COMMENT | Muhyiddin is locked down, and the way out

COMMENT | Two months have passed since the infamous Sheraton Move that brought Muhyiddin Yassin into office. He came to power at a time when Malaysia is facing the worst crisis in history – and the pain has only started.

His approach to surviving politically has been three-fold – to make strategic alliances and use patronage to secure a parliamentary majority, to put the country into lockdown to reduce the spread of Covid-19, and to offer immediate short-term financial cash and lending assistance in the hope that this will appease the electorate.

All three are not tenable given the scope of Covid-19. In this period of the movement control order (MCO), the person who is most locked down is the prime minister himself.

Although Muhyiddin has immediately put off facing the opposition by undercutting the parliamentary process with a one-day sitting on May 18, the reckoning will come. Muhyiddin is in fact facing potential opposition from all sides: self-interested politicians, a demanding electorate expecting a resolution to the health crisis – a reality that is much further off than the reported cases suggest – and a suffering electorate that is not yet fully prepared for the economic hardship and sacrifices coming ahead. The massive drop in oil prices, falling demand for palm oil and electronics, as well as rising unemployment will have an unprecedented effect on the economy and society.

The safest way out for Muhyiddin (and Malaysia) is to break free from the political constraints that he has allowed to entrap him and move Malaysia in this period of crisis towards stronger policies and better governance. Covid-19 provides an opportunity for new political arrangements.

The crisis is already reshaping attitudes and the new realities call for different policy approaches that will require broader public support than Muhyiddin currently has. There is an urgent need to reach across the political divides, to tap into the country’s diversity and talent, to find allies that put the country first, not themselves – or their bank accounts. As I suggest below, Malaysia needs a plural umbrella national government.

Indications, however, are that Muhyiddin is opting to extend his own lockdown, and with it a political – and economic – recovery that is...

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