An Unwanted Reunion : A look into Malaysia’s Government Change
I could never quite understand why people think studying politics is boring. Malaysian politics in 2020 was everything but boring. Or maybe some think politics, like their crush, is out of their leagues. Better keep their heads out of it and pretend they don’t care rather than spend time and get hurt in a complicated process they don’t quite understand. Given that you’re here, I am assuming that you don’t fall into those groups. Either way, I hope this article sends the very important message that politics is about normal people such as you and I. Incidents this year, specifically the government change in February which we will be talking about here, affects us and will affect generations more to come in more ways than we can imagine.
Two previous rivals, Mahathir and Anwar, joined hands in 2018 to defeat the then Prime Minister (PM) and his coalition, Najib and Barisan Nasional (BN). One of the promises made for the coalition to work was that should they win, Mahathir would first be PM for two years, then hand over the position to Anwar. With the 2 years anniversary approaching, there was pressure from Anwar’s supporters for Mahathir to set a timeline for the change of hands, but this was often met with the latter’s refusal to commit to a timeline, retorting that he needed more time to reduce the country’s debt and stabilise matters before stepping down. On 21 February, the leaders of Pakatan Harapan (PH) - the governing coalition - met to discuss the matter which ended with Mahathir reporting that the unanimous decision was to leave the matter of when he should step down to the man himself.
After a weekend of speculation, on Monday 24 February, Mahathir tendered his resignation both as PM and the Chairman of his own political party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu (BERSATU). After his resignation, BERSATU’s President, Muhyiddin Yassin announced that the party would be leaving the PH coalition. This cost PH 26 Members of Parliament (MPs). On top of that, 11 MPs (including Cabinet Ministers) from PH left as well. At this point, PH had 92 seats in Parliament, short of the 112 simple majority needed to form parliament.
The King appointed Mahathir as interim PM while he exercised his constitutional role to solve the issue. He proceeded to interview key players in order to decide who could best shoulder the role. On 2 March, Muhyiddin was sworn in as the country’s PM. He proceeded to create the new governing coalition, Perikatan Nasional (PN). At its centre, this is made up of BERSATU, PAS, and Gabungan Bersatu Sabah. Although not part of the core coalition, BN reaffirmed that it would lend its support to the coalition as well as remain in federal government.
The 2018 election was supposed to be a turning point in our history, a moment in time when we all came together as a country to exercise our political rights. But just like that, 2 years later, the effect of that election is no longer felt. The revolutionary PH coalition fell, replaced by BN, putting old political leaders back in power.
Is it even legal?
Here, I’d like to focus on the legality of Muhyiddin’s appointment instead of the legality of the government formation and whether it is a ‘backdoor government.’ Is it fair to say that Muhyiddin's not our PM since we didn’t vote for him?
Short answer: yes it’s legal.
Malaysia follows a similar system to the UK. You don’t vote for the PM or the government. Technically speaking, we didn’t vote for Mahathir as PM either. What we do vote for is the MPs. Our PM is chosen based on who can control a majority of the Parliament. This is usually the leader of the party with the most votes. Whether we like it or not, at the moment that is Muhyiddin.
The main issue however lies on the fact that in Malaysia, it is very much party politics. (It is linked to how we structure our voting but we will not go there as it will open another passionate debate). This was even more apparent in the 2018 election. It was very clear that people were voting for ‘NOT BN’. And this was translated in the composition of the Parliament up until February 2020 when MPs jumped parties and changed alliances. This sounds fishy and wrong, but at the moment, perfectly legal at the federal level in Malaysia.
By now, I hope you know where I’m going; legality aside, what happened was wrong. If democracy as a concept is giving the power to the people to decide, we truly have undermined Malaysia’s democracy. What the MPs did in February was similar to a solicitor who blatantly ignores, whether deliberately or ignorantly, the will of a dead man. It was unethical and irresponsible. Our elected representatives were trusted with upholding the interests of the public, not because of their personal beliefs and ambitions, but rather for what they have promised they would deliver and the values they said they stood by (linked to the political parties they represent). Given this extreme misrepresentation, can they retain the position they were entrusted with? But since this is currently questionable, should the Parliament continue having power to legislate and limit liberties?
The implications of letting this continue however are way graver than that. Because letting this incident slide will set a standard for the future Parliament and elected MPs. It will tell them two things. First, that there’s a loophole in our laws which they can exploit, allowing them to manoeuvre election results when it is not personally preferable to them. Second, and perhaps this is the scarier one, that the citizens of Malaysia will let them. That there’s little accountability for their actions, and as MP’s they are invincible, at least for the 5 years in term.
Understandably we had a lot of other issues to deal with this year. I think a huge chunk of the reason why there was little retaliation upon the incident was because of COVID-19. People were scared to comment much at a time when the country and the whole world struggled on a more pressing issue. But livelihood continues post COVID. And so must politics. In fact, both are too intertwined, it cannot be separated. From deciding our budget and setting the course of international relations to deciding how we handle COVID, if we go to work and school, and even the speed of which we drive our car. Everything is set by the Parliament and executed by the Government. Our liberties and livelihoods are handed on a platter to other people. The only thing you get in return is the assurance that you get to choose who decides for you. When that is threatened, everyone should feel threatened. For Malaysia to heal from COVID, our politics must first be stabilised, from the very core. Letting the political pandemic go untreated is not the solution.
Again, representing MSGA, we are not against any specific political parties or individuals. If we do have any clear grievances against the Government, it is perhaps how it lacks in diversity and inclusivity at the Cabinet level, though we see that as linked to the issue at hand and a perfect example of how the current Government and Parliament does not represent the people of Malaysia and our will. That said, we do not question some of the clear successes of this Government and Parliament and the support that they may have from people. However, we think that since that is the case, Muhyiddin and his MPs will have much to gain in opening up elections (virtually of course) and passing a bill to reform the country’s constitutions, ensuring the current problems never arise again. If they don’t, we’re afraid they will have so much to lose, at its very core the trust of the voters, as they already are by wanting to put Parliament on hold.