Malaysia PM faces parliament for first time in turbulent 2021

Malaysia PM faces parliament for first time in turbulent 2021

Malaysia's Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin speaks during a session of the lower house of parliament, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Monday. (Malaysia Information Department/Famer Roheni/Handout via Reuters)
Malaysia's Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin speaks during a session of the lower house of parliament, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Monday. (Malaysia Information Department/Famer Roheni/Handout via Reuters)

Malaysia’s parliament sat for the first time this year on Monday, providing lawmakers an opportunity to grill Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin over his government’s handling of the pandemic and the economy.

The five-day session will see Malaysia’s emergency declaration and bills on fake news and penalties for breaching Covid protocols finally laid before the house for legislators to scrutinise. The emergency, set to end on Aug 1, handed the embattled premier wide-ranging powers to tackle the coronavirus outbreak, including shuttering parliament and introducing ordinances without legislative approval.

Despite Muhyiddin’s actions, daily coronavirus cases have more than tripled since the emergency was first imposed on Jan 12. Confirmed cases have breached the one million mark and public anger is intensifying. Much of the country remains under lockdown as it added a record-high number of new infections for the third straight day on Sunday.

Monday’s sitting began with lawmakers present expressing their frustration that they were unable to debate or vote on the emergency and the six ordinances that the government gazetted throughout the period. Law Minister Takiyuddin Hassan said their point was moot given that government had revoked the ordinances effective July 21.

“The best way for Muhyiddin to save himself is to embrace multipartisan governance,” said Wong Chin Huat, a professor of political science at the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development at Sunway University in Malaysia. Otherwise, the king’s speech in parliament in September and the tabling of the 2022 budget later this year could leave him vulnerable, said Wong. Both will be put to a vote and their defeat is equivalent to a vote of no confidence, he added.

Threat neutralised

Still, Muhyiddin is facing colleagues from a slightly more stable position than a month ago. One major threat -- the powerful United Malays National Organisation’s call for him to quit -- was diffused when his cabinet, which includes UMNO members, pledged to continue backing him. UMNO MPs have also been given the party’s blessings to vote according to their conscience.

Another key risk was neutralised when the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan said Wednesday it won’t propose a no-confidence vote against Muhyiddin. “We only want this special sitting to focus on important Covid-19 matters, and the people’s hardship throughout this economic crisis,” said leaders Anwar Ibrahim, Lim Guan Eng, and Mohamad Sabu in the joint statement.

The government extended an olive branch ahead of the parliament’s opening, inviting opposition politicians onto a council tasked with overseeing the country’s recovery plan. It was a move “based on collaboration, inclusion and whole-of-nation,” said Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz in a statement Friday.

Monday’s session will begin with the prime minister explaining the national recovery plan, according to the parliament order paper. This will be followed by other ministers briefing the house on the plan to tackle the pandemic, the vaccine rollout, economic aid packages and the implementation of the emergency.

Lawmakers attending the sitting will be allowed to voice their views and seek clarification, the order paper states. Still, the debate would be meaningless if no changes are made to incorporate MPs’ suggestions, said Wong. “He can treat the parliamentary reopening cynically or use it intelligently to turn around his political mess,” he said.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad remains sceptical of the sitting.

“If we find this is just an explanation of government policies, we may decide at that time to leave the hall,” said Mahathir in a press conference Wednesday. “Are they going to talk about the suffering of the people, or are they going to talk about legitimising the wrong things they have done?”

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