Muhyiddin still on top one year on

MUHYIDDIN Yassin came into power a year ago, at a time when the first wave of Covid-19 infections hit, leading the prime minister to declare the first movement-control order (MCO) in mid-March.

Since then, it has been a juggling act balancing the fight against the pandemic and protecting livelihoods and the economy, all the while fighting for political survival.

While Malaysia was praised for the initial handling of the pandemic and even saw Muhyiddin’s popularity ratings up at one point, the 72-year-old’s biggest success is arguably his ability to survive the numerous challenges thrown his way as well as the infighting between Perikatan Nasional (PN) parties, namely his own Bersatu with Umno.

The first challenge soon after he was sworn in on March 1 last year came from Umno, which questioned the prime minister’s choice of ministers and portfolios given to the party.

With the withdrawals, Muhyiddin lost his two-seat majority in Parliament until yesterday’s development when the Julau and Tebrau MPs from PKR signed statutory declarations in support of the PN government.

Muhyiddin has also had to face no-confidence motions from sacked Bersatu chairman Dr Mahathir Mohamad and claims that he had lost the majority from Pakatan Harapan chairman Anwar Ibrahim.

Despite these challenges, one year later, Muhyiddin remains the prime minister, owing in part to a strategy of avoiding scrutiny and open challenges in Parliament.

The Malaysian Insight looks at how Muhyiddin was able to endure and stay in power.


March 13, 2020: Unhappy with the cabinet appointments, Umno makes several demands. This comes after several Umno MPs, including Dewan Rakyat Deputy Speaker Azalina Othman Said said on social media that Umno deserved a fairer deal.

The Muhyiddin cabinet did away with a deputy prime minister but raised four MPs as senior ministers – two from Bersatu with one each from Umno and Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS). Muhyiddin’s first cabinet also ensured that Bersatu had the lion’s share of the portfolios despite being the smallest party in PN.

April 17, 2020: The Dewan Rakyat secretariat writes to all MPs informing them that the first parliamentary sitting of the year will be on May 18, instead of the scheduled 15 days, and will only be to hear government bills and matters.

The Covid-19 pandemic is cited as the reason for the truncated meeting. The meeting agenda is later changed to having only the Royal Address delivered.

May 8, 2020: Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s first no-confidence motion against Muhyiddin is accepted by Dewan Rakyat Speaker Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof for the single-day Parliament sitting on May 18.

The motion does not reach the floor as the government replaces the Dewan Rakyat secretary on May 14 and only allows the Agong’s speech for the May 18 siting.

May 2020: Leaked audio clips alleging Muhyiddin planned to offer positions to Umno leaders to get them into Bersatu surface. Another leaked clip also hears him telling Bersatu leaders to let Dr Mahathir decide on whether the party should quit PH, a day before Muhyiddin, without Dr Mahathir’s consent, withdraws the party from PH.

To date, Muhyiddin has not answered the allegations.

May 29, 2020: Bersatu sacks Dr Mahathir and four others. Dr Mahathir goes on to form Pejuang and there is little fallout from the sackings.

September 23, 2020: Umno president Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said Umno MPs are free to support Anwar, after the PKR president tells the media that he has majority support and that Muhyiddin’s government has fallen.

October 13, 2020: Anwar tells the media that he has shown the king evidence that he has the majority to replace Muhyiddin.

October 29, 2020: By now, a record 25 MPs have filed no-confidence motions against Muhyiddin ahead of the November Parliament sitting. Newly appointed Speaker Azhar Azizan Harun, however, rules that “government business” comes ahead of private members’ bills and none of the motions is debated.

Umno’s veteran MP Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah questions Azhar’s decision.

November 10, 2020: Former Umno president and Pekan MP Najib Razak hints that Umno may not support Muhyiddin’s first Budget 2021 if its demands are not met. Although the government brushes aside Umno’s concerns, MPs toe the line to back the Budget 2021 when it is put to a vote.

January 7, 2021: Umno Supreme Council rules that the general assembly (scheduled for January 31) will decide on whether to stop the Umno-Bersatu cooperation after 118 out of 147 divisions pass resolutions on the matter.

January 9, 2021: Machang MP Ahmad Jazlan Yaakub withdraws support for Muhyiddin.

January 12, 2021: Padang Rengas MP Mohd Nazri Aziz withdraws support for Muhyiddin, leaving the latter with just 110 MPs out of 220 sitting MPs in the Dewan Rakyat. (Two more seats are vacant due to the incumbents’ deaths.)

