Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is coming under increasing pressure to allow parliament to return this month, as his decision to impose a state of emergency and suspend democracy in January has done little to prevent one of the world’s worst outbreaks of COVID-19.
The embattled leader will decide this week at a Cabinet meeting when parliament will reconvene, following King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah’s repeated calls to have the federal legislature in session before the state of emergency expires on August 1.
De facto Law Minister Takiyuddin Hassan said Friday that the prime minister will honor the King’s wishes, though Muhyiddin’s health status remains in question. Last week’s Cabinet meeting was cancelled after the prime minister was admitted to hospital with diarrhea.
Muhyiddin’s greatest ally in the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), last month issued an ultimatum calling for the government to restart parliament by July 5. But he has so far given the party, the largest in the ruling bloc, the cold shoulder.
In recent days, UMNO supreme council members led by party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi seemingly agreed to plans of withdrawing support for the PN coalition. The alleged move to end ties, though not the first, would in effect see the collapse of Muhyiddin’s government.
Muhyiddin is also coming under renewed pressure from the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition, with leaders including PKR chief Anwar Ibrahim threatening to march to parliament on July 19 if Muhyiddin refuses to convene the body before August.
Failure to heed the King’s call is tantamount to treason, the opposition claims, though Attorney General Idris Harun – the country’s chief lawyer – has maintained that discretion lies with the prime minister. The King, as a constitutional monarch, will have to listen to the prime minister’s advice and act accordingly.
Muhyiddin’s administration has been reticent over when parliament will reconvene. It earlier said a meeting was planned for September, at the earliest. The government has since opted to form a new committee to “look into” the matter instead of fixing a date for the legislature’s reopening.
Broad interpretation of the federal constitution has spawned a heated argument in Malaysia over when parliament should sit next.
Opposition lawmaker Fahmi Fadzil said parliament should be called into session on August 2, the day after the state of emergency is scheduled to be lifted. The failure to do so, he said, would set off a constitutional crisis.
He cited Article 55(1) of the Federal Constitution, which states: “The Yang di-Pertuan Agong shall from time to time summon parliament and shall not allow six months to elapse between the last sitting in one session and the date appointed for its meeting in the next session.”
Lawyer Lim Wei Jiet said while he agreed that parliament must immediately convene if the emergency ends on August 1, the prime minister can extend the suspension of parliament through the emergency, as is being done now.
“The six months provision is suspended pursuant to the emergency, so it is not in effect. Since this provision is suspended by the emergency, there is nothing unconstitutional about the non-convening so far,” said Lim, who is also the co-founder of the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance political party formed by former Minister of Youth and Sports Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman.
Other legal experts argue that parliament may dissolve automatically once the emergency is lifted on August 1. After the dissolution of parliament, a general election would have to take place within 60 days.
However, with daily COVID-19 cases hovering near the 7,000 mark and deaths mounting, a snap poll may not be a rational way of resolving the country’s ongoing political uncertainty.
Muhyiddin, despite his razor-thin majority, has maintained he has the majority support of 220 MPs in the lower house. The last time parliament sat, Muhyiddin survived a no-confidence test after parliament passed the 322.5 billion ringgit ($79 billion) federal budget by a slim majority.
At the time, the prime minister’s popularity was bolstered by the government’s successful handling of the coronavirus pandemic, with two in three people surveyed by local pollster Merdeka Centre giving him a positive approval rating.
But Malaysia has since struggled to contain newer outbreaks involving more infectious variants of the virus. New infections still exceed 6,000 a day, with the country’s confirmed total breaching 778,000 and deaths exceeding 5,400, according to Our World In Data tracker.
Yesterday, the government announced 6,045 new positive COVID-19 cases, far above the 4,000-threshold the government has set as a trigger for easing lockdown restrictions.
The country’s most affluent state Selangor and some districts in Kuala Lumpur have been put under enhanced lockdown for two weeks, limiting household movement for errands to only one per family and restricting travel to within a 10-kilometer radius. The stern restrictions, which also include an 8 p.m. curfew, will remain in place until July 16.
A global return to normalcy poll published by The Economist recently ranked Malaysia the worst performer among 50 of the world’s largest economies. The index measures nations’ progress in reopening via indicators such as traffic rates, cinema box office revenues and footfall in shops.
Malaysia’s protracted lockdowns over the past year have seen its unemployment rate spike to its highest level in three decades, as businesses are forced to shut down leaving more than a million families at risk of absolute poverty.
Heightened economic stress during the pandemic has resulted in an increase in suicide rates, with police data showing three deaths by suicide occurring daily on average this year.
Across the nation, more families are growing desperate and seeking help by flying white flags outside their homes, signaling their need for food and other immediate assistance.
The #benderaputih (white flag) campaign, seen widely as a symbol of the government’s failure to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, triggered a parallel black flag protest online demanding the prime minister’s resignation, the reconvening of parliament, and an end to the emergency.
This growing unrest could prove disastrous for Muhyiddin’s rocky administration. As parliament returns, MPs will be pressured by their constituents to hold the government accountable for what many has described as a futile six-month emergency.
State legislatures in a majority of Malaysian states have decided to push ahead with plans to reconvene in July and August, intensifying the pressure on Muhyiddin.
Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which scrutinizes public spending, will also proceed to sit on July 26, according to chair Wong Kah Woh, a lawmaker from the opposition Democratic Action Party.
“This meeting will be held physically involving all PAC committee members, including ex-officio members, to discuss and update the PAC meeting schedule, involving cases that had been postponed previously,” Wong said.
Muhyiddin barely survived the last sitting of parliament. It is probable that he will survive the next, but holding a general election amid a raging pandemic could push the nation to the brink of collapse. It will be interesting to see where the prime minister decides to place his bet.