On Friday 20 August, Ismail Sabri was chosen by Malaysia’s king to be prime minister – the country’s third in three years. The 17 month-old government of the ‘National Coalition’ (PN – Perikatan Nasional) under Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin collapsed when 15 MPs from UMNO (United Malays National Organisation), which was part of this coalition, withdrew their support. Sabri got the support of 114 out of the 222 members of parliament. His contender, Anwar Ibrahim from the Coalition of Hope (PH – Pakatan Harapan) only managed to gain the support of 105 MPs.
Now the same PN coalition parties have supported Ismail Sabri as a compromise candidate. He was just promoted to deputy prime minister in July as Muhyiddin sought to woo support from UMNO MPs, when some were unhappy with Muhyiddin. This was mainly to avoid the return of a PH government which had lasted for only years and collapsed in early 2020. Now, with Ismail Sabri as Prime Minister, UMNO is back holding the premiership. It had held power since independence from British rule in 1957 until it was ousted in the 2018 general election by PH over various corruption scandals – including the infamous IMDB (Malaysia State Development Fund) case – and the people’s anger against the deteriorating social and economic conditions.
Clash in PN as pandemic worsens
The PN coalition government was formed in March 2020 after the PH coalition collapsed when some of its MPs withdrew support. At that time, some MPs in UMNO, including former PM Najib Razak, who were facing court cases, hoped that Muhyiddin would help them to get rid of the cases taken out against during the PH government. But Muhyiddin used the court cases to divide UMNO. Now there are two main factions in UMNO – the Ismail Sabri faction, who were supporting Muhyiddin, and the faction of UMNO President, Zahid Hamidi, and Najib, who were against the PN and Muhyiddin. Although a majority of MPs is supporting the Ismail government, it will be another unstable government. The clashes within UMNO will continue along with those between the UMNO leadership and Muhyiddin’s party, Bersatu (Unity).
After hanging on to power for as long as he could, Muhyiddin was under pressure to announce his resignation from the post of prime minister and declared on 16th August that the entire cabinet was ceasing to function. In order to keep himself in power, Muhyiddin had even declared a six month State of Emergency – the only government in the world to do so during the pandemic – and effectively postponed Parliamentary sessions which would have given room for the opposition parties and political rivals to challenge him. This move ultimately backfired when it was clear that Muhyiddin and his cabinet had failed to control the rise in Covid-19 cases, to give sufficient welfare for the affected population and to restore economic activities. The 2,000 cases per day at the time of the emergency announcement rose 10 times to 20,000 cases a day in August, causing widespread panic about the level of congestion in public medical facilities.
Muhyiddin had managed to keep his enemies at bay by using the emergency decree, supported by the country’s royal head of state. But he was pressured to re-convene Parliament at the end of July. Witnessing the rampant rise in Covid-19 cases, even the monarch had no choice but to pressure Muhyiddin to compromise and reconvene the parliament.
The long-awaited session began at the end of July with the opposition determined to dethrone Muhyiddin and his PN coalition from power. However, the entire parliamentary session was a sham and was orchestrated to avoid any proposal for a vote of no confidence in the government by the attending MPs. The government declared the State of Emergency officially over without proposing a vote in Parliament. Muhyiddin and the PN then ended the parliamentary session after just four days, blaming a few Covid-19 cases amongst the Parliament staff.
This move to avoid any challenge inside the Parliament by using bureaucratic means was not received well by the public who started to criticise the government openly in social media sites. The youth and opposition parties organised protests. A gathering of over 2,000 youth in Merdeka Square on 31st July demanded that Muhyiddin step down immediately. The opposition parties staged a march towards the closed Parliament, only to be stopped by the police out in force.
With no options left, Muhyiddin desperately tried to offer a bipartisan alliance with the Pakatan Harapan opposition, hoping to secure his position as PM for a little longer. However the opposition party, with their own political ambitions, flatly rejected this offer. UMNO, who had previously supported Muhyiddin and was part of the Perikatan Nasional government had already withdrawn their support and declared it would oppose them in coming elections. With the Islamic conservative PAS (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia) as the only other major party to support Muhyiddin, it was not possible for the PN to find a simple majority of 111 seats in Parliament.
Fragile political situation
The PH who formed the previous government and now the opposition has over 100 MPs who support their leader, Anwar Ibrahim for the prime ministerial post. But not enough to form a government and even less than the support Muhyiddin enjoyed previously. Having lost a number of MPs to the ruling Bersatu party, Anwar cannot rely on enough support to become PM.
Anwar has indicated that he is willing to make an unholy alliance with long-time political rivals in UMNO in order to secure himself as the next premier. But the UMNO leadership persuaded its Annual General Meeting earlier this year not to support Anwar for the post. However, in next period, nothing can be ruled out and in the capitalists’ constant quest for political power, unforeseen alliances could emerge.
