IN national politics, 2020 was as dramatic as it could get. For the first time in Malaysian history, a change of government took place without a general election.
The 22-month-old Pakatan Harapan (PH) government fell in February following a political realignment, dubbed the Sheraton Move, when Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Datuk Seri Azmin Ali led enough MPs out of PH for it to lose its parliamentary majority.
With the exit of Muhyiddin, the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) president, backed by 26 MPs from his party, and Azmin, the PKR deputy president, leading a bloc of 10 MPs, PH was left short of a simple majority in the 222-member Dewan Rakyat.
The seventh prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad then submitted his resignation, bringing the coalition’s rule to a sudden end.
Over the next week, a flurry of conflicting reports emerged from coalition blocs on who they said had the numbers to head the new government. All eyes were on the Yang di-Pertuan Agong as he sought to determine who had the confidence of the majority in the Dewan Rakyat.
In the end, Muhyiddin — as the leader of the new Perikatan Nasional coalition, consisting of Bersatu, PAS and Gabungan Bersatu Sabah — was sworn in as the country’s eighth prime minister. Umno remained outside the coalition but pledged to support it and participate in the federal and state governments.
The political realignment soon reverberated through several states. The PH state administrations in Johor, Melaka, Perak and Kedah fell as assemblymen switched to the PN coalition in line with developments at the federal level.
In May, the Dewan Rakyat was opened by the King and adjourned immediately after the royal address. When it convened again in July, Tan Sri Mohamad Ariff Mohd Yusof was replaced as the Speaker by Datuk Azhar Azizan Harun.
In July, Sabah became a whirlpool of political manoeuvrings as both former chief minister Tan Sri Musa Aman and the incumbent Tan Sri Shafie Apdal claimed to have the majority of state assemblymen on their side. A state election ensued in September and the question was settled in Musa’s favour.
In September, Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim claimed to have the support of a strong majority of MPs, fuelling talk of another change of government in a tumultuous year. However, despite an audience with the King in October, Anwar’s bid for premiership failed to materialise.
As the year drew to a close, Perak experienced another power shift, when Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Ahmad Faizal Azumu lost a vote of confidence 10 to 48 in the 59-member state assembly. Umno’s candidate Datuk Saarani Mohamad was sworn in as the new menteri besar with the consent of PN parties Bersatu and PAS, and with support from PH too.
In parliament, the Supply Bill was passed after all three readings, albeit narrowly, giving respite to talk that MPs could turn the bill into a confidence vote against the PN government.
In these pages, we review how the main players on the political stage fared this year.
Mahathir’s record-breaking run ends suddenly
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s term as the seventh prime minister came to an abrupt end in February when he resigned following the defection of a majority of his party’s MPs from the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition.
Following his shock resignation, Mahathir, the world’s oldest premier at 94, was appointed interim PM by the King until the next candidate for the post was identified.
Mahathir and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin tussled for control of the party, leading to Mahathir’s dismissal and that of several MPs from Bersatu because they did not sit with the Perikatan Nasional bloc when parliament convened on May 18.
After his removal as Bersatu chairman, Mahathir set up Parti Pejuang Tanah Air (Pejuang) with former members of the party, including his son Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir as president.
Mahathir’s alliance with Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, which had faltered over the transition from Mahathir’s premiership, fell apart as the two leaders became distanced following their failed attempts to return PH to power.
In May, Mahathir submitted a motion of no confidence in Muhyiddin to parliament, but although it was included in the order paper, government matters took precedence.
In another dramatic development, Mahathir and his old rival for power Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah came together a day ahead of a crucial Budget vote in December to float the possibility of a new government if the Supply Bill were defeated.
As it turned out, the Bill passed its third reading by 111-108, with Razaleigh being the sole abstainer. In the end, Mahathir’s no-confidence motion was one of 25 such motions that were submitted, along with two motions of confidence in Muhyiddin — all made academic with the passing of Budget 2021.