January 12, 2021: Muhyiddin said the king has consented to a state of emergency effective January 11, suspending the federal constitution, Parliament and all elections, and placing sweeping power in the hands of the executive. The emergency is ostensibly to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

February 23, 2021: Umno said it will hold the 2020 general assembly on March 27 and 28 to decide fate of Umno-Bersatu ties in GE15.

February 24, 2021: The king rules that Parliament can convene despite the state of emergency, noting that it is “erroneous” to think that the house cannot convene to perform its functions during an emergency.

February 28, 2021: Muhyiddin regains two MPs on his side when Julau lawmaker Larry Sng and Tebrau rep Steven Choong, both from PKR, sign statutory declarations supporting the PN government.

Perikatan’s one-year report card: achievements and failures

The Malaysian Insight looks back on some of these highlights:


Covid-19 stimulus packages

The first package announced on March 27, 2020 was the RM220 billion Prihatin stimulus package. It was followed by the RM10 billion Prihatin package for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) on April 6, the RM35 billion National Economic Recovery Plan (Penjana) on June 5, the RM10 billion Prihatin Supplementary Initiative Package (Kita Prihatin) on September 23 and the RM15 billion Permai package in January this year.

The packages have been criticised by the opposition and parts of the business sector for failing to help the tourism industry, for ignoring proposals to put monthly cash assistance directly into the hands of low-income earners, and for ignoring calls to extend the automatic moratorium on bank loans.

But for the most part, measures such as wage subsidies, which were expanded to cover a greater number of employees, and rebates on electricity bills, among others, have been well received.

Allowing EPF withdrawals to ease financial burden

Although controversial because it depletes Malaysians’ retirement savings, the PN government pushed through the i-Lestari and i-Sinar facilities to help people cope with the Covid-19 pandemic.

i-Lestari allows withdrawals of up to RM500 a month from the EPF Account 2 for a period of 12 months until March 31 this year, for members aged 55 and below.

i-Sinar allows members to withdraw up to RM10,000 from their Account 1 savings, if they have RM100,000 or less in their account total. Those who have more than RM100,000 in Account 1 can access 10% of their savings.

Eligibility conditions attached to the i-Sinar facility, such as loss of 30% in income and employers’ non-payment of EPF contributions for two consecutive months, were recently removed, giving access to all 14.6 million EPF members.

It was reported that as of January 4, 2.5 million applications had been approved for i-Sinar, involving withdrawals amounting to RM19.62 billion. Under I-Lestari, RM14.41 billion in withdrawals was approved between April 12 and December 18 last year, involving 4.88 million members.

Pedestrians on a Kuala Lumpur street a day after the king consented to the declaration of a state of emergency on January 12. – AFP pic, March 1, 2021.
Pedestrians on a Kuala Lumpur street a day after the king consented to the declaration of a state of emergency on January 12. – AFP pic, March 1, 2021.

Free Covid-19 vaccination for all, including foreigners and undocumented migrants

According to the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme handbook, the government has secured 66.7 million doses of the vaccine from five manufacturers, which is enough to cover 109.65% of the population.

A total of RM3 billion was allocated under Budget 2021 for the procurement of vaccines, and the immunisation plan was launched on February 24 with the prime minister being the first to receive the injection.

Vaccination will be free, and voluntary, for all Malaysians, foreigners living and working here, and undocumented migrants.

Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation Khairy Jamaluddin has given assurance that undocumented migrants need not fear being arrested when they step forward for vaccination.

Signing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) 

In November, Malaysia signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement with 14 other participating countries.

The RCEP with its five Free Trade Agreement (FTA) partners will prioritise regional economic integration and facilitate cross-border trade, investments and easing of non-tariff measures.

With the RCEP, Malaysia will have access to a bigger market. The Asean region has a population of over 650 million people.


Lack of political cohesion

Muhyiddin’s party is the smaller Bersatu and much of the politics behind the scenes in PN’s one year in government has seen the Umno splinter party try to appease its allies to prevent betrayal.

Although Umno is part of the PN government, it has kept up the pressure for fresh elections to validate Muhyiddin’s mandate. It also refused to join the formal pact with Bersatu and PAS to form PN as an official coalition.

Umno politicians have also fought openly with Bersatu in the media over seat allocations in the next general election. As 2021 began, several Umno divisions called for severing of ties with Bersatu and are against any cooperation with Muhyiddin’s party for the next election.

In early January, two Umno lawmakers – Padang Rengas MP Nazri Aziz and Machang MP Ahmad Jazlan Yaakob – announced their withdrawal of support for Muhyiddin’s government, leaving the prime minister with minority support in Parliament.

Calling off the high-speed railway project with Singapore

Malaysia and Singapore agreed to cancel the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore HSR project after both countries failed to reach an agreement on the changes proposed by Putrajaya.

