Divisive politics trumped by deep-rooted respect for Malaysian royalty

Just when the fragile Malaysian coalition government looked likely to collapse after barely nine months in power, an unexpected rescue came from the largely ceremonial royalty – with the King professing tacit support for the current administration’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic within the country.

The strongly worded endorsement by the King, speaking on behalf of the nine sultans who rotate every five years to the ceremonial post, sent shivers down the spines of all opposing politicians as the local populace intrinsically profess utmost, almost hallowed, respect for Malaysian royalty – just as in many Asian nations.

Even so, heated debates in Malaysia’s Parliament – since the inaugural national Budget was tabled in early November 2020 by the fragile coalition government – seemed to indicate that abiding by the King’s expressed wishes was far from the minds of opposing elected MPs.

Key among these were two critical blocks of MPs – from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), who indicated they may withdraw support from the current administration led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, so that fresh general election is triggered, and the Pakatan Harapan opposition grouping led by Anwar Ibrahim.

But at crunch time on 26 November 2020, when Parliamentary vote on the 2021 Budget was held, it took only a voice vote for almost unanimous support from both sides of the political divide – thus maintaining the current administration on even keel.

There were only 13 MPs who defiantly stood up against the 2021 Budget – led by two-time PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who had dramatically resigned in February 2020 and caused the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan government, leading to the current fragile Muhyiddn-led coalition..

Aside from Dr Mahathir’s blatant disrespect for the King,what most pundits found interesting was how Anwar capitulated to support the current administration – despite just weeks earlier claiming he had garnered support from enough MPs to replace Muhyiddin and become Malaysia’s next PM.

It was yet another clear signal of Anwar’s waning influence in Malaysian politics – with his Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) on the backfoot after the exit of his right-hand man Mohamed Azmin Ali to shore up Muhyiddn’s coalition in March 2020.

Already the weakened founding partner of the Pakatan Harapan coalition which threw out in 2018 the Barisan Nasional government, which had ruled Malaysia since the nation gained independence in 1957, Anwar was left with little choice as fellow Pakatan Harapan founding partner Democratic Action Party (DAP) publicly avowed to support Muhyiddn’s Budget 2021.

Like Dr Mahathir, Anwar is far from fading quietly into the night – shooting off fiery rhetoric at every opportunity – but his cherished dream of becoming ‘Malaysia’s next PM’ is clearly gone and with the Budget 2021 surrender, Anwar is practically confirmed as a liability to PKR’s chances regaining voter support come the next general election.

This leaves UMNO as the key player on how long Muhyiddin’s fragile coalition stays in power. They may have respected the Agong’s wishes right now as the Covid-19 pandemic rages through the country. But with the vaccine promise of possible return to normalcy by mid-2021, will Muhyiddin get the chance to present a second national Budget?

All indications are Muhyiddin’s leadership hourglass is fast running out of sand and with three by-elections coming up, UMNO is likely to see these electoral as the catalyst for it to regain the reins of power in Malaysia.

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