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Malaysia’s King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah. Photo: AFP

Malaysian king says urgent parliamentary debate needed on Covid-19 exit strategy

  • Statement, which follows meeting of the heads of the country’s nine royal families, appears to contradict Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who said legislature could not sit until September
  • Muhyiddin’s administration is under fire for its failure to control a third wave of the coronavirus despite having assumed vast powers by declaring a state of emergency
Malaysia’s king on Wednesday said parliament should urgently reconvene to debate the government’s Covid-19 exit strategy, in a seeming contradiction of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s assertion that the legislature could not sit again until September at the earliest. 

Concurrently, the heads of the country’s nine hereditary royal households said in a collective statement that an ongoing state of emergency that expires on August 1 should not be extended.  

Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah’s statement followed an ad-hoc meeting of the sultans and regents that was convened amid rising anger against the government over its handling of the public health crisis. 

The Muhyiddin administration has faced sharp criticism for a litany of issues including a failure to quash a months-long third wave of the pandemic despite having vast powers granted to it following the declaration of a state of emergency in January. 

A new coronavirus that usually infects canines is found in a pneumonia patient in Malaysia

The opposition meanwhile has slammed the suspension of the legislature during the emergency, saying there is no reason lawmakers who have been vaccinated should not be allowed to meet. 

Before the meeting, Sultan Abdullah had summoned 18 political leaders including Muhyiddin for private audiences and the royals were briefed by top officials during Wednesday’s meeting. 

Following these consultations, “His Majesty expressed his view that parliament should be convened as soon as possible to discuss the emergency ordinances and the national recovery plan,” the National Palace said in a statement. 

The statement said the 222 seat legislature was an “important platform” for discussing matters concerning Covid-19. 

With vaccinations the only meaningful “exit strategy” from the pandemic, it was important for the government to “act decisively to simplify bureaucracy and speed up the vaccination process”, the palace said. 

The Royal Palace in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo: EPA

The palace statement – issued by the Comptroller of the Royal Household – did not directly criticise the government. 

The Malay rulers in their collective statement backed Sultan Abdullah’s position and said parliament as well as the state legislatures of their respective states – also suspended during the emergency – needed to reconvene as soon as possible. 

The Malay rulers were of the view that “it is important to respect mechanisms of check-and-balance between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches to ensure a transparent administration that has integrity and is accountable to the people,” the statement said, underscoring the need for scrutiny of government finances.

While top administration officials have in the past said remote parliamentary sittings are infeasible as there was no local blueprint for holding such sessions, the sultans said methods used by other parliaments should be introduced to allow lawmakers to meet.

Sultan Abdullah, who is serving a five-year term as king as part of a rotational monarchy system, has limited constitutional powers and is obliged to abide by the government’s advice on most matters. 

His call for parliament to sit as soon as possible stood in contrast to remarks by Muhyiddin a day earlier. 

In a televised address, the prime minister said the earliest the legislature could reconvene was September, provided the average number of daily new Covid-19 infections fell below 2,000. 

Muhyiddin said he was committed to allowing parliament to resume its functions “at the appropriate time”.

“I will continue to uphold the principles of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy,” he said. 

He also appeared to take aim at his critics, urging citizens not to “tolerate any parties who purposely create unrest and disorder among the people to the extent of hindering the government’s main task to handle the pandemic”. 

Critics have said Muhyiddin is reluctant to reconvene parliament given his Perikatan Nasional’s alliance’s precarious position following defections and infighting between his own Bersatu party and its ally, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno).

The prime minister obtained royal assent for the emergency in January amid signs the administration was on the verge of a humiliating no-confidence vote by lawmakers.

Following Wednesday’s royal statements, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim thanked the monarchs and said he hoped Muhyiddin would reconvene parliament as soon as possible.