Peculiar – meaning “different from the usual or normal” – is an apt adjective to describe Malaysia’s politics today.
On one hand, on the back of the COVID-19 pandemic that has affected more than 7,000 Malaysians, causing 114 deaths, the Muhyiddin Yassin-led Perikatan Nasional (PN) administration has been given the opportunity to consolidate power at nearly all levels of public life. This includes, but is not limited to, implementing movement control orders of different stringencies (of which Malaysia has been under since March 18), deploying the armed forces to assist in public-control efforts, regulation of speech, and limiting media access to certain events – including the one-day Parliamentary sitting. To be clear, this in itself is not inherently problematic, as coordination across all arms of government, and limiting certain individual freedoms, are critical in managing the pandemic.
On the other hand, this consolidation of power comes simultaneously with the smallest majority in Malaysia’s democratic history. With the May 18 Parliamentary sitting, it is clear that the PN administration commands the support of 113 members of Parliament – a mere sliver more than the 112 needed to possess a simple majority in Malaysia’s 222-member Dewan Rakyat.
Precarious in Parliament, Consequences on Policymaking
In this politically precarious position, Muhyiddin Yassin would need to tread carefully given that he may not necessarily possess the full numbers needed to fulfill all of his administration’s legislative agenda while trying to appease different stakeholders. In the absence of a more solid majority, he has the option of postponing the Parliament meetings set for July and August 2020. There are no constitutional obligations to have the meetings in July and August since the only requirement is to sit within six months from the last meeting, hence there is a possibility of pushing back any Parliament meetings as far as November 18, 2020.
This worst case scenario would be a dereliction of democratic and parliamentary duties and values. Oversight functions will be severely limited, with parliamentarians unable to meet and debate on pressing issues, while parliament select committees sit idle in the background. It is important for Parliament to provide the necessary checks-and-balances on the bigger role unassumingly granted to the government to deal with COVID-19 today.
While it is not likely that the Muhyiddin administration will seek to postpone parliamentary meetings again, it should be noted that his razor thin parliamentary majority means that party discipline will be critical in ensuring all MPs are in attendance to vote for government bills. However, party discipline could be hard to maintain due to the relatively looser nature of the PN coalition and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia’s (PPBM) fractured state. This adds to uncertainty whether whips can wield sufficient influence now that every MP’s vote counts for every bill brought to Parliament.
It is also uncertain how this may affect opposition politics, with the heightened state of politicking and winner-takes-all stakes likely to prevent bipartisan efforts from taking place. Further to this is how so far in Malaysia, there is a lack of political maturity in allowing for conscience-based voting on certain policy matters, and voting in Parliament has, more often than not, been made on the basis of party lines. The opposition’s distrust toward the PN administration will likely entrench this, save for potential confidence and supply situations where interests and incentives can be aligned, however likely that may be.
Consequently in the short term, politicking could distract the PN administration from addressing multiple issues at hand – such as reviving the economy, handling potential new waves of COVID-19, and managing society and their attendant health and economic anxieties. From an economic standpoint, Calvin Cheng elucidates the need to increase government spending and expand various programs. This will require laws to be passed, such as raising the statutory debt ceiling of 55 percent of GDP, amending the Employment Insurance System (EIS) Act 2017 to strengthen social protection, and passing a comprehensive emergency bill to loosen some restrictions until economic conditions improve. Failure to legislate on these pressing matters will only delay economic recovery, with the people losing out the most in the end.
In the longer term, this could distract from a host of other considerations, including the hosting of the APEC Summit at the end of the year, the tabling of the 12th Malaysia Plan (2021-2025), and the continuity of the Shared Prosperity Vision (SPV) 2030 – the successor of the now lapsed Wawasan 2020.
Shoring up Stability: Implications on Politics
From a political perspective, PN’s razor thin majority establishes the foundation for a unstable government, with the coalition still a loose assemblage for now. With such an arrangement, coupled with both sides of the political divide having a realistic chance of obtaining a majority, politicking is unlikely to cease until the next parliamentary sitting scheduled in July 2020, at the earliest.
In these uncertain times, continued horse trading on allocations and positions in government-linked companies and statutory bodies may appease some parties, but at the cost of lending itself to the disenfranchisement of politics and diminishing value of public service in Malaysia. However, with COVID-19 already exposing the disparities between the haves and have-nots, this would extract political capital as it becomes more apparent that while the politicians enrich themselves, the common folk are left to face the recession.
Meanwhile, the unstable – and perhaps insecure – PN coalition government could see Malaysia going down a more policy-repressive and politically-exclusionist pathway. This is largely due to how in semi-democracies like Malaysia, regime stability and longevity are intrinsically linked to performance legitimacy. The latter, unfortunately, would be harder to demonstrate in the coming months and years due to the onset of the recession.
What this means is that the “social contract,” where the people tolerate a more repressive government in exchange for steady economic growth, could be undermined. As a result, public discontent – either based on hard facts or misled perceptions – centering upon the economy and costs of living that had beseted Najib Razak’s government could once again see a rise. In the event that this happens, it is not impossible to theorize the government adopting a more repressive stance to manage the discontent, in an attempt to provide a semblance of stability.
In fact, it could be argued that glimmers of such tendencies can already be seen with the Minister of Home Affairs Hamzah Zainudin’s press statement on May 14. In it, he outlined how his Ministry will no longer compromise, and will not hesitate to use all legislations at its disposal such as the Malaysian Penal Code, Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, and the Sedition Act 1948 on those intentionally provoking, disturbing, or threatening matters concerning security and public tranquility.
Adding to this are dark clouds hovering over the media industry which benefited from a freer environment during the previous administration. With all but the official media being restricted in covering the one-day Parliamentary sitting, the role of the media to hold the government accountable through posing questions has unfortunately been undermined. This is on top of how the National Security Council had instructed the Royal Malaysian Police and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission to take “stern action” against online media that misreport news, and how a staff writer for the South China Morning Post, Tashny Sukumaran, had been called in for questioning for her tweets “allegedly sharing offensive and menacing content online as well as for intentional insults and provocation to disrupt the public peace.”
This is of grave concern because the media is often the rights bearer and bellwether for free speech, and any restrictions on media freedom often precedes the erosion of other fundamental rights. Relatedly, the government’s treatment of the media tends to portray its actual understanding and appreciation of wider free speech rights.
In terms of exclusionist politics, what cannot be ignored is how the PN administration is overtly represented by Malay-Muslim MPs. With its position in Parliament, and to an extension Putrajaya being precarious – this situation could see a ramp up in Malay-politics to appeal and cement its Malay vote base at the expense of the legitimate interests of the other races. This is despite the PN coalition including political parties representing Malaysia’s minorities, such as the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), as they could be argued to be mere tokens, commanding little support from their respective communities. With the former having a mere two seats in Parliament and the latter a single, their ability to constraint the impulses of the Malay-majority parties in the PN coalition can be called into question.
In this peculiar situation, it is clear that politicking needs to move towards a healthier model allowing for bipartisanship. This would prove critical in weathering the twin storms brought about by COVID-19 and the economic recession. This, however, would be easier said than done considering the winner-takes-all and everything-for-grabs nature of Malaysian politics today. Having said that, while there is nothing stopping one from hoping, it seems that today’s peculiarity could quickly transform into tomorrow’s anxiety.
Harris Zainul and Ryan Chua are Kuala Lumpur-based current affairs commentators. Views expressed in this article are of the authors’, and does not represent the views of institutions or organisations that the authors’ may be affiliated with, and/or those cited.