While Malaysia cited that the Covid-19 pandemic had made the original conditions for the project untenable, Singapore revealed that it could not agree to Malaysia’s request to remove a jointly appointed assets company (AssetsCo) that would supply systems and operate the HSR service to ensure both countries interests’ were protected. Singapore held that the AssetsCo had been a vital part of the original bilateral agreement signed in 2016, which Malaysia was now failing to honour.

With the cancellation, Putrajaya will have to compensate the city state for work already done. Around SG$15 million (RM45.6 million) had already been paid as compensation, when the previous Pakatan Harapan government suspended work on the project from 2018 to May last year.

Building public trust over Covid-19 crisis management

PN was successful at first in flattening the curve of infections in the early stages of the pandemic last year, and Muhyiddin even saw his personal popularity ratings go up.

The turning point came with the Sabah elections in late September. The number of infections were already climbing in the state, and the polls caused cases to spill over to Peninsular Malaysia.

Incidents involving ministers which led the public to feel double-standards were at play also did not boost confidence. Coupled with confusing standard operating procedure (SOP) for the second movement-control order (MCO) that was imposed in January this year, many Malaysians have felt frustrated.

Emergency proclamation and suspension of Parliament

Malaysia entered a state of emergency on January 11 after the Yang di-Pertuan Agong Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah acceded to the government’s request, ostensibly to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

The emergency, which will last until August 1 or end earlier depending on the pandemic situation, saw Parliament and state legislative assembly sittings suspended, and the government given sweeping powers.

Critics, including from Umno, have said the emergency allows Muhyiddin to cling to power and prevent calls for a snap poll.

On February 24, however, the Agong decreed that Parliament could sit even during a pandemic.

Not gazetting Undi 18

In July 2019, Parliament voted and passed a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age to 18, to allow automatic voter registration and lowering the minimum age to run for public office to 18. The change was spearheaded by youth movement Undi18.

It has been almost two years since the amendment was passed and it still has not been gazetted by the government. Civil society groups such as Bersih 2.0 and Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM) have called on the government to stop delaying and immediately gazette the bill.

PN’s commitment to giving youths the right to vote was called into question after Deputy Minister of Youth and Sports Wan Ahmad Fayshal said 18-year-olds are not ready to vote without adequate political education, while Dewan Negara president Rais Yatim said the responsibility of deciding the country’s future through voting was too big a responsibility for teenagers.

Lower rank in corruption perceptions index (CPI)

Malaysia dropped six places in the Transparency International’s CPI 2020, to 57th place out of 180 countries. The slide was attributed to stalled institutional reforms and acquittals in a few high-profile corruption cases.

Other factors cited for the drop include limited access to public information on matters of public interest, the imported fake halal meat scandal and limited progress in dealing with high-profile cases.

Crackdown on free speech 

PN has been slammed for investigating international news broadcaster Al Jazeera over its documentary “Locked Up in Malaysia’s Lockdown” that gave unflattering views of the authorities’ treatment of undocumented migrants.

Attorney-General Idrus Harun also filed contempt-of-court proceedings against Malaysiakini in June last year over comments posted by readers which attacked the judiciary. Recently, the Federal Court found the news portal guilty and fined it RM500,000.

In February this year, book publisher Gerakbudaya had its office raided over the publication of former attorney-general Tommy Thomas’ memoir, My Story: Justice in the Wilderness which allegedly insulted and defamed certain parties, including civil service officers in the Attorney-General’s Chambers.

Worst economic performance since 1998 crisis

Malaysia’s economy shrank 5.6% last year, the biggest contraction since the 1998 Asian financial crisis. The contraction was worse than the 4.5% predicted by the Finance Ministry.

The decline is due to restrictions, including travel curbs, as the government scrambled to deal with a third wave of Covid-19 infections.

Worst FDI drop in region while neighbours improve 

Foreign direct investments (FDI) in Malaysia dropped by 68% to US$2.5 billion (RM10.13 billion) in 2020, according to a United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) report.

While FDI also fell for Malaysia’s Asean neighbours, except the Philippines, Malaysia registered the biggest drop in the region, compared to Singapore’s 37% fall to US$58 billion, Indonesia’s decline by 24% to US$18 billion and Vietnam’s 10% to US$14 billion.

Globally, all FDI contracted by 42%, going from US$1.5 trillion in 2019 to US$859 billion last year when Covid-19 hit.

But for Malaysia, economists have cautioned that Covid-19 alone should not be blamed, as the country has yet to deal with pre-existing issues that have caused foreign investors to favour other countries.