No one expected Muhyiddin Yassin to be prime minister. No one expected Muhyiddin’s popularity rating to be so high. No one expected Muhyiddin’s slim-majority government to last till this day.
But he has survived all our low expectations and stands as our prime minister today.
My inference is that the circumstances surrounding Muhyiddin played a pivotal role in elevating him to where he is. Most of his successes were not a direct result of his grand planning or deliberate choices.
Let me elaborate on these three factors.
A falling PM but…
Many people call Muhyiddin a weak prime minister because he is always beholden to someone else. Muhyiddin’s party, Bersatu, is not the largest party in the government. He had to give many positions and favours to the leaders of other parties to secure their loyalty and support. He could not simply count on himself.
Knowing this, Mahathir launched his first assault in Parliament. If Muhyiddin failed to secure a simple majority to the bills tabled in the august house, then his former boss Dr Mahathir Mohamad and the opposition would have a strong claim to ask Muhyiddin to resign.
Conceptually this was easy. If the MPs supporting Muhyiddin could be easily bought, then by right they could be easily bought to not support Muhyiddin as well. Before the vote, talks around the Parliament corridor was that Muhyiddin does not have the numbers to carry on. But in the end, he did.
The latest challenge to Muhyiddin’s position as prime minister came from opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. In a press conference, Anwar claimed that he now has enough numbers to support him as the next prime minister. This means that Muhyiddin’s government has “fallen”.
The general understanding was that Anwar’s support to reach a simple majority (or even a strong and convincing majority) could only come from Umno. A letter signed by Umno leaders Najib Abdul Razak and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is rumoured to have declared Umno’s support for Anwar to be prime minister.
But shortly after, many Umno MPs started denying their support for Anwar. Ahmad Maslan and Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor used this as an opportunity to build new terms of support for Muhyiddin’s government. They said that Umno as the largest party should be given more.
What Umno wanted was less of discontinuing their support for Muhyiddin as prime minister. But to have better privileges and positions from their stronger bargaining hand.
Of course, this makes Muhyiddin a submissive prime minister because he would always have to succumb to the whims and fancies of stronger parties like Umno. At the same time, other smaller but critical parties like PAS would also start to demand more when they know that Muhyiddin is beholden to their support.
Despite this, Muhyiddin is likely to remain as prime minister. As much as these events weaken Muhyiddin’s relative strength in the eyes of his government partners, Muhyiddin’s ultimate question of remaining as prime minister remains the same, if not stronger.
Mahathir and Anwar’s attempts at dislodging him as prime minister had inadvertently secured his position for a little longer. As long as he is able to fulfil the demands of his government partners – something he has shown a high propensity in doing – then he is likely stay as prime minister.
In all attempts, he is lucky to stay as prime minister.
A falling popularity rating but…
When Muhyiddin’s government took over at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, everyone was doubtful as to whether he could rise to the occasion. He did enough, but he was largely helped by an incredible team of civil servants led by Health Ministry director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah.
The director-general was not only professional and competent in taking early steps to curb the second wave of the virus, but he was also the assuring voice amidst an uncertain future. The country needed someone to count on in a time of need, and a civil servant – not a politician – was the unlikely hero.
Other than that, a global pandemic of this scale has also compelled many to pay more attention to the news and public addresses made by the prime minister. He took the opportunity to appear on the TVs of many Malaysians who would not otherwise pay attention to the politicians who rule our country.
Public visibility was almost monopolised by Muhyiddin. Oftentimes, the popularity ratings of a politician correlate with how frequently they appear in front of voters. Under normal times, Muhyiddin would have to compete for your attention when he introduces policies, or he would have to participate in cheaper stunts to make himself relevant.
But a pandemic made sure that most people paid attention to Muhyiddin’s voice for a direction that directly affects your life: The start and end of conditional movement orders, the permission and restriction on economic activities, pandemic-specific grants and assistance, and others.
Once again, the circumstances of competent civil service and high public attention were favourable to him. This made him lucky.
A falling government but…
Additionally, Muhyiddin’s slimmest-majority-in-history government stands until today. And this was substantially aided by luck. All it takes was for three MPs to declare that they no longer support Muhyiddin for the government to fall.
A snap election could be called, and we could usher in a new government.
Before the Sabah state election, Muhyiddin has hinted at wanting to call a snap election should the outcome of Sabah be favourable to his party and partners. Every government wants to call an election when their popularity and morale are high; especially for Muhyiddin, he could take this opportunity to expand his majority. He wants to become the largest party so he could appear dominant.
But Muhyiddin knows that a snap election is a gamble. The roadblock in seat negotiations with Umno meant that Umno would unlikely agree to allow Bersatu to contest more seats than them, let alone winnable seats. Without Umno, Bersatu could not form a government.
In any event, Umno would not allow Muhyiddin to continue as prime minister again. This means that it is not in Muhyiddin’s interest to have a snap election as there is no guarantee that he could be prime minister. Whereas for Umno, a snap election gives them more influence and leverage in government – and they could finally have a Umno prime minister again.
However, the Sabah snap election has taught us enough. During a time of the pandemic, Muhyiddin has a legitimate reason to delay any calls for snap elections. Any delay in holding a snap general election means that Muhyiddin holds on as government for another day.
Muhyiddin’s position as prime minister and his government is weak. But the surrounding circumstances were favourable to him holding on for a little longer. And a little longer.
This makes him a very lucky prime minister. For the rakyat, less so.
JAMES CHAI is a legal consultant and researcher working for Invoke, among others. He also blogs at jameschai.com.my. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.