Malaysia cabinet quits as Muhyiddin reaches end of road

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin leaves his residence in the morning of Aug. 16.   © Getty Images

P PREM KUMAR, Nikkei staff writer | Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is believed to have tendered his resignation on Monday after his largest coalition ally cornered him and the opposition rejected a last-ditch appeal to maintain stability.

While the country is expecting official statements from Muhyiddin or the palace, federal ministers have begun publicly acknowledging the prime minister’s resignation after a special cabinet meeting. Science and Technology Minister Khairy Jamaluddin posted on Instagram that the cabinet had folded.

“The Cabinet has tendered our resignation to the Agong,” Khairy wrote, referring to the king. “Thank you for the opportunity to, once again, serve the nation. May God bless Malaysia.”

Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein tweeted, “It has been an honor and a privilege to serve our beloved country and her people.”

Until last week, Muhyiddin had insisted he would stay on and test his majority in a September parliament session. But he conceded that he needed backing from at least some opposition members in a televised address last Friday, promising them perks and an election by July 2022 in exchange.

Though some politicians appeared willing to hear him out, opposition leaders rejected the call.

On Monday, Muhyiddin chaired what was thought to be a farewell cabinet meeting, followed by an audience with King Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin, where he is believed to have formally submitted his resignation. Under the federal constitution, the entire cabinet resigns when a prime minister quits.

The decision caps a tumultuous 17 months in power, during which Muhyiddin’s government grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic as well as coalition infighting and repeated leadership challenges. The 74-year-old cancer survivor is the shortest-serving premier in the country’s history.

Now Malaysia faces an uncertain transition just as it fights one of the region’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, with daily infections in the ballpark of 20,000. The king has the power to appoint a premier deemed to have majority support in the lower house, but there is not yet an obvious successor known to command such backing. At the same time, an election is an unsavory prospect given the spread of COVID-19.

The United Malays National Organisation, the party that helped Muhyiddin oust Mahathir Mohamad last year, ended up triggering his downfall. The nation’s largest political force announced in early August that it had gone to the king with signed letters from lawmakers retracting support for the government. This effectively stripped the Muhyiddin-led National Alliance coalition of its already questionable parliamentary majority.

The final straw appeared to be a spat over Muhyiddin’s abrupt cancellation of a COVID-19 state of emergency and various related ordinances, without the king’s consent. This drew a rebuke from the palace. UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said Muhyiddin “must take responsibility by relinquishing his position immediately as a result of his failure to adhere to and clash with the king’s advice.”

Muhyiddin had made several attempts to placate UMNO — or at least a faction within the party — and cling to power. In early July, he appointed senior UMNO member Ismail Sabri Yaakob as deputy prime minister. Ismail Sabri’s faction, which sources say is larger than Ahmad Zahid’s, is thought to have stayed behind Muhyiddin to the end.

Muhyiddin also agreed to reconvene parliament in late July after a seven-month hiatus in the name of the coronavirus emergency. But the government’s handling of the emergency decree, and a sudden decision to suspend the five-day parliament sitting due to COVID-19 cases, undermined any goodwill the prime minister might have gained.

UMNO had already said in March that it would not team up with Muhyiddin’s Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu) whenever the next general election was held.

Yet as recently as Friday night, the prime minister was insisting that he would not resign, as doing so would jeopardize the country’s fight against COVID-19 and economic recovery. He now appears to have recognized that his numbers would simply not add up and all other avenues have been exhausted.

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