Intellasia East Asia News – Politics still on fire in Malaysia

The coronavirus pandemic continues to rampage in the region. In Malaysia, the daily detected new infection numbers recently surged to more than 20,000 for a few days and still hover at a level not far below that.

Yet the intense politicking or rather, the power struggle among the political elites continues. The main object of contention is, of course, control over the government.

Malaysia inherited the so-called Westminster system of parliamentary democracy from its former colonial master, the United Kingdom. Under then prevalent Westminster system, the government, or more precisely the executive branch of the government, does not have a fixed term.

Rather, the government, formed from an elected lower house of parliament (but may include unelected senators), has a maximum term of five years before parliament is automatically dissolved, and the next general election is due.

But this does not necessarily mean the government can serve a whole five-year term. Instead, the government is entitled to serve while it enjoys the confidence (or support) of the majority of members of the lower house, more succinctly known as the parliamentary majority.

The government is headed by the prime minister appointed by the king. The king appoints as prime minister a member of the lower house who in the king’s opinion commands (or enjoys) the support of a parliamentary majority.

In a sense, the government or the executive power is vested in the prime minister, as the prime minister forms the government and is empowered to appoint and dismiss ministers (cabinet secretaries). So, supposedly, if the prime minister loses the support of the parliamentary majority, he or she should either resign or advise the king to call for fresh general elections, in both cases signifying the fall of the government headed by the prime minister.

There are several methods for testing the parliamentary majority support enjoyed by a sitting government or a prime minister that are either explicitly prescribed by the written constitution or implicitly laid out by the unwritten Westminster constitutional conventions.

The most common method is the official presentation of a motion of confidence either by the government of the day or by the opposition to the lower house. Such motion should be debated and voted upon. If the prime minister fails to pass such a confidence motion, the government officially loses the support of the parliamentary majority and thus falls.

Traditionally, in the UK as in Malaysia as well as many other Westminster jurisdictions, when a prime minister is appointed, he or she would expeditiously call for a confidence motion in parliament so as to demonstrate the parliamentary majority support for the new government and hence its democratic legitimacy.

But the present Malaysian prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, did not follow this longstanding tradition. Instead, conveniently using the continuing pandemic as an excuse, he postponed parliamentary session time after time. He could do so because the Westminster system entrusts the functioning of the parliament to the government of the day.

It was thought, at least back in the UK, that the incumbent would exercise gentlemanly discretion in ensuring the proper functioning of a parliamentary democracy. In fact, such chivalrous presumption on the part of the government underpins the fundamentals of the Westminster system.

But when the Malaysian parliament did meet last year, Muhyiddin did not put forward any confidence motion on his government. And the aforementioned incumbent parliamentary privilege was abused such that confidence motions presented by the opposition were deliberately moved to the tail end of the parliamentary agenda, and the daily proceedings of the parliamentary sessions were shortened, such that the confidence motions could not be debated, much less voted upon.

At the beginning of this year, a state of emergency was proclaimed in Malaysia, ostensibly to facilitate the pandemic combat effort. But even during an emergency, parliament is still constitutionally allowed to convene. Yet Muhyiddin again refused to convene parliament for more than half a year, relenting only after repeated public reminders from the king.

When parliament did meet again the week before last, no bill was introduced by the government. Instead, ministers just read from prepared scripts to brief the members of parliament, to the outrage of the opposition, which believed that Muhyiddin had in fact lost his parliamentary majority support.

One of the ministers even misled parliament that the king had consented to repeal those ordinances (with the force of law), promulgated during the emergency so as to avoid constitutionally required parliamentary votes on these ordinances. And these purported parliamentary votes were not even traditionally considered to be confidence motions. Yet the Muhyiddin government chose to eschew even such votes in parliament.

But the king had, in fact, not consented to such repeal and publicly rebuked the minister concerned for having misled parliament. A defiant Muhyiddin then publicly replied that as the king had to act (in most official matters) on the advice of the government, the government’s decision to repeal should be conclusive. The minister concerned also did not resign.

Indeed, UMNO, the party with the most number of members of parliament (MPs) in the ruling coalition, has had simmering disputes with Muhyiddin and his leadership and has long harbored the ambition to replace him with one of their own.

UMNO declared that its MPs were withdrawing their support from Muhyiddin. Granted, such a momentous decision from UMNO’s central leadership was not supported by all its MPs, especially those with cabinet positions, but enough of them have signified their withdrawal of support from Muhyiddin that objectively it would appear that Muhyiddin longer enjoys the support of a parliamentary majority.

Muhyiddin responded by finally promising to present a confidence motion in parliament’s next sitting in September. But the political fire is unlikely to die down, and the political scores are not yet settled, because Muhyiddin’s political track record after he assumed the premiership has been a decidedly less than stellar one. Many are left to wonder what other constitution-bending tricks he is likely to pull out of his political hat from now until then.


Category: Malaysia

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