Malaysian King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah speaking with Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

Malaysian King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah (left) speaking with Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on 9 June 2021. (Photo: Istana Negara, Facebook)

Muhyiddin’s Gambit: Royally Blocked

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What the Prime Minister has proposed in suspending Parliament, the King has blocked. PM Muhyiddin ignores the will of the Sovereign at his peril.

As with countries the world over, Malaysia’s struggle with the Covid-19 pandemic has been prolonged. Arguing that extraordinary times require extraordinary measures, the Perikatan Nasional (PN) administration placed the country under a State of Emergency in January this year and suspended Parliament. Senior PN leaders argued this would allow the government to focus its energies on combatting the pandemic via a national vaccination drive, comprehensive testing programme, and associated measures.

However, the cross-linkage of Malaysia’s Covid-19 response, the Emergency, and the concurrent suspension of Parliament have come under question. There have been a raft of problems: policy flip-flops, the uneven application of movement control orders and inconsistent sanctioning of offenders, consistently high case numbers, and a slow (but improving) vaccination drive. This has led many to ask what good the Emergency is if the outcomes are so wanting.

Others have argued that suspending Parliament is no longer tenable. According to the Constitution, both the Lower and Upper Houses can operate during an Emergency. In addition, all MPs have been vaccinated, and remote or hybrid proceedings are entirely possible. Lastly, given the stakes at hand, Parliament needs to scrutinise and debate all measures — particularly those related to fighting Covid-19.

Over the past months, the Muhyiddin Yassin-led PN administration’s answer to these questions has consistently been that more time is needed and that the Emergency and suspension of Parliament would be repealed in due course.

Enter the King. In the past, he has been supportive of the Muhyiddin administration, admonishing MPs to avoid politicking and concentrate on the task at hand. But the Monarch also stated in February this year that the Emergency need not preclude a parliamentary sitting.

From 9-15 June, the Monarch met with the country’s top leaders to gather their opinions on these issues. Starting with Prime Minister Muhyiddin on Wednesday morning, the King then met with political leaders from across the spectrum over the following days. All in, the King met 18 political leaders — including opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, UMNO party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, and former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad — as well as the Chairman of the Independent Special Committee on the Emergency and senior government officials.

The details of what was discussed were kept confidential. However, going by the range of opinions in the public sphere, it is likely that the King had the impression that there is little unity of purpose among the country’s leaders. In the past weeks, ideas floated include establishing a military-style National Operations Council, repealing the Emergency and convening Parliament, as well as dissolving Parliament altogether. Nonetheless, the calls to reconvene the Lower House are the loudest, followed by those calling for the State of Emergency to end by the stipulated date of 1 August.

Seeking to regain the initiative, Muhyiddin released the country’s National Recovery Plan on Tuesday afternoon. More than containing specific measures to revitalise the economy, the Plan laid out a four-phase framework for loosening restrictions on economic and social activities. Progress through the various phases is linked to specific indicators such as the number of daily Covid-19 cases, the capacity in ICU wards, and vaccination coverage. According to this framework and the current trajectory, Malaysia would progress to the third stage in September or October this year, and, at that point, Parliament would be able to reconvene. The Prime Minister met the King privately on Tuesday morning to brief him on the plan.

While not setting out a date, the King’s statement on Wednesday specifically mentioned the importance of Parliament debating Muhyiddin’s recently released National Recovery Plan. This strongly implies an emphasis on sooner rather than later.

On Wednesday (16 June), the King ended his consultations with a special meeting of the Conference of Rulers. Bringing together Malaysia’s nine sultans — and in some cases its state governors — the body has a storied place in Malaysian history. The Conference has taken important positions on key issues in the past, including the 1MDB scandal. Following his meeting with his fellow rulers in October 2020, the King denied Muhyiddin’s first request to declare a State of Emergency.

Following the Wednesday meeting, the King’s representative issued a press statement which was complemented by another from the Conference of Rulers. Taken together, the two statements constitute a very real check on any ambitions Muhyiddin may have harboured to prolong the Emergency or continue the suspension of Parliament. The key provisions of the statements are: Parliament should be convened as soon as possible; state assemblies should resume sitting, and there is no need for the Emergency to be extended past 1 August. Other parts of the statements stressed that the government should seek to reduce bureaucratic hurdles and speed up the vaccination drive, and that all parties should work towards recovery.

While not setting out a date, the King’s statement on Wednesday specifically mentioned the importance of Parliament debating Muhyiddin’s recently released National Recovery Plan. This strongly implies an emphasis on sooner rather than later.

In theory, the King needs the Prime Minister’s advice to repeal the Emergency, and the Conference of Rulers has no codified means of enforcing its opinion. In practice, however, Muhyiddin ignores these statements at his peril. While his position as Prime Minister bestows him with long reach on the chessboard, at this point, all the royal pieces are blocking him.

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