UMNO, having lost their political dominance to PH in the previous election, was still the largest party with the biggest share of MPs. However, a large number of their MPs have since joined Muhyiddin’s Bersatu party – a split from UMNO but similar in terms of its political outlook. A majority of UMNO MPs, the Ismail Sabri faction in Parliament, had been giving continuous support to the PN government, going against the party leadership.
In his resignation speech, Muhyiddin said he would explore the chance of collaborating with UMNO members who were against him and get back his position as PM. However, he said he would refuse to work with what he labelled ‘kleptocrats’. This was the term used by the PH to oust the Najib-led Barisan Nasional during the last general election campaigns. Many of the UMNO leadership were under investigation or facing court cases for various corruption scandals before the fall of the PH government – most notably that of the former prime minster Najib Razak.
But it is quite revealing that Muhyiddin, who had no qualms about working with the same ‘kleptocrats’ to topple the PH government and assume power just 17 months ago, could present himself as a principled actor in this current political crisis. The truth is rather that the UMNO and Bersatu leaderships found themselves at loggerheads in terms of distributing cabinet positions and dividing up political seats. They clashed openly during the by-elections in the state of Sabah while remaining in the same ruling coalition nationally. The rift between the two Malay-based parties has widened to what is apparently a level of no compromise. It is now not possible for Muhyiddin to win back UMNO leaders’ support without offering something significant.
No solution for the people
The leadership of the left-wing Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) has mainly proposed that, to get government control back, the PH should collaborate with Muhyiddin or any other part of the political establishment except the kleptocratic UMNO. It is taking the stance that preventing UMNO from taking back government power should be the only focus throughout this crisis.
Although it is convenient to call certain UMNO members kleptocrats, the underlying truth is that there is corruption in every single capitalist mainstream political establishment. Even the PH, who mobilised to fight corruption, are found to be corrupt on several counts. The same goes for the caretaker PM – Muhyiddin – who is seen as a kleptocrat himself, with deep ties to conservative elements similar to those of UMNO.
Corruption is a feature of capitalism, not an anomaly which is only prevalent in less developed countries, as some liberal commentators are trying to argue. To varying degrees, corruption is rampant in this system and it is often the main motivation for politicians to take the side of the capitalist class against the interests of the ordinary people. The suffering masses will not be saved simply by preventing certain politicians from taking over government control.
At this juncture, none of the many political parties and the numerous factions offers any real solution for the people who are facing not only a national health crisis, but also an economic crisis with rising unemployment. The so-called ‘progressive’ oppositions are constantly busy scheming to achieve lucrative political power. Each of them has promised to be a better leader in a time of crisis and has failed to present a programme outlining a plan to bring the nation out of this crisis.
The opposition PH which ruled the country for two years had already revealed their incapacity to deliver on their electoral promises. Not only were the economic promises forgotten, they had also proven to be servants to the capitalist class, standing with the powerful at every turn, neglecting the working class and poor people. In terms of economic policies, there were more similarities than differences with the previous BN government.
Currently, none of the political representatives is capable of representing the aspirations of the working class and ordinary people in the Parliament. Accordingly, they are not enthusiastic about any of the political candidates and have little hope that parliamentary change will bring any real change to their abysmal conditions. It is very clear that a new political force is needed – one with mass workers’ participation, built on a programme of demands for decent jobs and wages, education, health and social services and with a clear socialist political leadership
The left and trade unions
Unfortunately, there are no left forces or trade unions who are willing to take the role of leadership to get out of this crisis for working class people. Although different industrial actions and struggles are taking place sporadically, the union leaders are not putting any effort into building campaigns to fight for the welfare of the poor.
Recently doctors in public health facilities who are hired on a contract basis organised a nationwide walk-out to address both their deteriorating working conditions and the poor state of the national health-care system. Despite a heroic effort like this, the Malaysian Trade Union Congress leadership did not even offer one solidarity message for their struggle. The Trade Union leaders are only focused on their own trade and are reluctant to give leadership for any developing social movements.
This is unfortunate as trade union leaders could play a pivotal role in this crisis-ridden situation in building a movement based on the people’s needs. The working class, who are the lifeblood of society, has taken on huge tasks during this pandemic to provide for everyone’s needs. Based on the working class movement, starting from economic demands, it is possible to build a strong political representation which will struggle against the bosses to defend the ordinary masses.
Left parties and revolutionary organisations have a crucial role to play in building unity among the ordinary people along class lines and to help form a mass political party based on the working men and women and on a clear socialist program. Rank and file members of unions should challenge their inactive leadership and push them towards the path of the struggle. Through experience in the class struggle which is coming, the working class could develop an understanding of the need to join hands with workers internationally and wage a global political struggle against capitalism.