No one knows what budget Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz will present this afternoon, and whether it will satisfy the demands from Pakatan Harapan and Umno to survive the five-week debate beginning Nov 9 until Dec 10.
Never before has democracy been so alive in Malaysia that Parliament gets to act as the real boss of the government and may fire the latter for tabling an unsatisfactory budget.
Never before in peacetime that Parliament was almost suspended just to avoid any chance of the House disapproving the budget.
There would have been no budget in Parliament today had the Rulers’ Conference endorsed Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s request for an emergency proclamation two Sundays ago.
What are the options available to Muhyiddin, who officially has 113 votes against the opposition’s 108 (before the Batu Sapi by-election) but may face a revolt of backbenchers including Umno chief advisor Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah?
Option 1: Betting on Parliament’s smooth approval
The default option is to expect the Parliament will pass the bill as “business as usual”, but some “unusual developments have aided Muhyiddin”.
First, royal advice has been issued, urging the MPs to support the budget, rare if not unprecedented for constitutional monarchies to do so.
Second, in the name of fighting Covid-19, only 80 MPs (41 government, 39 opposition) are allowed to be in the House at any time.
While the UK parliament has introduced hybrid-sessions since April, our Parliament acts as if we live in a pre-Zoom age.
However, since all MPs are still allowed to enter the House when voting is called, the mere absence of six government MPs against a 100 percent “nay” vote from the opposition on the budget can see the PM sacked.
Option 2: Emergency
From de facto law minister Takyiddin Hassan’s latest parliamentary reply, an emergency proclamation remains on the government’s survival menu.
The upcoming Batu Sapi by-election and the next state election of Sarawak are used as excuses, but both simply defies common sense.
First, if Muhyiddin’s Bersatu gives way to incumbent Warisan just like BN, PBS, Star and Harapan, then no polling needs to be held if no frivolous candidates take part. It would become a non-event similar to the Chini by-election in July when Harapan gave way to Umno.
Second, the Sarawak state polls can be delayed to as late as Aug 5, 2021, nine months from now when vaccines are likely available. All it needs is for the GPS state government to serve its full term till June 6 and the Election Commission to schedule polling on the 60th day after dissolution.
If Muhyiddin refuses to keep his party Bersatu out of Batu Sapi and to advise his ally GPS to serve a full term, is he not deliberately making elections inevitable to justify a proclamation of emergency?
An emergency proclamation can immediately strengthen Muhyiddin’s power, not only against the opposition but even more directly, against Umno. It may even trigger a wave of Umno defections in the name of national unity.
But at what price? It will immediately send the market into panic and chaos, trigger protests, invite international sanctions, scare away investors, hampering efforts to fight a recession. Should millions of jobs be risked just to save one man’s job?
Ultimately, how would Muhyiddin get off the tiger’s back and not be eaten alive? An emergency cannot go forever, and Muhyiddin will have to bear total responsibility for the economy when he seizes total power and invites all consequences of a self-coup.
But most of all, would Muhyiddin get snubbed again by the rulers if he dares to try? It is the King’s prerogative under Article 43(4) to choose a new prime minister if a request for the Parliament’s dissolution is not made or rejected. Why should the rulers want a precedent that effectively nullifies Article 43(4)?
Option 3: Expanding the cabinet
Expanding the frontbench to co-opt enemies or rivals is the standard playbook solution in Malaysia. A national unity government, its “maximum” version, is an idea that has been touted by Mahathir and revived again recently by some opinion leaders.
This had worked for Tun Abdul Razak after 1969 when all but two major opposition parties were co-opted into Barisan Nasional.
A limited version would be a mere expansion of the cabinet with more Umno ministers and deputy ministers. This would appease some of Umno’s 22 backbenchers but would it make Umno, Bersatu and PAS come together as true lovers?
Unless there is a settlement on seat allocation for GE15 and the PM candidate after GE15, the conflict between the three Malay parties remains unresolved and is merely postponed.
For Muhyiddin, more Umno ministers simply mean more resources stocked up for Umno which can then be used to take on Bersatu in GE15. Umno’s bitterness over Bersatu’s backstabbing in Sabah will not be going away.
Of course, Muhyiddin can also use the office of ministers, especially the deputy prime minister post, to divide and rule Umno warlords.
For Malaysians, a cabinet expansion will simply mean a more expensive and less coherent government. If two boys are fighting at the gate, why should they stop fighting once both are inside the gate?
Option 4: Confidence-and-supply agreement
A confidence-and-supply agreement (CSA) would be no more face-losing than seeking an emergency proclamation for Muhyiddin because both are admissions that he has lost the government’s majority.
CSAs are deals that a PM’s party signs with separate opposition parties or individual MPs to secure their promise to vote for the PM or abstain on votes on confidence or budget (termed “supply bill”, hence the name CSA), in exchange for consultation, policy concessions and reforms.
It is common for countries with minority governments like New Zealand and Denmark.
Nothing, however, stops majority governments from having CSAs. In Malaysia, Tun Razak’s deals with Gerakan and PPP for the Parliament in 1971-1973 can be considered CSAs.
CSAs with the opposition parties will give Muhyiddin two important advantages. First, he does not have to empower Umno as Bersatu’s archrival in GE15 with more ministerial powers and patronage. Second, he can afford to dismiss any incompetent or law-breaking ministers, from Umno or other parties.
If CSAs are reached with more than 40 opposition parliamentarians, Muhyiddin will cease being the lame-duck PM he has been since March, as Umno, with 39 MPs, will immediately lose its power to blackmail. And this is exactly why Umno staunchly rejects CSA.
For the opposition, a CSA allows them to meaningfully influence budget and policy without voters’ wrath for sleeping with bitter enemies in any undesirable coalition government.
DAP and Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman’s Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (Muda) both asked for parliamentary empowerment and equal constituency funding for all MPs.
Now, what do Muhyiddin get to lose by giving space to DAP and Muda that will not contest against Bersatu in the Malay heartland?
Can Muhyiddin be rational?
I don’t expect politicians always to put national interests before personal interests. I do expect them to avoid decisions that harm both national and personal interests.
Political leaders must be rational so that their actions are predictable and allow society and market to respond rationally. While rational behaviours of all parties do not guarantee good outcomes, irrational behaviours of key players are almost certain a recipe for disaster.
Political leaders must not be like gamblers and act as if they have no tomorrow. Malaysia is too small to afford even a mini-sized Trump.
Muhyiddin must remember he has up to 32 months for this term. He will beat the 22-month Mahathir already if he can survive until January 2023.
Leaving a legacy despite his controversial rise to power is more important than saving face. Most importantly, Muhyiddin must put himself before his lieutenants who encourage him to gamble.