28 May The Saga Continues: Recent Developments in Malaysian Politics
After two months of relative quiet, the Malaysian political scene heated up again in the lead-up to the first parliament sitting under the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government on 18 May. For Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, there are questions of external opposition led by his former ally Dr Mahathir Mohamad, as well as internal opposition from members of his own coalition. For the nation as a whole, however, there are larger questions of how the government is addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and Malaysia’s economic challenges. The Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) held an online seminar on 21 May 2020 with Dr Oh Ei Sun, Senior Fellow of the Institute, to discuss recent political developments in Malaysia and their socioeconomic implications.
The session was moderated by Associate Professor Simon Tay, Chairman of the SIIA. A recording of the session is available as a premium resource for our corporate partners, and a summary of the points discussed can be found below.
The Enemy Within is More Dangerous than the Enemy Without
Former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir made headlines when his motion of no-confidence against Muhyiddin was accepted by the Speaker of the House on 8 May. Talks between the two camps likely broke down over Dr Mahathir’s aversion to working with individuals such as Najib Razak. Granted, supporters of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) President Anwar Ibrahim are not fully receptive of Dr Mahathir, but they likely realised that his support is crucial for engaging the government and rural constituencies. Muhyiddin will have to face this challenge via an official vote or a debate over a bill at some point.
However, Muhyiddin’s larger concern should be his own coalition. Parties such as Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) are clamouring for more oil revenue and powers. Actions by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), frustrated over allocations of Cabinet positions, also present a more direct challenge to his authority. Muhyiddin will have to find a way to balance these demands if he wishes to retain his premiership.
Mixed Perceptions of COVID-19 Policies
Public perception of Muhyiddin’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is divided. On the one hand, officials such as Health Director-General Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah received much credit for their leadership. Muhyiddin has also focused heavily on supporting poorer socioeconomic groups with cash handouts and other largesse. However, many small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are disgruntled, as they feel the government is not offering enough support despite demanding that they retain their staff. There is also growing pressure to reopen Malaysia’s economy as economic costs accumulate.
An Uncertain Economic Outlook
There are no easy answers as to how the Malaysian economy will fare in the near future. Much will depend on factors outside of the government’s control, such as commodity prices and China’s economic recovery. The government is expected to remain investor-friendly and open to investments from places such as China. However, stimulus packages are unlikely in the near future, while red tape at the bureaucratic level may intensify as political tremors continue.