Malaysia’s new government has successfully used the pandemic to consolidate power over the country, but its attempt to turn against the Agong (King) may be overreach, John Funston writes.
Authoritarian governments across the world have benefitted from lockdowns and other restrictions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and public reluctance to challenge governments when facing an existential public health threat has helped them tighten their grip.
This has been the story of the pandemic for Malaysia, even as its government has fallen from its place as a world poster-boy of successful anti-pandemic policies to being acknowledged as a disaster.
Let’s look at how this happened. The current Perikatan Nasional (PN) government came to power late February 2020, just weeks after the first COVID-19 case was detected in Malaysia on 24 January.
This government is an opportunistic alliance of deserters from the previous Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, the former long-time ruling party United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the Islamist Party, and local parties in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak. Its appointment by the Agong (King) was controversial, given it included parties firmly rejected in the May 2018 election, and did not at the time have a parliamentary majority in its own right.
As part of its COVID-19 response, the ruling coalition began rolling out restrictions on political activities, preventing public demonstrations against what many viewed as an illegitimate government.
This continued under the relatively successful national lockdown between March and May. Public willingness to accept the restrictions was helped by government aid to victims of the shutdown and a successful public relations campaign depicting Prime Minister Muhyiddin as a folksy, humble, fatherly figure, or ‘Abah’, heading a ‘concerned’ government.
Several ‘COVID-19 heroes’ – notably the Agong, Muhyiddin, Director-General of Health Noor Hisham, and Senior Minister (Security) Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob – were even memorialised in a large mural in the capital of the state of Selangor, Shah Alam.
But an apparently humble, caring government soon came to be seen as complacent and arrogant. This was noted particularly in the disregard by leaders in following their own restrictions. Their actions went under punished while the general public were given harsh fines on the spot for similar breaches.
For instance, the Plantation, Industries, and Commodities Minister Khairuddin Aman Razali visited Turkey from 3 to 7 July 2020, but failed to quarantine at home upon his return to Malaysia. He initially paid a token fine, but after three months was cleared of court charges by the Attorney General’s Chambers because he was not provided with a form to undergo quarantine.
Around this time, the government started to lose control of the pandemic. In September, state elections for Sabah were called when former UMNO Chief Minister Musa Aman, aligned with the government, was cleared of 46 corruption charges involving alleged money laundering and bribes of more than $44 million, culminating in the desertion of 14 politicians from the PH-aligned Warisan government.
Meanwhile, after weeks of daily single- or double-digit positive tests, COVID-19 figures had increased to around 700 by early October.
Addressing the nation on 6 October, Prime Minister Muhyiddin declared a repeat of the national lockdown was not required, and said the fresh wave of infection could be curbed using knowledge gained since the start of the pandemic.
He warned, however, that Abah might have to ‘use the cane’ if people would not comply with government guidelines – a remark many received poorly, seeing government double standards and shortcomings as more to blame than the general public.
Nonetheless, on 23 October cabinet agreed to ask the Agong to declare a State of Emergency to address the pandemic. The main purpose, not lost on many Malaysians, was to prevent a meeting of parliament, and in a controversial move this was rejected by the Agong, after consulting his fellow rulers.
Eventually, on 12 January, the Agong did declare an Emergency, to remain in force until 1 August, including as its centrepiece a prohibition on all parliamentary meetings.
Since that declaration, the government has bungled nearly every aspect of pandemic control. Government leaders have contradicted one another and sought individual or party advantage rather than common good, they have been unable to provide and implement consistent policies, and these failures have brought health services to the brink of disaster, placing enormous costs on ordinary Malaysians.
Yet, leaders have been free to traverse the country and even travel abroad as they wish, while ordinary Malaysians are locked down and inadequately compensated for income losses.
Atop it all, spread isn’t even being curbed. Since the Emergency was declared, the COVID-19 death toll has gone from 555 to more than 9,000. Daily positive tests are now around 17,000, and in June Bloomberg ranked Malaysia 51 of 53 countries in terms of effectiveness in tackling the pandemic.
The public has responded actively – criticising government policies online and providing emergency aid to those in desperate need, who have taken to displaying a white flag to call for help.
Some have likened the white flags to a “surrender to dysfunction”, and even suggested Malaysia is on the road to failed statehood.
Still, the government has denied any real problems, with Prime Minister Muhyiddin declaring in June that people’s kitchens were ‘full’ of government-provided provisions, so they need not worry.
At the same time as botching the handling of COVID-19 the government has used it as protection to entrench its political dominance – replicating the kleptocratic, coercive, authoritarian ways of a privileged Malay elite pre-2018.
But after a falling out between the Prime Minister and the Agong, the latest attempt to hide behind the pandemic may be a step too far.
To legitimise the emergency, the Agong has sought to ensure that it and its revocation have followed the constitutional requirement that they be discussed and approved by parliament, prior to the Agong’s signing.
Fearing that he may not command a majority, Muhyiddin has sought to avoid this, telling parliament the emergency has already been revoked by cabinet, so no further parliamentary action is necessary.
This has seen an unprecedented confrontation in which the Agong and Prime Minister have publicly accused the other of not adhering to the constitution. In turn, Muhyiddin has sought to pre-empt the issue by using the pandemic as an excuse for closing parliament indefinitely, energising a hitherto ineffective PH-led opposition.
In the past, incumbency has given Malaysian prime ministers the power to do almost anything, but this situation will be a test of whether that power includes defying the Agong and the constitution.