The Malaysian government’s decision to reconvene Parliament has been welcomed. But this in itself will not resolve the list of problems facing the country in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic.
After much popular pressure, the Malaysian Parliament will reconvene on 26 July, six months after it was suspended due to the state of emergency. The session will only last for five days, while the Senate, the Upper House, will meet for three days. The government has indicated that it will use the session to present its recovery plan to bring the country out of the Covid-19 pandemic. While the opposition has generally welcomed the government’s decision, some in its ranks complain that the sitting is too short for any meaningful debate on policies.
In January, the King approved the government’s proposal to call for the emergency, which will last until August. The government argued that the emergency is necessary for it to handle the pandemic effectively. Unhappiness among Malaysians ensued after the emergency failed to bring the daily average of 6,000 new Covid-19 cases down. On 1 June, the government had to impose another total lockdown, despite previously arguing that the country could not afford one. A lockdown is economically costly and will impact ordinary citizens the most. Cases of unemployment are on the rise, as are incidences of starvation, suicide, and mental health challenges. Citizens have also taken to social media to express their unhappiness, including raising the white flag campaign for those who desperately need help but are not receiving them.
From the opposition’s perspective, Parliament should meet so that it can scrutinise the government’s efforts to bring the number of cases down. Parliament can also ensure more transparency and inquiry over vaccine distribution, fair budgeting, and speeding up help for the needy. Checks and balances are also necessary to prevent the federal government from favouring the states under its charge over the opposition-run ones.
However, there are enough reasons to doubt that the re-opening of Parliament will change the situation for the better. The prime minister’s small parliamentary majority remains the crux of the country’s political instability. On 7 July, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the president of the United Malaysia National Organisation (UMNO), announced that his party was withdrawing its support for the Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. Zahid called on the premier to resign. Currently, UMNO has 38 MPs in Parliament, with 30 held by Muhyiddin Yassin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu).
The announcement was made hours after Muhyiddin promoted two UMNO ministers: Ismail Sabri as Deputy Prime Minister, and Hishammuddin Hussein as a Senior Minister. Ismail’s promotion is not to be taken lightly. In the event Muhyiddin Yassin steps down as prime minister, Ismail will be the front-runner to succeed him. Moreover, his elevation to be the second in command sidesteps Azmin Ali, a senior minister from Bersatu who was previously seen as the first among equals of the other three senior ministers.
…there are enough reasons to doubt that the re-opening of Parliament will change the situation for the better. The prime minister’s small parliamentary majority remains the crux of the country’s political instability.
With Ahmad Zahid’s latest announcement, there is a possibility that Muhyiddin’s government may not last until the 26 July sitting, though the UMNO president’s words must be taken with a pinch of salt. Some UMNO leaders and MPs rejected his announcement as representing the party’s Supreme Council decision. The Perikatan Nasional government can still survive if non-Pakatan Harapan opposition MPs can make up for the UMNO defectors, or if Pakatan Harapan strikes a gentleman’s agreement with Muhyiddin to let this government stay on until the situation stabilises.
Even if Muhyiddin stays on as Prime Minister, his majority will likely become the topic of debate in parliament, which may distract the original purpose of expediting the reopening of Parliament: to debate policies related to Covid-19. Since calling for a fresh general election now is impossible given the worsening pandemic situation, the call for a confidence motion in parliament may be revisited to determine the next prime minister. The short parliament session may hinder the vote from happening; in the past, submissions for the vote to be called to test prime minister Muhyiddin’s majority were not entertained by the Speaker of Parliament.
There is another way out. Former premier Mahathir Mohamad has proposed the formation of a National Operations Council (Mageran) to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic and a range of other problems facing the country. Any changes in government will not affect measures to tackle the crisis. Politicians and professionals are to make up this body. This could be a proposal that the King might accept. Critics of Mahathir’s proposal, however, argue that this is against democracy because the council will be devoid of political legitimacy and will not be voted in by the people. There are early signs that the government is keen to taper this suggestion. Mahathir has confirmed that Datuk Seri Tengku Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz, the finance minister and coordinating minister for the National Recovery Plan (PPN), has reached out to him discuss about the PPN committee. This could be a move to appease the veteran politician, whose new party Pejuang was only registered after months of delay.
Most importantly, whether the reopening of parliament can improve the way the pandemic is tackled depends on how MPs behave. Over the past few years, both sides have been guilty of behaviour unbecoming of elected parliamentarians. Walking out of Parliament in protest has become common, as is name-calling and attempts to heckle political opponents as they deliver their speeches mid-stream. MPs across the political divide must improve the quality of the debate especially in crisis times like this. Only then can good policies be recommended, and efficient implement strategies follow suit. They have to keep the grand goal in mind: in a time of coronavirus, robust policies will make a world of difference for the rakyat who are tottering on the brink of collapse.
Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.