By Liew Chin Tong

JOHOR BAHRU, Malaysia--If politics in the year 2020 was bad for Malaysia, when the elected Pakatan Harapan government was toppled via defections, 2021 was certainly worse. Yet, I believe that when we look back in the years to come, 2021 could be the norm-setting year for Malaysian democracy, albeit in the most unwitting manner.

In 2021, a lot of things happened in Malaysia - a prolonged spike in Covid-19 cases that only gradually came down in October, an emergency that was declared on 12 January with an expiry date on 1 August, multiple lockdowns which caused unprecedented economic miseries, and the fall of a Prime Minister in August.

The year also ended with a massive flood in the richest state Selangor, near the capital Kuala Lumpur, as well as in other flood prone areas.

In January, as Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin had barely half the support in the 222-member Parliament, UMNO President Datuk Seri Zahid Hamidi pulled out his faction of UMNO MPs with the intention of toppling the Bersatu-led government or getting a snap poll.

Both Zahid and former PM Dato’ Seri Najib Razak, then and now, are still hoping for a snap election before they end up in jail if convicted on massive corruption charges.

Much earlier in October 2020, Muhyiddin attempted to impose an emergency but was rejected by the Malay Rulers. On 11 January 2021, the King finally acceded to Muhyiddin’s request. Parliament was suspended for the first time since the riots of 1969.

The emergency was imposed on the pretext of curbing Covid-19 spread but daily cases spiked more than 10 times from 2,232 on 11 January to 24,559 on 26 August.

Muhyiddin resigned in August after battling the Palace, UMNO, the Opposition, and the pandemic, at once. In his place, Malaysia’s most accidental Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who is neither the President nor Deputy President of UMNO, was sworn in on 21 August.

These are the background to provide the context of 2021 being the possible year for norm-setting.

Five key developments in 2021 are worth noting: the end of the presidential premier, the advent of a coalition of equals, bipartisanship of sorts, the newfound importance of the states, and new voters and new players.

1. The end of presidential premier

From independence in 1957 to the 2018 general election, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) dominated the entire polity with its president, who was also the Prime Minister, sitting at the apex of power. The increasingly sprawling prime ministerial structure lorded over the executive branch, legislature, judiciary, and even over state governments, as most chief ministers or Menteri Besar were UMNO state chiefs appointed by the party’s president.  

In 61 years before 2018, Malaysia has had six Prime Ministers. After 2018 till today, we have had three. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who became Prime Minister for the second time and Muhyiddin, and now Ismail Sabri have learned the hard way that the presidential premiership model is now in the dustbin of history.

The Prime Minister is no longer feared, he cannot bully everyone to get his way, but he must find common ground with as many stakeholders as possible to get things done.  

2. The advent of the coalition of equals

Nowadays, Prime Ministers survive on the support of his coalition partners as well as confidence and supply agreements with opposition MPs. And coalitions stay intact only if the parties can agree on common purposes and do not find themselves short-changed in a coalition.

An important and difficult journey the Malaysian democracy must go through is either to defeat UMNO again in a general election or for UMNO to have a total change of mindset.

This is important because UMNO bigwigs are still hoping to resurrect the presidential premiership for the sake of having total control. UMNO core leaders like Zahid, Najib and Deputy President Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan, have been pursuing a “scorched earth policy” to cause the fall of Dr Mahathir and Muhyiddin, and Ismail Sabri may be their next victim.

Malaysia would be a better democracy if UMNO can finally accept that it won’t win hands down anymore, and recognise that stability will only come from political compromises, within the ruling coalition and through parliamentary processes.  

The next election is likely to see the competition of three coalitions, namely Pakatan Harapan, Barisan Nasional and Perikatan Nasional.

3. Bipartisanship of sorts

The idea of ceasefire was mooted in 2020 but some forms of confidence and supply agreements between the government and the opposition were only seriously negotiated during Muhyiddin’s twilight months and sealed on 13 September 2021 after Ismail Sabri came into office. Five Cabinet ministers and five leaders from Pakatan Harapan meet every fortnight to ensure that the agreed items are being followed upon.

One of the positive changes from the Memorandum of Understanding for Transformation and Political Stability was the constitutional amendment to recognise Sabah and Sarawak as “regions” that formed Malaysia with Malaya, and not merely one of the 13 states.

However, the MoU is now under attack from two fronts: UMNO core leaders who want to push for a snap poll as well as to hold Ismail Sabri ransom, and from other opposition parties such as Warisan.

Besides the national MoU, there are also some arrangements in the states of Johor and Perak where the opposition Pakatan Harapan elected reps are given some constituency funds to enable them to serve the people.

Bipartisanship in a highly partisan society is not an easy feat. However, Malaysia can’t move forward as a nation in such a difficult time without some forms of compromise and bipartisanship.

4. The newfound importance of the states

Malaysia as federalism is an afterthought. The central government controls most resources while the states have very little leverage.

Even election dates of state governments are mostly coordinated with national elections. Yet things may change. Sabah, Melaka and Sarawak have already had their respective elections. Johor Menteri Besar Datuk Hasni Mohammad has recently said that he was mulling the idea of a snap state election.

Giving more powers to the states may help propel Malaysia’s economy forward and better manage the pandemic. States should be given shares of income taxes collected in their territories and with this increased income they should be tasked to manage and pay for health and education, just like so many other federations around the world.

5. New voters and new players

Another positive outcome of the MOU between Ismail Sabri government and Pakatan Harapan was the final implementation of Undi18 and automatic registration of voters.

The voting age is now 18, and all who had previously not registered as voters are now automatically added to the electoral roll. Around 5.8 million new voters are added to the roll which previously had less than slightly 15 million voters.

The young voters are looking for a new type of leadership, and the inclusion of a sheer number of them is bound to shake things up. Already, the new party MUDA led by former minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman is gaining a lot of traction from younger people and those who are disappointed with existing parties.

As the leadership vacuum is keenly felt, there will be more new actors jumping into the fray, and 2022 looks like a year that would reset Malaysian democracy.

These 2021 developments are tentative and perhaps reversible, just like democratic backsliding elsewhere. But at the same time, if there isn’t a new hegemon emerging soon while all players grudgingly accept that a level-playing field is good for everyone, there is hope that some of these nascent democratic practises would characterise Malaysia in the years to come.