Malaysia’s next parliamentary sitting was supposed to have seen the tabling of a historic no-confidence motion against the government led by Muhyiddin Yassin. It appears that the premier has dodged the bullet – at least for now.
Come Monday, Malaysia’s parliament will convene for the first time since Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional (National Consensus) coalition came to power. Initially scheduled for 9 March, the session was postponed in the aftermath of the new prime minister’s unexpected swearing in on 1 March. Despite the delay, the Monday sitting will only last for one day – a departure from the standard duration of four weeks. This is purportedly due to the unfolding Covid-19 situation in Malaysia.
Adding to the sense of abnormality, the Parliamentary Speaker, Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof, tabled a motion of no-confidence against Muhyiddin Yassin last week. A no-confidence vote is unprecedented – it has never been passed or held in Malaysia’s federal parliament. Even more poignantly, the proposer of the bill is none other than Mahathir Mohamad, the Prime Minister’s erstwhile ally and co-founder of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PBBM).
Rumours of a no-confidence bill have been circulating ever since Muhyiddin Yassin was sworn in as the head of an unwieldy agglomeration of parties. The constellation of parties is largely but not exclusively comprised of the Malay-based PPBM, the former political heavyweight United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Islamic Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS). The nature of this grouping’s ascent to power has come under heavy flak. After all, it goes against the spirit of the 2018 elections, which saw the rise to power of the rival Pakatan Harapan coalition led by Dr Mahathir.
Given the lengthy deliberations between the Malaysian King and the different factions in parliament, it was also unclear whether Muhyiddin actually commanded a majority when he was sworn in on 1 March (according to the Constitution, the King must appoint the person he thinks is “likely” to command a majority in the House). Notwithstanding uncertainty about the actual size of the opposing Pakatan Harapan bloc, it is clear that its steadfast “core” is sizeable and could – if the conditions are right – muster the narrowest of majorities to topple the new Prime Minister.
While shifting loyalties and factional disputes make definitive conclusions difficult, our estimates indicate that Perikatan Nasional has 110 MPs – two shy of the threshold needed for a simple majority in the 222-member parliament. Pakatan Harapan meanwhile has 107 seats. The remaining five MPs in play are non-aligned – that is, they are either independent MPs or MPs who belong to non-aligned Sabah parties. The three independent MPs are Syed Abu Hussin (Bukit Gantang), Masir Kujat (Sri Aman), Baru Bian (Selangau), while the United Alliance (Sabah) party has two MPs. While it appears that 31 PPBM MPs are likely to stay with Perikatan Nasional, this is not cast in stone. Dr Mahathir remains the party chairman and commands grudging respect from many in the party’s upper echelons. The independent MPs (with the exception of Baru Bian) and United Alliance (Sabah) were previously elected on the Barisan Nasional ticket in 2018 and are likely – but not certain – to throw their weight behind Muhyiddin Yassin. The bottom line: if Perikatan Nasional can corral support from all the 31 PPBM MPs from Muhyiddin’s faction and the five non-aligned MPs, it would only have a narrow and unstable majority.
The parliamentary order paper had initially stated that bills and other government matters would be discussed after the King’s speech on 18 May – indicating a slim possibility that the no-confidence motion could be voted upon. However, on 13 May, the Speaker issued a statement that Muhyiddin Yassin, as the leader of the House, had decided that parliament would only convene for the King’s opening speech. There would be no debate following the speech and all bills and government matters would be postponed to the subsequent parliament session, most likely in July.
Notwithstanding uncertainty about the actual size of the opposing Pakatan Harapan bloc, it is clear that its steadfast “core” is sizeable and could – if the conditions are right – muster the narrowest of majorities to topple the new Prime Minister.
While it is true that Malaysia is still in the midst of battling against the Covid-19 pandemic, the decision still raises eyebrows. After all, Malaysia operates a Westminster parliamentary democracy, and the fight against Covid-19 has not prevented other Westminster-based systems in the United Kingdom and Australia from resuming parliamentary sessions and debating bills.
In an immediate sense, the decision plays to Muhyiddin’s favour, as it allows him more time to shore up support through the doling out of senior decision-making positions in government-linked corporations and public agencies. In the medium-term, however, the delay only lends weight to Dr Mahathir’s charge that the Perikatan Nasional administration is illegitimate. When coupled with the internal unrest within the ruling coalition over the allocation of ministerial portfolios, UMNO’s refusal to commit to a formal partnership with PPBM, and the deepening economic malaise in the country, the persistent doubts about the legitimacy of Muhyiddin Yassin’s mandate will only intensify.
Francis E. Hutchinson is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Kevin Zhang is a Senior Research Officer, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.