Farewell to Malaysia’s presidential premiership

The presidential premiership in Malaysia has finally ended. This means the prime minister is no longer able to lord over everyone in the political system.

The 2018 election ended the Umno one-party state which ruled Malaysia from 1955, two years before the nation even achieved its independence. A key component of the one-party state was the massive powers endowed in the office of the prime minister, who was also the president of the dominant party.

In the 1990s, opposition politicians liked to say that while the UK changes prime minister every five years and the queen rules for life, Malaysia changes its king every five years but Dr Mahathir Mohamad rules for life. Not really, but that is why it was a joke.

The once powerful prime ministers

The position of the prime minister used to convey a sense of perpetuity. A long-standing practice in Malaysia is to distribute millions of copies of the portraits of the king and queen as well as the prime minister. They would be put up in government offices, hotels, and even coffee shops.

Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who on Saturday was sworn in as Malaysia’s ninth prime minister and the third in three years, would be wise to focus on other tasks that are more urgent, and not be too concerned with the distribution of his portraits. His premiership may be short-lived.

At the height of Umno’s one-party state, the prime minister was also finance minister. Malaysia’s first two finance ministers – HS Lee and Tan Siew Sin – were the heads of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the coalition partner of Umno in the Alliance Party. Subsequent office holders were political heavyweights such as Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, Daim Zainuddin and Anwar Ibrahim.

After the high-profile sacking of Anwar in 1998 and a very subtle end to Daim’s tenure as finance minister in 2001, Mahathir held the posts concurrently.

Prime ministers Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Najib Razak continued the practice.

In fact, the mammoth 1MDB scandal happened because all the internal checks and balances were removed as all powers were concentrated in the hands of the prime minister who was also finance minister.

Over time in the past five decades since the 1970s, when the government broke away from the laissez faire mould and took on a more activist developmentalist role, the powers of the Economic Planning Unit within the Prime Minister’s Department grew exponentially.

The discretionary powers to grant projects at his whims and fancy strengthened the hands of the prime minister vis-à-vis his political opponents both inside and outside the government. The numerous government-linked corporations and statutory boards were also utilised by the prime minister to dish out favours in the forms of contracts and appointments.

The powers to selectively investigate, detain and harass political opponents through the police, tax department, anti-corruption and other entities further bolstered the arsenal of such a powerful presidential premier. The 1988 judiciary crisis which saw the unceremonious removal of senior judges heralded the deterioration of the lack of judicial independence.

The two constitutional crises in 1983 and 1993 curtailed the influence and powers of the royals relating to the prime minister. Parliament was just a rubber stamp of the executive while the media were muzzled, and electoral processes manipulated.

Since 1960, Umno removed party elections for its state-level leadership and replaced them with the appointment of ‘state liaison committees’ by the president. The party president and the prime minister, both the same person, also exerted effective control on the state chief ministers when Umno was ruling most of the states.

The complicated new era

During the Pakatan Harapan government era of 2018-2020, prime ministerial powers were markedly reduced with the creation of the Economic Affairs Ministry, outside the Prime Minister’s Department. The PM was no longer the finance minister, or for that matter, supposed to take up any additional portfolios.

Powers inside the government were relatively diffused among governing parties. Attempts were made to improve issues such as judicial integrity, parliamentary reforms, and appointments of more professionals to government-owned companies (GLCs).

But there was no trust between Mahathir and Anwar, despite the two veteran leaders earlier agreeing to cooperate against Najib’s Barisan Nasional.

Mahathir became the seventh prime minister in 2018 after his long reign of 22 years as the fourth prime minister between 1981 and 2003.

Anwar’s supporters wished to see the end of Mahathir’s reign while the former premier’s supporters worried that an Anwar premiership would put an end to their political existence. This enmity is still going on today.

Within Anwar’s party, the irreconcilable break between Anwar and his former trusted number two Azmin Ali incentivised the latter to plot against the Pakatan Harapan government.

Looking in from the outside, Umno under the presidency of Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and with the support of his former boss Najib Razak was trying to make a comeback through whatever paths were available to the party.

Muhyiddin Yassin, a senior former Umno leader who joined Mahathir to be with Pakatan Harapan, betrayed the government 22 months after it won power to become the eighth prime minister of the new Perikatan Nasional government with Umno.

The Sheraton coup in February 2020 brought together disparate interests in a makeshift coalition to topple Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan government.

Muhyiddin took his oath on March 1, 2020. On March 9, when Muhyiddin announced his cabinet line-up, I wrote: “The prime minister is now de facto finance minister and economic affairs minister. This is Muhyiddin’s cabinet of fear. He knows the sword of Damocles hangs over him. Hence, he has to control the finance and economic affairs portfolios – a very powerful tool to help him hang on to power.

“Fear is the most important factor underlining the choices of Muhyiddin Yassin’s cabinet. The prime minister is fearful of his own team members, some of whom were his fellow plotters that brought down the Pakatan Harapan government recently.”

Under Pakatan Harapan, Azmin was the minister of economic affairs. As one of the key plotters, he was hoping to be deputy prime minister or at least finance minister of the Perikatan Nasional government. Instead, he was demoted to the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI).

The economics portfolio was reverted to the Prime Minister’s Department. A non-politician – senior banker Tengku Zafrul Aziz – was appointed to the finance portfolio, thus allowing the prime minister to be the de facto finance minister.

The new power relations

As Muhyiddin announced his cabinet line-up last year, his governing coalition was already set to collapse, although it took a long 17 months to happen.

Umno immediately announced that the party was not part of the Perikatan Nasional coalition despite its leaders being members of the Muhyiddin cabinet.

Up until the very end of the Muhyiddin government, he was still trying to resurrect the presidential premier of the past, shutting down Parliament through emergency rule, arguing with the palace, and selectively persecuting political opponents, while dishing out contracts and positions in the hope of buying enough support.

The new prime minister has only 114 out of 220 MPs on his side. He will be subjected to similar internal challenges that ex-premier Muhyiddin faced.

Ismail Sabri should begin his tenure by acknowledging the spirit espoused by the king’s statement on August 18 that there should no longer be a ‘winner takes all’ political culture.

He must find political compromises within the governing coalition as well as with the opposition. For Malaysia to move forward, recognising that the premiership is not about having absolute powers would help build better institutions and political processes.

As Malaysia’s presidential premiership ended, new power relations must be developed among parties in the ruling coalition with all the stakeholders, namely the parliamentary opposition, the palace, and the state governments.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post, Hong Kong on 22 Ogos 2021

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