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Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is reported to be seeking the consent of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to declare a state of emergency purportedly to tackle the alarming spike in Covid-19 cases across the country. 

Though details relating to the kind of emergency he wants to impose are still sparse, opposition MPs and civil society organisations are alarmed by the move. The Steering Committee of Bersih 2.0 wondered out loud if  “Muhyiddin is launching a self-coup in order to stay in power.” The Bar Council as well as several leading lawyers have also panned the move. At the same time, public anxiety and angst is growing. Clearly, a declaration of emergency is not something that Malaysians will easily accept.

It is not hard to understand why.

Given that the proposed declaration of emergency comes at a time when Prime Minister Muhyiddin is under intense pressure to stave off political collapse, it doesn’t take much to conclude that this is nothing but a cynical move to exploit the pandemic to further a purely political agenda. After all, the government already has more than enough legislative authority under the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act to fight the pandemic.

Clearly, the real target is parliament itself. Banner headlines that the upcoming session of parliament could be a pandemic “time-bomb in the making” and endless fear mongering about the dangers of holding another election (should the government fall) during a pandemic are more about politics than pandemics. 

What is clear is that the prime minister has lost confidence in his ability to hold his own in parliament and get his budget through. Rather than do the honourable thing and make way for someone else – as is the custom in a parliamentary democracy – Muhyiddin has chosen to go down the path of authoritarian rule by seeking to suspend the democratic process and holding on to power despite losing the confidence of the people in parliament assembled. It is nothing less than a coup against our system of parliamentary democracy.

And remember, this is a crisis brought on by Muhyiddin himself, a direct consequence of  the conspiracy he engineered to precipitate the downfall of the duly elected Pakatan Harapan government. It was a reckless and ill-considered move that set in train the series of events that are now pushing the nation to breaking point. 

Ambitious and unprincipled leaders in UMNO added to the instability and chaos by making unreasonable demands in exchange for their support. Not content with being part of the government despite being rejected by voters in GE14, they kept demanding more and more power, pushing Muhyiddin into a corner in the process. 

Their demands included several more key cabinet portfolios including that of deputy prime minster as well as some kind of deal for those facing criminal charges for corruption, money laundering and abuse of power. They selfishly put personal interests ahead of their responsibility to the nation. If Muhyiddin had acceded to their demands, he would have ended up a mere puppet of UMNO.

Faced with an internal revolt, UMNO’s top leadership subsequently reversed course and pledged their support for Muhyiddin but the damage had already been done. Muhyiddin’s move to opt for an emergency is an indication that he no longer trusts UMNO leaders to keep their word and sustain his government in office. 

Clearly, this is a storm of Muhyiddin’s own making, the result of infighting and rivalry within his own coalition. Treachery begets treachery. And now he wants to declare an emergency to save himself from his own folly. To allow an emergency to be declared under such circumstances would be to reward the PN coalition for their bad behaviour by giving them yet more power.

More than anything else, a declaration of emergency together with the suspension of parliament and civil liberties would be an admission that our democracy has failed, that it was not strong enough to withstand a crisis. No matter how bad the situation is, we must continue to have faith in the Constitution and in the system of parliamentary democracy that springs from it. To do otherwise is to go down a path that can only lead to authoritarian rule.

As Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has noted, “A state of emergency is declared when there is a threat to our national security. But when the government is itself the source of that threat then a state of emergency is nothing more than the descent into dictatorship and authoritarianism.”

There is no doubt that a steady hand is needed to successfully manage the pandemic and the economic fallout; suspending parliament and giving Muhyiddin untrammelled power is, however, not the answer. It will simply provide cover for a government that has already shown itself incompetent in responding to the health crisis, a government that is unwilling to subject itself to the same discipline and sacrifice that it is  demanding of its citizens. It might give Muhyiddin a breather but it will put our nation on life support. Muhyiddin should just resign and allow the constitutional process to play out.

 [Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 24th October 2020]