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Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin speaks during a special address after Malaysia’s king announced the imposition of a state of emergency across the country to limit the spread of Covid-19. Photo: DPA

Shades of a despot? Muhyiddin’s halt of Malaysia’s democracy has familiar feel

  • Although PM says emergency decree is not a coup, even Mahathir Mohamad sees a ‘kind of dictatorship where people cannot protest’
  • Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim says he will petition king to rescind order, but analysts predict a wasted effort
Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s decision this week to suspend democracy for the first time in over half a century may have forced a timeout of the furious, months-long efforts by his rivals to topple him by hook or by crook – but by no means has it quelled the disquiet surrounding his leadership.
A case in point was a scathing radio interview on Friday by his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad.
The 95-year-old, ousted as prime minister in a political coup last February, lamented that Muhyiddin’s declaration of a nationwide emergency on Tuesday had plunged Malaysia into a “kind of dictatorship where people cannot protest or question”.


State of emergency in Malaysia as country fights third wave of Covid-19 with fresh lockdown

State of emergency in Malaysia as country fights third wave of Covid-19 with fresh lockdown

Undeterred by the interviewer pointing out that he had his own track record of ruling as a strongman during his first stint as premier from 1981 to 2003, the elder statesman said of Muhyiddin: “A dictator rules by decree. Whether it is right or wrong, we wouldn’t know, we are no longer democratic, so we are sacrificing democracy in order to give him full power to do what he likes.”

Muhyiddin had insisted in a live address announcing the emergency that the measure – which could potentially last until August 1 – was not a military coup and was in fact required to fight the massive third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic the country is engulfed in.

Under Malaysia’s constitution, a state of emergency can be declared by the king – on the advice of the prime minister – if the monarch is satisfied there is an imminent danger to the “security, economic life or public order” of the nation. Tuesday’s decree was approved by the current king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah.

Like Mahathir, much of the opposition camp have retorted that the ruling Perikatan Nasional government had ample reserve legal powers to deal with the crisis without having to take the drastic measure of declaring a nationwide emergency.

The last emergency was triggered in 1969 following bloody racial riots, and lasted two years.

Explainer | Malaysia’s new Covid-19 lockdown and state of emergency

With Tuesday’s declaration, parliament as well as the various state legislative assemblies have been suspended and calls for elections held off, giving Muhyiddin powers to govern by fiat.

The government on Friday published an ordinance, enacted by Sultan Abdullah, that lays out in detail the wide-ranging emergency powers granted to the executive. The penalty for failing to comply with orders issued under the ordinance is severe, with offenders liable to fines of up to 5 million ringgit (US$1.24 million), a jail term of up to 10 years or both. The gazette notice also stipulated that the federal and state governments in place when the emergency was enacted cannot be replaced while the order is in force.

The emergency declaration dovetails with a fresh set of targeted lockdowns the government imposed this week as new daily Covid-19 infections reached a record of over 3,300.

The country’s current total case count stands at nearly 151,000. The figure was around 10,000 in mid-September, before a third wave hit.

For now, Kuala Lumpur, the administrative capital Putrajaya, the states of Penang, Selangor, Johor, Melaka, Kelantan and Sabah as well as the federal territory of Labuan have been put under a strict two-week lockdowns while other parts of the country also face so-called movement control orders of a less stringent nature.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said of Muhyiddin’s emergency decree, “we are sacrificing democracy in order to give him full power to do what he likes”. Photo: DPA

Muhyiddin has argued that with the country battling the health crisis as well as a separate flooding crisis, the emergency was necessary alongside the new targeted lockdowns to “give us much-needed calm and stability”.

A palace statement, meanwhile, said Muhyiddin had requested the emergency and that Sultan Abdullah agreed that “the Covid-19 outbreak in the country is at a very critical stage and that there was a need for the emergency”.

Parliamentary opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, among the key protagonists in the country’s Game of Thrones-like power struggle, dismissed this notion in a memo to fellow MPs on Thursday and claimed the government misled the monarch when requesting the emergency declaration. The veteran politician urged lawmakers to join him in petitioning Sultan Abdullah to rescind the emergency order and convene a parliamentary session by the end of January to discuss whether the measure was required.

