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There is much about this government that is utterly contemptible. It seized power in an underhanded and undemocratic manner. It has held on to power by bribing unprincipled parliamentarians with cabinet positions and GLC appointments. It suspended Parliament and has shamefully avoided a test of its strength on the floor of the House. It has disrespected the King. It has thoroughly mismanaged the pandemic. For these reasons, I had joined the chorus of calls for Muhyiddin to either submit to a vote of confidence or resign. 

But Muhyiddin’s announcement on Friday was something of a game changer. Thoroughly chastised and cornered, he has been forced to offer political concessions in a last-ditch effort to save his government.  Opposition leaders along with those in UMNO lost no time in rejecting his offer and demanded his immediate resignation. It is understandable why certain UMNO leaders who are facing serious criminal charges are pushing for regime change; it is less clear what Pakatan Harapan leaders hope to gain by rejecting Muhyiddin’s offer.

No one can reasonably predict what will happen if Muhyiddin resigns. The Opposition is just as divided as Perikatan Nasional. No single leader – Opposition or otherwise – has the commitment of enough members of parliament to lay claim to the top post. 

Without a clear succession plan, there is a real possibility that Muhyiddin’s abrupt departure will result in a bitter, long-drawn-out power struggle that will prolong the political instability. All sorts of unholy deals will be made. UMNO might return to power and the court cluster might wriggle free. Dr Mahathir could return at the head of a national operations council-type government. Another weak minority government headed by either Anwar Ibrahim or Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah could struggle to hold the country together until the next election.  None of these alternatives are appealing.

Wouldn’t it be better then, to accept Muhyiddin’s offer and work with the government on the basis of strict and well-defined conditionalities? Isn’t it better by far to negotiate with a weak government and get major concessions that strengthen our democracy and help the people quickly recover from the pandemic than to engineer its downfall and end up with an equally weak, unstable and uncertain government? It might not be in the best interests of a few ambitious politicians, but it could well be better for the people and the nation.

The concessions that Muhyiddin is offering – term limits for the prime minister, an anti-hopping law, parliamentary reform, pre-tabling of bills for negotiation and discussion with all MPs, equal allocations for all MPs, improvements to the automatic voter registration and according the leader of the Opposition official status – are hugely significant. Tony Pua said it would transform Parliament from “a neutered kitten to a proper watchdog befitting the supreme legislative institution in the country”. Ong Kian Ming opined that it could have “a lasting impact on Malaysian politics if passed”. Should these worthwhile and long sought-after reforms be rejected just because they come from a prime minister many hold in disdain or because they come rather late in the day?  

In return for these significant gains, Muhyiddin is asking for something along the lines of a confidence and supply agreement until elections are held no later than July next year. Is that too high a price to pay? Is that so against the Constitution that we should throw it all away just to have our pound of flesh or clear the decks for another ambitious politician to take the top job? 

At the very least, it is a step in the right direction, the jumping-off point for further negotiations. Given that the pandemic and the economic fallout weigh heavily on the minds of all Malaysians, the Opposition could demand of Muhyiddin a major revamp in the way the situation is being managed and help ensure that economic assistance quickly reaches those most affected by the crisis. And while they are at it, they could push for an end to the harassment and arrest of dissenters and critics as well. So much good could come out of this. 

Muhyiddin’s day of reckoning will surely come, never fear. In the meantime, the Opposition doesn’t have to like him or join his government. They don’t have to forgive him for betraying the aspirations of the people or excuse his poor performance. They don’t even have to trust him; they just have to hold his feet to the fire and make sure he lives up to his end of the bargain. In the end, it’s about making a considered judgement about what’s best for the nation under less than favourable circumstances. It’s about working with a deeply unpopular government for another year in exchange for important concessions that might make a meaningful difference to the people sooner than later. 

I know people are frustrated and angry; Tony Pua and Ong Kian Ming, for example, have been harshly but unfairly castigated for daring to think the unthinkable. We all want to believe that getting rid of Muhyiddin will solve our problems. It will not. But the die is now cast; the government will likely fall next week. Perhaps Pakatan Harapan leaders are right; Muhyiddin’s offer is too little too late – too little to satisfy ambitious leaders, too late to prevent Malaysia slipping deeper into crisis.

Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 15th August 2021