By Liew Chin Tong

JOHOR BAHRU, Malaysia--From Tun Razak Hussein who became prime minister in 1970, all previous PMs had served a considerable time as deputy prime minister and deemed potential heirs to the throne for an extended period.

Whereas Ismail, one of three UMNO vice-presidents, was only appointed DPM on 7 July 2021 and served for only 40 days in that role before the resignation of Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s cabinet.

Besides being accidental, perhaps he is also the luckiest politician to become PM so quickly. But is he, really?

When I had tea with Ismail at the Dewan Negara lounge on 22 December 2020, I told him that if I were Muhyiddin, I would have appointed him (Ismail) as DPM a long time ago. Ismail modestly replied that had Muhyiddin done so, he would incur Dato’ Seri Azmin Ali’s wrath.

Azmin had been craving that position , believing that it should be his reward for being the architect for the Sheraton coup. I still believe that one of Muhyiddin’s strategic mistakes was not to call Azmin’s bluff, and to appoint Ismail as DPM in the last quarter of 2020.

Had he done so, Muhyiddin would have check-mated UMNO President Dato’ Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi & co much earlier. Zahid and gang are the so-called “Kluster Mahkamah” group, dubbed by political observers as UMNO leaders who are being charged in court for corruption and abuse of power.

As early as September 2019, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, without the full support from UMNO, led a group of 17 MPs in an attempt to launch a coup against Pakatan Harapan government.  

However, the number could be lower than that when it comes to the crunch as there were several of them who “makan dua kolam” (taking money and position from more than one patron).

Ismail was nominally with Zahid’s leadership but he broke off when appointed DPM in July 2021. Hence my point that had Ismail been made DPM earlier, Muhyiddin could have dismantled Zahid & co, and avoided the pains of 2021.  

Muhyiddin’s Political Mistakes

Muhyiddin made several strategic mistakes along the way. After the one-day parliament session on 18 May 2020, I was already saying that the idea of buying MPs from the opposition won’t work. Not many would dare to cross when they were unsure of the Muhyiddin government’s longevity.

Sabah state election in September 2020 was another debacle for him. Venturing into volatile Sabah to take down Chief Minister Dato’ Seri Shafie Apdal resulted in a pyrrhic victory for Perikatan Nasional.

The hostility became more intense for Shafie while Muhyiddin’s bad blood with Zahid & co worsened; not to mention the spike in Covid-19 cases nationwide which has not subsided till today.

Muhyiddin should have been more ready to deal when he communicated with the opposition through proxies to strike a confidence and supply (CSA) deal. Informal discussions did take place between August and October 2020, with his knowledge.

Instead of having a CSA to stabilise political chaos, he was tempted by the unfettered powers that come with the declaration of emergency. Only when the Rulers rejected the request to declare emergency on 25 October 2020, his government went back to the CSA discussion more seriously.

On 7 November 2020, Muhyiddin spoke about bipartisanship during a joint TV interview. He said members of the opposition could be invited to join the Economic Action Council and Covid management meetings.  

Around this time, a cabinet paper on the CSA framework was said to be presented to the Cabinet by the then de facto law minister Datuk Seri Takiyuddin Hassan, which led to protest by UMNO ministers, ironically led by Ismail.

Again, Muhyiddin could have resisted seeking for an emergency rule. The King granted his second request on 12 January 2021 but contentions about the emergency eventually led to a tussle between Muhyiddin and the Palace that contributed hugely to his downfall.  

Muhyiddin misread the era he operated in and thought he could resurrect the all-powerful presidential premiership that defined Malaysian politics before 2018. It was his fatal mistake.

Ismail – the first post-presidential premier?

Ismail’s rise was a case of being at the right place at the right time.

Rarely considered a political heavyweight, he benefited from the absence of other UMNO bigwigs in Parliament post-2018 such as Deputy President Dato’ Seri Utama Mohamad Hasan and Vice President Dato’ Seri Khalid Nordin, both former Menteris Besar of Negeri Sembilan and Johor, respectively. Another VP is Dato’ Seri Mahdzir Khalid who is now Rural Development Minister.

As Dato’ Seri Najib Razak and Zahid were bogged down by their criminal charges, and Mohamad Hasan remains an opposition state assemblyman after Barisan Nasional lost Negeri Sembilan in GE14, Ismail being the party’s vice president is the most senior UMNO leader in the Dewan Rakyat, and he was appointed Parliamentary Opposition Leader during Pakatan Harapan era.

When Muhyiddin formed his cabinet, Ismail was deemed the most senior acceptable personality from UMNO and landed him the post of senior minister. It positioned him to replace Muhyiddin when the opportunity arose.  

Ismail is likely to have learnt Muhyiddin’s lessons. Exactly a month since he was sworn in as PM on 21 August, despite being uninspiring, he has yet to make major strategic blunders. So far so good for him. But will his luck hold?

*Liew Chin Tong is Chairman of Research for Social Advancement (REFSA) and a former deputy defence minister*