This is no time for instability

This is no time for instability

Politics dominated last week's developments in the region. Malaysia, once a bastion of stability in Southeast Asia, now has its fourth prime minister in less than 40 months after Muhyiddin Yassin stepped down last Monday.

Mr Muhyiddin's resignation came less than a year before the next general election must be held. Malaysia's king, Al-Sultan Abdullah, on Friday endorsed Ismail Sabri Yaakob, Mr Muhyiddin's former deputy, as the new premier in a bid to ensure policy continuity as the country grapples with the Covid crisis.

The need for stability is urgent, given the health and economic crises stemming from the protracted Covid-19 pandemic. The country of 32 million continues to record Thailand-like numbers above 20,000 new infections per day, even with one-third of its adult population fully vaccinated and more than 60% having had at least one shot.

The country's central bank has halved its gross domestic product (GDP) growth forecast to between 3% and 4%, from 7.5% predicted earlier. The ratings agency Fitch is now forecasting zero growth, down from 4.9% earlier.

The abrupt exit of Mr Muhyiddin and his cabinet brought echoes of last year when the veteran Mahathir Mohamad stepped aside in hopes of bringing his fractious coalition into line. The 94-year-old was betting that everyone would beg him to come back. But the king, who usually occupies a ceremonial role, had other ideas. He said he wanted aspirants for the job to prove they could muster a majority, and Mr Muhyiddin convinced him that he could.

But last week he conceded he had lost support from his alliance, creating a political vacuum as the Covid surge makes it impossible for Malaysians to go to the polls at the moment.

But for many, developments in Malaysia were overshadowed by the news out of Afghanistan, where the Taliban seized power with shocking speed as the United States ended its futile 20-year mission to bring "democracy" to the country. The return of the hardline group that ran the country from 1996 to 2001 raised global alarm that Afghanistan could once again become a safe haven for jihadists inspired by its success, threatening world peace.

Nations are hurriedly evacuating their diplomats and citizens from Afghanistan, leaving behind the fruits two decades of work and investments. Not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars worth of US military hardware, once used by the Afghan army and now in the hands of the Taliban.

The return of the Taliban is likely to cause a significant shift in the geopolitics of South Asia, and could be particularly testing for India, given its historically tense relations and border disputes with Pakistan and China. Beijing has made known its interest in playing a bigger role in Afghanistan -- Foreign Minister Wang Yi even met with senior Taliban leaders last month.

Experts say China has an economic interest in Afghanistan to help meet its ever-growing need for minerals. But more importantly it hopes to pressure the Taliban to ban the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which it blames for unrest in its Muslim-dominated Xinjiang province, from Afghan soil. Russia and Iran are also ready to work with the new regime and have kept their Kabul embassies open.

Back at home, meanwhile, the grim Covid news continues, as do daily protests seeking the ouster of the Prayut Chan-o-cha government for its poor handling of the pandemic and the economic hardship that has resulted. Fringe elements, mostly angry young men, have been clashing daily with security forces, resulting in a stiff police response and injuries on both sides.

So far, all we've been hearing is the police coming out every day to defend their actions, saying it's their duty to control the situation and maintain peace. But I don't see anyone from the government side trying to communicate with the protesters.

Seriously, I don't think the resignation of the prime minister will do anything good for a country that faces similar challenges to Malaysia. A search for a new leader takes time and a political vacuum would harm the country more.

But the government has to show to the demonstrators that their concerns and demands are being heard by whoever is in power. Let's open some effective communication channels right now.

People on the street are in dire need of help and their understanding is vital for the country to combat the biggest health crisis we have ever faced. There is no time to waste before we slip into another crisis.

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