young people” to lead the coalition and offer a new direction for Malaysians, though he also clarified that this was not a call for “certain individuals to be replaced”. Warisan, he explained, would expand its operation beyond Sabah into Peninsular Malaysia as it was based on multiculturalism and had the ingredients to unite Malaysians across racial and religious lines. He retaliated his call for PH to move forward with “formidable young leaders” during a radio interview just after the passing of the 2021 budget, while Democratic Action Party (DAP) secretary general Lim Guan Eng and Amanah president Mohamad Sabu issued a joint statement on the same day calling for PH to undergo a “political reset” by focusing on unity among the opposition MPs. Shafie may yet have his day in the sun. Given that PH controls just under half of the 222 parliamentary seats, and that the Muhyiddin-led PN is riven by internal factionalism, the movement of a few MPs could see a new ruling administration. In addition, when Malaysia holds its next general election, many of the country’s youth will vote for the first time as the voting age is lowered from 21 to 18. The country’s electorate may well welcome a relatively fresh face. Kevin Zhang is a Research Officer of the Malaysia Studies Programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. Francis E. Hutchinson is a Senior Fellow and coordinator of the same programme at ISEAS.