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June 17, 2021

Asia

MALAYSIA: A fight over the meaning of ASAP

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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( 3 mins)

On 16 June, Malaysian King Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah called on parliament, whose sessions have been suspended since January, to reconvene “secepat mungkin” (as soon as possible) to discuss the country’s state of emergency and recovery plan. He issued the statement after a meeting earlier in the day of the Conference of Rulers, which is a council composed of the heads of the nine royal households and the governors of four states. The council also said the current state of emergency, which was the basis for the suspension of parliamentary sittings, should not be extended beyond its scheduled 1 August end date.

Not only is the decreed non-extension of the state of emergency a rebuke of the current situation but the Conference of Rulers also issued a separate statement concurring with the king’s request for parliament to resume sessions, while using the more emphatic word “segera” (whose meanings range from soon to immediately).

As would be expected, allies of the prime minister are attempting to stall by batting for a September or October reopening, only after the current state emergency ends. This is consistent with Yassin’s announcement during the 15 June unveiling of his National Recovery Plan. On the other hand, the opposition Alliance of Hope (PH) has asked the prime minister to immediately advise the king to call back parliament, or else resign.

A reopening of parliament in the next few weeks is negative for Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, because it would not only open to debate his government’s handling of the pandemic, soon after a major spike, but also bring into question how much support he still has from his coalition. The United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which accounts for slightly less than a third of the seats in the current majority, has said it would not stand with Yassin’s Bersatu party in the next election — raising the question of when and how the divorce could happen.

Yassin still has a chance of holding out for his September or October target. He and his allies could continue to publicly debate what the king meant to muddy the timetable for the resumption of sessions, while hoping that the Covid-19 situation turns around quickly enough for him to claim some type of victory. After the April to May spike, the number of new daily cases is quickly heading down, while the vaccination rate has accelerated since mid-May and is nearing 0.5% of the population each day, an effort sustained only by Singapore and Cambodia in the region.

But this is a dangerous gamble because the monarchy will be watching closely. It could clarify the timetable depending on how public sentiments improve or worsen in the coming weeks. UMNO will also be weighing whether a turnaround would be disadvantageous for it, by giving the prime minister some momentum. All these internal maneuverings will eventually manifest in their public interpretations of the meaning of ASAP.