Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin

Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin gave a special address on 2 March 2020. (Photo: Screengrab from Berita RTM Facebook)

Malaysian PM Muhyiddin: Sins of Omission?

Published

In his maiden speech as Malaysia’s new prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin sought to steady a teetering nation by what was said. But a brooding sense of unease prevails, due to what was not said about the issues that matter.

Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, Malaysia’s new Prime Minister, delivered a special address on Monday, his first day on the job. These are early days, and the speech was expectedly brief and broad-brushed, but it was a necessary statement of intent to help allay anxieties over the political turmoil that preceded his abrupt ascent to power. The speech transmitted an early signal of his administration’s priorities.

Unsurprisingly, the Prime Minister pleaded for unity and popular support. He also committed himself to policy continuity. The newly-cobbled government coalition, named Perikatan Nasional but not mentioned in the speech, had outmanoeuvred Pakatan Harapan through defections and realignments not inspired by fundamental policy disagreements. Indeed, the lead party of both coalitions remains the same: Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM). It is no surprise that Muhyiddin has recommitted to PPBM’s signature Shared Prosperity Vision (SPV) – a plan to steer the country into the ranks of developed economies by 2030.

Taking a leaf from Pakatan’s campaign in the 14th general elections (GE-14) of 2018, Muhyiddin played up a “rescue” narrative premised on the need to “get Malaysia back on the right path” and avert further political crisis. Well aware that his emergence as premier on the back of Perikatan’s machinations has triggered anger and frustration, Muhyiddin acknowledged these popular sentiments. His plea for Malaysians to not impugn his intentions in assuming the premiership may go down well with swathes of the populace who want Malaysia to move on with someone taking charge.

There is much to do, posthaste. The Covid-19 epidemic demands attention. The economic stimulus package launched by former Prime Minister Mahathir on 25 February sought to address core bread-and-butter issues. In his speech, Muhyiddin hewed close to these themes. Access to healthcare featured prominently in his speech. He also committed himself to resolving the chronic problems surrounding cost of living, economic hardship and deficiencies in education quality.

Muhyiddin’s declaration of continuity also derives from the reality that economic ideology and policy are not distinctly different. In GE-14, all contesting coalitions committed to raising wages, maintaining social protection, enhancing education and helping low-income households. The key differences in PH’s platform were one-off measures: abolishing the Goods and Services Tax and highway tolls, alleviating student debt and the introduction of targeted fuel subsidies. While in government, PH started to introduce some new programmes, including re-employment subsidies.

While the new Prime Minister will not be faulted for the lack of policy specifics, he should not tarry too long before delivering more concrete and detailed policy statements. Critically for Malaysia, and zealously followed, will be his cabinet appointments. Muhyiddin vows to assemble a “clean” cabinet, filled with people of integrity and calibre. He also promises to uphold good governance, integrity and anti-corruption measures.

The rhetoric is purposeful, and quite understandably plays to the gallery, given PPBM’s partnership with UMNO and its serried ranks of tarnished leaders. By the same token, the omissions and ambiguities warrant scrutiny. Muhyiddin is vague on what his criteria for integrity and calibre entail. Who will be disqualified from cabinet appointments – persons currently and officially charged, or all who are implicated in corruption in one form or another? And if the corruption-tainted are not on the frontlines, will they be allowed to operate in the back rooms, or be appointed to non-Cabinet positions of power and influence?

Perhaps the most keenly anticipated policies are the ones revolving around Bumiputera preference. Since the SPV gave prominence to it, the policy substance may not change very much. But there are concerns about implementation; specifically, whether UMNO’s reincarnation will also revive the patronage of the past.

More conspicuously, Muhyiddin omits institutional reforms altogether. This was a cornerstone of the PH government, which notched up a few achievements and set new precedents, while other items were suppressed or went dormant. Many voters pinned high hopes on these reforms, which sought to build a more democratic and accountable government. This is of concern, considering that the October 2018 Mid-term Review of the Eleventh Malaysia Plan introduced a brand new chapter on institutional reforms. It is expected that the agenda will be carried into the Twelfth Malaysia Plan to be launched this year.

Perhaps the most keenly anticipated policies are the ones revolving around Bumiputera preference. Since the SPV gave prominence to it, the policy substance may not change very much. But there are concerns about implementation; specifically, whether UMNO’s reincarnation will also revive the patronage of the past.

Muhyiddin’s dedication to be a Prime Minister for Malaysians of all ethnicities is laudable, but stands in contrast to the “Malay unity” impulse that conceived Perikatan. The solidification of the UMNO-PAS partnership was watched nervously by UMNO’s Barisan Nasional partners, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). In November last year, these four unlikely bedfellows joined forces at the Tanjong Piai parliamentary by-election, rallying behind the MCA candidate who won the Johor seat by a landslide.

With the bigger stakes and the responsibility of government, yet another Malay party, PPBM, has been thrown into the mix. This makes the balancing act even more challenging. Malaysians will eagerly anticipate how the Muhyiddin administration will address justice, equality and fairness.

Muhyiddin’s maiden speech provides adequate assurances – at least for now. A calm has settled, as much arising from lethargy and disillusionment, as a sense of relief from last week’s tumult. His political foes are not placated, and together with segments of civil society, remain vociferous in condemning “backdoor government”. The re-entry of UMNO and PAS to federal government provokes the most ire and accusations of betrayal, especially towards the former which suffered a GE-14 voter exodus in loud protest at its corruption and arrogance. In toto, Muhyiddin’s speech steadied a teetering nation by what was said. But a brooding sense of unease prevails, due to what was not said about the issues that matter.

2020/26