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Speed bumps ahead for Malaysia's new leader

Pauline Wong
Pauline Wong3/13/2020 07:00 AM GMT+08  • 4 min read
Speed bumps ahead for Malaysia's new leader
There will be speed bumps ahead for Malaysia's new prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, on the back of economic downturn and political turmoil. How will he manage?
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SINGAPORE (Mar 13): On the evening of March 9, newly-appointed Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin stood in front of flashing cameras and jostling journalists, solemnly promising he would form a “functional government” to best serve the needs of the people.

He had just been sworn in as premier on March 2 by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, and he was about to announce his new Cabinet, formed of the Peri- katan Nasional (National Alliance): which consists of former Pakatan Harapan MPs, Umno andPAS MPs, and the East Malaysian parties from Sabah and Sarawak.

Yet his sombre demeanour suggests awareness that his government is one born out of a political storm that had gripped Malaysians for the past few weeks. The trouble began with the defection of 11 Pakatan Harapan MPs on Feb 23, and the drama of ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad’s shocking resignation on Feb 24. It threw the country into turmoil and wiped out RM43.4 billion ($14.46 billion) in market capitalisation from Bursa Malaysia in one day.

The relatively low-profile Muhyiddin, 72, was deputy to disgraced ex-PM Najib Abdul Razak, but had been sacked in 2016 for speaking out against his former boss about the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. When he was ousted, he quickly aligned himself with yet another ex-pre- mier, Mahathir Mohamad. For years, he stayed in the shadows, taking a backseat to other more vocal and charismatic politicians.

Muhyiddin’s new 31-member cabinet includes many former Pakatan Harapan MPs. Former Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) vice-president Azmin Ali snagged the role of International Trade and Indus- try Minister. He is also Muhyiddin’s “replacement” when he is away or on leave, perhaps alluding to the huge role Azmin played in leading the defection of the Pakatan Harapan MPs.

Some familiar faces have made their way back. Former Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein is now running Foreign Affairs; and Nancy Shukri, formerly from the Prime Minister’s Department, now runs Tourism, Arts and Culture. Former Youth Minister Khairy Jamaluddin is now in charge of Science, Technology and Innovation. There are untried and untested names such as CIMB Group CEO Zafrul Abdul Aziz, who resigned from the bank to take up the Finance Minister post.

Muhyiddin will find the road ahead to be full of bumps. Many people, annoyed at what is seen as an affront to democracy, will make their feel- ings known when the next polls are called. The former government, blindsided, will be difficult opponents in Parliament. The economy, too, has taken a huge hit from the political chaos, on top of the Covid-19 pandemic that started spreading outside of China in January. Research unit Fitch Solutions, for one, has cut its 2020 GDP growth forecast from 4.5% to 3.7%. The new government has also said it would review the RM20 billion stimulus package previously announced by Mahathir.

Adding to the challenge is Muhyiddin’s lack of an international presence, a contrast to the polished charisma of his predecessors. Compared to the articulate and witty Mahathir, or the oratory skills of PKR president Anwar Ibrahim, Muhyiddin seems dull in comparison. Many world leaders — perhaps busy grappling with Covid-19 — have yet to send a word of congratulations to Muhyiddin, unlike when Mahathir took power.

However, perhaps Muhyiddin’s lack of larger-than-life personality is what Malaysia needs. Having worked his way steadiy (and slowly) to rise through the ranks of Umno, which he joined in 1971, he has proven that he is resilient and savvy to the needs of the majority of the populace. Malaysia, after all, has also been long overshad- owed by the personalities of its leaders. From Mahathir to Najib, the country has struggled to break free from its preoccupation with the politics of heroism and identity.

What this means for Malaysia’s growth remains to be seen. For now, Muhyiddin has an immense task ahead of him. Whether he will succeed will depend on the support of his new Cabinet, and his handling of the economic downturn.

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