Malaysia’s king has called on Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to reconvene the country’s parliament as soon as possible. The body has been suspended for five months under a state of emergency. Parliament “needs to resume as soon as possible,” King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah said yesterday, after chairing a special conference of rulers from the country’s nine ethnic Malay states.
In January, the monarch approved the imposition of a state of emergency in order to control COVID-19, which resulted in the closure of parliament and granted Muhyiddin the power to pass legislation without a parliamentary vote.
Ahmad Fadil Shamsuddin, comptroller of the Royal Household of the National Palace, said that the king’s call is intended “to ensure the lower house representatives debate the emergency ordinances and the national recovery plan” put in place by Muhyiddin’s government, according to Nikkei Asia.
The comments are likely to increase the political pressure on Muhyiddin, whom opponents accuse of using the state of emergency, which expires on August 1, to buy time and consolidate his own precarious political position. Since finagling his way to power in March of last year, Muhyiddin has stumbled along with a threadbare parliamentary majority, and has been been forced to parry challenges both from opposition parties and from within his own camp.
Lending credence to the critics’ interpretation is the simple fact that the state of emergency has done little to stem the incidence of COVID-19. Indeed, daily infections surged to more than 9,000 last month, nearly five times as much as when the state of emergency was imposed, granting Malaysia the unwanted distinction of having the highest per capita rate of infection in Southeast Asia. The outbreak forced the government to impose a large-scale lockdown that remains in place, alongside a sluggish vaccine rollout that has attracted considerable criticism.
As of yesterday, Malaysia has reported more than 673,000 cases and 4,142 deaths from the coronavirus.
The seriousness of the situation last week prompted the king, known officially as the Yang di Pertuan Agong, to take the unusual step of consulting with a range of political leaders. These included two-time Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, both of whom assailed Muhyiddin’s handling of the pandemic and called for Parliament to be immediately reconvened.
Whether or not Muhyiddin heeds the monarch’s advice remains unclear. On the eve of the rulers conference, the Malaysian leader stated that Parliament can only reopen if new COVID-19 infections fall below 2,000 per day and 40 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. He predicted that could be in September or October. Infections are currently averaging around 5,000 per day, while just over 10 percent of Malaysia’s population has received at least one dose of vaccine.
“This is my position from the beginning, that the system of parliamentary democracy should function again at an appropriate time – which is once the cases are under control and we have almost achieved herd immunity,” Muhyiddin said.
While the king did not explicitly call for the state of emergency to be lifted, Muhyiddin was dealt a more direct rebuke by the rulers of the nine states. In their own statement, the rulers said that that since the state of emergency has done little to help curb the pandemic it should not be extended beyond August 1. They added that given its current COVID-19 challenges, Malaysia needs a stable government that commands the majority support of the people.
Over the past year, Malaysia’s king and the hereditary leaders of its nine ethnic Malay states have moved beyond their largely ceremonial role to mount more prominent interventions in politics. Indeed, with Parliament in a state of suspension, many members of the opposition – and nominal allies of Muhyiddin – are coming to see them as the only brake on the government’s powers.
For these reasons, the king’s comments were welcomed across the political spectrum. In a statement today, leaders of the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, which Muhyiddin and his allies helped oust from power in February last year, are already pushing for the prime minister to heed the rulers’ call and convene parliament as soon as possible, or otherwise resign. “It’s crucial that Parliament is convened so that all emergency ordinances and the national recovery plan can be debated,” PH said in a statement today.
Similar calls also came from within Muhyiddin’s own pan-Malay Perikatan Nasional coalition. In a statement, Mohamad Hasan, the deputy president of the United Malays National Organisation, said that any attempt to delay opening Parliament would be an affront to the monarch.
“Politicizing his will will not aid in the country’s speedy recovery,” he said. “Any excuse to delay reopening Parliament would not only be undemocratic, but would also besmirch the nobility and wisdom of the royal institution that was independent and apolitical.”