Malaysia’s Muhyiddin under renewed pressure as Umno considers split

A person within Anwar’s three-party Pakatan Harapan alliance with knowledge of Anwar’s plans told This Week in Asia that the bloc’s top leadership believe the petition could compel the king to make amendments to his assent to the emergency, and that they refused to accept the suspension of parliament as a fait accompli.

Political analysts, however, forecast that these efforts would eventually prove ineffectual, with the king unlikely to be swayed by the protestations.

Sultan Abdullah had in October turned down Muhyiddin’s request for an emergency, saying it was not necessary at that point. But the circumstances under which he approved the current emergency are different.

Harrison Cheng, associate director of the Control Risks political risk consultancy, told This Week in Asia that a key reason for this were the political machinations that had threatened Muhyiddin in recent weeks. Among other developments, the powerful United Malays National Organisation (Umno), which supplies the largest number of MPs to the ruling alliance, has been in a sabre-rattling mood, he said.

I think [Sultan Abdullah] is more likely to retain the emergency because it’s clear that Umno elements … have shown no qualms about threatening a snap election
Harrison Cheng, Control Risks consultancy

Key figures in the party – which was in power as part of the Barisan Nasional coalition from 1957 until a shock 2018 election defeat – hope to resume its dominant position following the fresh polls they had hoped would be called by the first quarter of 2021.

Under the current arrangement forged following Muhyiddin’s coup against Mahathir last year, Umno has been forced to play second fiddle to the prime minister’s smaller Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.

In the midst of this week’s turmoil, two Umno MPs declared they no longer backed Muhyiddin – technically reducing the total number of MPs supporting the prime minister to 109, three short of a simple majority in the 222-seat parliament.

“I think the Agong is more likely to retain the emergency because it’s clear that Umno elements … have shown no qualms about threatening a snap election even though Malaysia is at the cusp of a health care crisis,” Cheng said, referring to Sultan Abdullah.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has urged lawmakers to join him in petitioning Sultan Abdullah to rescind the emergency order. Photo: Reuters

“The Agong is probably unable to trust that Umno and Anwar will be prudent enough to stop politicking for the sake of governmental stability and consequently its ability to focus solely on combating Covid-19,” the Singapore-based analyst said. “Without that assurance of a ceasefire, the Agong is probably going to keep the emergency on for now.”

Shazwan Mustafa Kamal, a senior associate with the political and policy risk consultancy Vriens and Partners, said “talks on ending the emergency will only gain weight once the cases have stabilised and until then attempts to this end will be perceived as going against the king’s decree”.

Other political observers said the emergency declaration blunted the likely impact the economy might have felt if Muhyiddin’s coalition had been left to collapse as a result of its likely loss of a parliamentary majority. The consensus view was that only a general election will permanently bring an end to the multidirectional struggle for power that has existed since Muhyiddin seized power last February.

Muhyiddin’s government and Malaysia’s fragile status quo can’t last

“The [emergency] decree delays, rather than resolves political instability in Malaysia and the rare, dramatic step only reinforces the sense globally that Malaysia is engulfed by a political – and health – crisis,” said Peter Mumford, Eurasia Group’s Southeast Asia practice head.

“The decree itself may not directly pose threats to foreign businesses, but the underlying political dynamics and economic challenges potentially raise nationalism risks, especially as Malaysia heads toward expected elections later this year,” he said.

And despite the current brickbats, requesting the emergency could prove to be a turning point for the embattled Muhyiddin, Shazwan suggested.

“Muhyiddin may well survive this episode and stands a chance at winning the next elections, provided he successfully turns the dire Covid-19 situation around and comes up with a consistent long-term strategy for the country,” the Kuala Lumpur-based analyst said. “However, should things remain status quo, with more misses than hits in terms of the government’s overall Covid-19 efforts, Muhyiddin will likely be challenged by a host of other would-be successors from both the opposition as well as the ruling coalition.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: king unlikely to ‘halt suspension of democracy’