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LETTER | Malaysia’s politics are a mess, here’s how the new PM can fix it

LETTER | After months of a debilitating political crisis that saw the appointment of Malaysia’s third premier in 18 months, the historic agreement between the new prime minister, Ismail Sabri Yakob, and the opposition has brought much-needed stability to the country’s troubled politics.

Yet, as welcome as the recent development is, the bitter infighting and elite competition that has come to define Malaysian politics and underscores the degree to which it affects have utterly compromised the system, and why basic reforms are needed to both restore its legitimacy and prevent similar crises from happening again.

Like the crisis that brought Ismail Sabri to power last month, the ones that ended his two predecessor’s tenures were the product of acrimonious – and avoidable – internal power struggles.

Under Pakatan Harapan, then-prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s reluctance to cede leadership to his designated successor Anwar Ibrahim as promised exacerbated tensions within the coalition divided its membership and opened the door for Muhyiddin and others to take power in February 2020.

Similarly, demands for greater influence in Muhyiddin Yassin’s short-lived Perikatan Nasional government by his largest coalition partner, Umno, fostered deep resentments that plagued his administration and led the party to withdraw its support (more than once), eventually toppling the government and paving the way for Ismail Sabri’s appointment.

Poor performance and broken political system

To be sure, there are valid arguments to make about the extent to which Muhyiddin’s and Mahathir’s poor performances contributed to their downfalls. In its 22-months in power, Harapan under Mahathir fulfilled little of its aspirational manifesto, including implementing many hoped-for political reforms.

For his part, Muhyiddin failed to curb the country’s skyrocketing Covid-19 infections or introduce a coherent programme to manage the pandemic. During his watch, Malaysia’s economy nosedived under ineffective lockdowns that left many citizens relying on handouts to get by, not to mention his controversial state of emergency.

Regardless of their policy failures, the behind-the-scenes contest for power in Malaysia’s winner-take-all politics is a key contributor to how the country arrived at this chaotic point.

Given the severity of Malaysia’s Covid-19 situation, and how the prioritisation of political power over responsive governance contributed to it, is also why fundamental changes are needed to de-escalate factional warfare, ensure that the government is focused on serving the people’s interests – rather than its own – and prevent similar crises from happening again.

The historic agreement Ismail Sabri recently inked with the opposition, the memorandum of understanding on Transformation and Political Stability, is an important first step in instituting long-overdue reforms. But, specifically, more is needed to mitigate the persistent threat posed by elite competition run amok.

To begin with, Ismail Sabri must make room for new and apolitical leaders within the government. As Muhyiddin’s 17-month premiership vividly illustrated, making key appointments based on political strategy – rather than merit – fuels competition, fosters resentment and contributes to dysfunctional governance.

Suggestions like appointing scandal-ridden former prime minister Najib Abdul Razak and others to special posts is unwise and will perpetuate division, not to mention, it will also compromise the credibility of Ismail Sabri’s new government.

Given the many and complex problems facing the country, his administration will not only need to perform but restore public trust in government institutions that was lost in previous administrations.

Young voices needed

Similarly, younger voices, in particular, should be incorporated into leadership and decision-making processes.

A key feature of the infighting that wrecked the Muhyiddin and Mahathir administrations was personal rivalries among Malaysia’s senior leaders, many of whom have been competing against one another for decades, that had more to do with political privileges than public policy.

That Ismail Sabri has reappointed many of the same individuals who served in his predecessor’s troubled cabinet to his own does not bode well for its long-term cohesion.

Not only will new voices at the table help ensure that decision-making is focused on solving today’s problems (rather than settling old scores), it will also promote the leadership renewal that Malaysian politics desperately needs.

Third, Ismail Sabri must end the practice of appointing MPs to leadership positions in Malaysia’s vast network of government-linked companies. Begun under Mahathir’s first stint as prime minister, the practice has since been used by all administrations to distribute wealth and build patronage networks.

But not only does it reinforce a system of clientelism, as Muhyiddin’s experience with Umno showed, it can also create tension among factions that have (or perceive to have) uneven access to the power it wields.

Finally, Ismail Sabri needs to affirm the rule of law. Muhyiddin’s attempts to subvert basic constitutional checks on his authority severely impaired the democratic process and prolonged the political crisis that engulfed his government.

Guaranteeing proper oversight on the limits of his power, including granting more independence to Parliament and separating the powers of the attorney-general, as some have suggested, will ensure that Parliament, the opposition, and civil society can hold the government accountable and prevent future political crises from turning into constitutional ones.


It goes without saying that other important reforms are also necessary to safeguard Malaysia’s democratic process from runaway factionalism and partisanship, including asset declaration, term limits and electoral boundaries, to name a few.

But unless the new prime minister addresses the roots causes that are sabotaging the political system from within, he may be one of its victims.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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