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Malaysian PM Muhyiddin Yassin in parliament. Photo: EPA-EFE

Malaysia’s parliament in chaos as PM Muhyiddin refuses to allow debate on Covid-19 policies

  • Opposition MPs, including Anwar Ibrahim and former PM Mahathir Mohamad, rose to make points of order at start of year’s first session
  • They claimed Muhyiddin was defying the king’s decree that a full parliamentary debate on the coronavirus emergency was to be held
Malaysia’s parliament, sitting for the first time in eight months, was mired in chaos on Monday as opposition lawmakers accused Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin of royal insult for disallowing a debate during the special five-day session.

Apart from the absence of a full debate and an accompanying vote, the opposition camp was left doubly incensed after Muhyiddin left midway through the session, leaving his finance minister Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz to deliver a winding-up speech.

The prime minister spoke earlier in the morning on the country’s Covid-19 recovery plan, and lawmakers were thereafter allowed short interventions.

“Never before in history – since independence and since the establishment of parliament – has there been a time when questions to the prime minister and an emergency are answered by the finance minister,” opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said as Tengku Zafrul began his speech in the late afternoon.

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The 222-seat lower house, the Dewan Rakyat, and the 70-seat upper house, the Dewan Negara, had been suspended since Malaysia’s king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, approved a state of emergency in January that is due to expire on August 1.

Confusion among opposition lawmakers ensued after Takiyuddin Hassan, the de facto law minister, said the various emergency ordinances enacted since January 12 had been revoked last Wednesday and would not be renewed after their expiry on August 1.

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (right) attends a special parliamentary sitting to brief the legislature on the country’s coronavirus recovery plan. Photo: DPA

While opposition lawmakers insisted that the emergency ordinances could only be annulled through a vote in parliament, Takiyuddin said the revocation meant such action was no longer necessary.

Local media highlighted that a notice of the emergency annulment had yet to be published on the website of the Attorney General’s Chambers.

Nearly a dozen opposition MPs, including the 96-year-old former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar – leader of the opposition Pakatan Harapan alliance – rose to make points of order at the start of Monday’s session, which was meant to begin with Muhyiddin’s opening address.

Mahathir slammed the Perikatan Nasional coalition as a failure, and bemoaned the design of the five-day sitting as it did not allow MPs enough time to raise the people’s concerns, or to vote on remarks by Muhyiddin and other ministers.

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Anwar was among several MPs who charged that the king in his earlier decrees had called for a full parliamentary debate on the emergency and the government’s Covid-19 policies, rather than for the legislature to sit merely to listen to speeches from ministers.

De facto law minister Takiyuddin earlier said Muhyiddin had received Sultan Abdullah’s consent for a special sitting of parliament – which grants the prime minister the sole prerogative to decide the order of business during the session.

“To go against a royal decree is treasonous. The prime minister is quite brave. I don’t want the Speaker to be embroiled in this rebellion,” Anwar told Speaker Azhar Harun as he urged him to allow a vote on the speeches.

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Faced with multiple lawmakers chastising him, Azhar briefly lost his cool, telling the opposition lawmakers he did not agree with any of their points of order.

In his 40-minute address, Muhyiddin did not address the opposition’s assertions and instead detailed his administration’s policies to combat the current health and economic crisis.

“The important thing is that we must show solidarity in facing these difficult times.” he said. “Let’s not argue and point fingers.”

Malaysia’s parliament sits for the first time this year. Photo: DPA

The prime minister went into Monday’s sitting with questions remaining over whether he has the confidence of a majority of the legislature.

He depends on the powerful United Malays National Organisation (Umno) – the party of corruption-tainted former leader Najib Razak – but Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi earlier this month said it no longer backed the ruling coalition.

Anwar and other opposition figures say Muhyiddin is seeking to delay any form of voting in parliament as long as possible as it would lay bare the fact that he does not command parliamentary support. Muhyiddin gained power after a political coup in March last year over a ruling coalition led by Mahathir.

Monday’s sitting is being held as Malaysia remains in the throes of a Covid-19 crisis that continues to worsen. The country of 33 million crossed 1 million cumulative cases on Sunday, with the daily caseload hitting a record of 17,045.

Vaccination figures have offered some hope that the situation can be controlled in months: one third of all residents have received at least one dose of a vaccine while 16 per cent are fully vaccinated.

Muhyiddin said he hoped that by October most of the country would be ready to move into the final phase of his four-step road map for reopening the economy. The National Recovery Plan unveiled in June envisages a full reopening of the economy after November, once 60 per cent of the population has been vaccinated and daily cases dip below 500.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Parliament sinks into chaos after debate rejected