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The stunning rebuff of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s plans to declare a state of emergency has been rightly hailed as a victory for Malaysia’s democracy. The message to Prime Minister Muhyiddin and all our fractious politicians from the Istana was clear enough: no need to short-circuit the democratic process by suspending Parliament, now is not the time for fresh elections, find a way to work together to manage the Covid-19 pandemic and the attendant economic challenges. 

How it will play out, however, is far from clear.

In the first place, it puts the prime minister in an unenviable position. He rushed to the Istana last week seeking a quick declaration of emergency in the hope of presenting it as a fait accompli the same day. The King clearly refused to be pressured into making any hasty decisions. His insistence on consulting with his brother rulers before deciding also allowed the public at large an opportunity to weigh in on the issue.  They did just that, and in splendid fashion too, by roundly criticising the prime minister’s plans. 

A royal rebuke – and that is what it was – is significant, serious and substantive.  It suggests a loss of confidence in the prime minister. Cumulatively, it means that Muhyiddin has now lost the confidence of the monarch, the parliament and the people and with that, whatever is left of his credibility. Something like this has never happened before. Only the most obdurate would not feel honour bound to resign.

Of course, the prime minister and his supporters are now trying to put the best possible spin on his abortive plans for an emergency by latching on to the monarch’s brief expression of confidence in the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. It does not, however, lessen the impact of the serious rebuke the prime minister has been dealt. If anything, it was perhaps a polite reminder to the prime minister as to where his priorities ought to lie.

The other takeaway from the Istana statement is that the monarch and his brother rulers remain deeply concerned about the endless political infighting and intrigue that has engulfed the country since the fall of the Pakatan Harapan government. Even before this, the royals had expressed anxiety over the situation and urged political leaders to find a way to settle their differences for the sake of the people. There are few signs, however, that the politicians are listening.

UMNO leaders, in particular, are still not ready to put aside their ambitions and personal agendas. Right after the monarch’s appeal for unity, UMNO-BN MPs met to discuss whether to demand Muhyiddin’s resignation and trigger fresh elections. Former prime minister Najib Tun Razak apparently tried to rally UMNO MPs to side with Anwar against Muhyiddin. He even had the temerity to demand that Muhyiddin step down on “moral grounds” never mind that he himself should have resigned as a member of parliament after being found guilty of corruption.

It also raises the question as to why Najib and Zahid are so keen to abandon Muhyiddin in favour of Anwar. On balance, UMNO will probably not be any better off with Anwar than with Muhyiddin unless certain quiet agreements have been reached. Recent reports appear to suggest that both leaders are more focused on their own legal predicament than anything else and are shopping around in the hope of leveraging their support in exchange for a “prayer” that they will be acquitted, as one reporter artfully put it.

Anwar’s willingness to rely on Najib and Zahid will undoubtedly not go down well with both the DAP and the public at large. It will only feed the narrative that Anwar is so desperate to become prime minister that he is even willing to find common cause with the likes of Najib and Zahid who between them face dozens and dozens of charges for corruption, money-laundering and abuse of power.

Though UMNO has now come out in support of Muhyiddin, there is no certainty that the infighting and politicking within UMNO will end. The party remains deeply divided with cliques and factions pulling it in all directions. On the issue of national reconciliation, for example, they are all over the place. One faction talks about the need for bringing together both the ruling and opposition parties while another insists UMNO won’t work with DAP or PKR.  

UMNO has also not apparently given up on its demands for a greater say in the running of the government. It’s insistence on what their leaders call “principles of cooperation in line with respect and political consensus” is just another way of saying that as the largest party within PN, UMNO should be allowed to dictate its own terms. It is no secret that Zahid himself covets the deputy prime minister’s post. It looks like PN may be back where it started.

All this makes UMNO an unreliable ally. Disgruntled UMNO MPs could pull the plug on Muhyiddin’s government at any time. If Muhyiddin’s government is to survive and avoid being held hostage to UMNO, he will need to reach across the aisle to broaden his support.

Proposals for a  ‘confidence and supply agreement’ – essentially an understanding that the opposition would temporarily support the government on confidence motions and supply (money) bills in exchange for specific concessions – are already on the table; Muhyiddin should grab it. 

An agreement with the opposition not to topple his government would not only enhance Muhyiddin’s chances of survival, it would also serve to crimp the unreasonable demands of UMNO leaders and ensure that UMNO is no longer able to threaten the government every time it doesn’t get its way. 

Of course, it will mean that Muhyiddin would have to put a stop to all the destructive and divisive Ketuanan Melayu nonsense that has animated Perikatan Nasional (PN) politics and work together with the opposition for the benefit of all Malaysians.

It may not be the best outcome for the Opposition (and certainly not for Anwar)  but at least it will provide some checks on the government and ensure that on the core issues – fighting the pandemic, developing an urgently needed economic recovery plan and pressing ahead with the trial of corrupt leaders – there is basic agreement.

As for the rest of us, we are once again in the unhappy position of being left without any good options. The prospect of an unpopular prime minister continuing in office along with the rest of his treacherous and mostly incompetent colleagues or UMNO (unrepentant and still oozing corrupt leaders) remaining it Putrajaya is as appealing as squashed bugs on a windscreen.  

The only silver lining may be that the royal rebuke and growing public anger and impatience might finally force our bickering politicians to put aside their differences for now and agree on at least a minimalist agenda for the good of the nation. It might be the only way the government can limp along till elections can be safely held. 

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 27th October 2020]