KUALA LUMPUR: The Malaysian government’s corruption battle against former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who was charged with abuse of power and money laundering on Friday (Mar 10), could have far-reaching ramifications in shaping public sentiment among the country’s politically dominant Malay community that Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is desperately trying to win over.

Muhyiddin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) and its chief ally, the right wing Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), scored huge electoral gains in the November general election when the coalition secured the majority votes from the Malays, who turned their backs on the graft-ridden United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). UMNO had long been the traditional patron of the community that makes up more than 60 per cent of the country’s 32 million population. 

The opposition Perikatan Nasional won a total of 74 seats in Parliament, with PAS securing the majority of 49 seats, triggering concerns of an Islamic surge, or “green wave” that might further harden divisions among Malaysia’s multi-ethnic citizens.

Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan, which won 82 seats in the 222-member Parliament, came to power late last year after it formed a unity government with the backing of UMNO and regional parties from the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.


The question now is whether the taint of corruption against Muhyiddin will force the community to reconsider its support for the opposition or swing further into the arms of PAS, which already holds power in the key Malay-belt states of Terengganu, Kelantan and Kedah. 

In the immediate term, Muhyiddin’s legal troubles are set to have an adverse impact on his Bersatu party, which has already seen two of its party leaders charged in recent weeks for graft and its official bank accounts frozen.

The party, which led the government for 17 months beginning March 2020 and with Muhyiddin as prime minister at the time, has been accused by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission of illegally siphoning billions of dollars in government funds during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Muhyiddin, who was slapped with four counts of abuse of power and two counts of money laundering involving RM232.5 million (US$51.4 million), in what the government prosecutors described as bribes, is expected to face more charges next week.

The latest twist to Malaysia’s already volatile politics is set to raise temperatures in the coming days. The opposition, which has slammed the corruption campaign against the Bersatu leaders as selective prosecution by the new Anwar administration, has signalled that it would raise public support against the government with prayer gatherings and protests.

Anwar, who has made the crackdown on widespread corruption the central plank of his administration, has dismissed allegations that the moves against Bersatu were politically motivated.

Close advisors to Anwar also noted that the investigations and the charges slapped against the Bersatu by the MACC and the Attorney General were carried out by the heads in the two agencies appointed by the Muhyiddin government previously.

The big test will come in a couple of months’ time when six states, including the three controlled by PAS, will hold simultaneous elections for their respective state assemblies, a vote that is fast shaping up into a referendum on the Anwar government.

PH is hoping to retain control in the Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Penang in the coming state elections and woo support away from PAS with the help of UMNO in the Malay belt states.

An outcome that will maintain the status quo will be neutral for Anwar’s political prestige. But any serious electoral setback in the states where the PH currently governs would raise serious questions over Anwar’s legitimacy as prime minister.

Leslie Lopez is a senior correspondent at CNA Digital who reports on political and economic affairs in the region.

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