PM Muhyiddin survives a stormy year
Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin became the eighth prime minister in March, following a dramatic realignment of political support among members of parliament. Muhyiddin, the president of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), led his party out of the Pakatan Harapan coalition, causing the government of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to collapse.
Backed by a 32-member cabinet representing the range of power blocs supporting his premiership, Muhyiddin had to cope with the crushing effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy even as he took office as prime minister.
Nevertheless, he gained the public’s trust with a series of stimulus packages to ease the hardship of the people who lost their incomes as the authorities restricted movement to flatten the curve of the pandemic.
In a series of live telecasts announcing the government’s support measures, Muhyiddin’s reassuring manner helped his administration to score points with the rakyat, who were caught up in anxiety over the pandemic.
Several attempts to mount a no-confidence vote against Muhyiddin failed to gain traction, as the PM’s backers held together in a balancing act against the opposition.
In September, Muhyiddin received a boost when his Perikatan Nasional coalition and its allies won the Sabah state election. The win put a dent in Opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s claim that he had the support of a majority of MPs in the Dewan Rakyat.
The following month, Muhyiddin advised the Yang di-Pertuan Agong Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah to declare an emergency to prevent the pandemic from spreading. After consulting the Malay Rulers, however, the King decided against it, saying that the government was dealing with the pandemic effectively.
When Budget 2021 was tabled in November, the opposition saw the record RM322.5 billion Bill as a confidence vote on Muhyiddin’s government. In the end, the Supply Bill passed all three readings, giving Muhyiddin’s premiership momentum into the new year.
Premier’s post eludes Anwar
Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s preparations to take over the prime minister’s post from Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad faced a major obstacle when the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government collapsed in February.
As Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) president, Anwar had a pre-election agreement with Mahathir for the transition of power, but no date had been set.
Things came to a head in February, in a political realignment known as the Sheraton Move, when Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia led by its president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and a bloc of 11 members of parliament from PKR left PH. The coalition was left without a majority in parliament and, with that, Anwar’s plan of succeeding Mahathir was stymied.
Thrown out of power, PH leaders tried in vain to decide on a new candidate for the premiership, with Anwar and Mahathir unable to work together. In June, Mahathir endorsed Parti Warisan Sabah president Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal as the opposition’s choice for PM at a meeting attended by PH party leaders from the Democratic Action Party and Parti Amanah Negara.
In September, Anwar said at a press conference that he had a “formidable and convincing” majority to form a new government. However, he was unable to meet the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, who had been hospitalised.
When he met the Agong in October, Anwar failed to prove his claim and lost traction for his bid for the premiership. His campaign was further blunted when the government’s Supply Bill 2021 was passed.
After failing to make good on his promise to return PH to power, Anwar faced pressure to hand over the post of opposition leader for a new bid to cobble together a government-in-waiting.
As the new year dawns, Anwar continues to look for the right spark to ignite his decades-long quest to helm the administration.
King ensures political stability
Yang di-Pertuan Agong Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah Ibni Almarhum Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Al-Musta’in Billah became a crucial stabilising factor in the country’s political equation when the Pakatan Harapan government collapsed in February.
The King showed that the role of the constitutional monarch was much more pivotal in the country’s democratic system than had been commonly assumed.
When the nation was plunged into uncertainty because no leader appeared to have a majority support to form a government, he met with all 222 MPs individually to determine who they supported to be the prime minister.
The King was the focal point of attention when parliament opened in May for only the royal address to be delivered. In his speech, Sultan Abdullah revealed that he tried repeatedly to convince Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad not to resign as prime minister but failed.
The King was in the news again in September when Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim announced that he had the support to form a new government. However, as the King was in hospital, Anwar did not get to meet him until a month later. At that meeting, however, Anwar did not provide the names of the MPs whom he said backed him for the prime minister’s post.
At a point when the Perikatan Nasional government faced three motions of no confidence in October, the King told political leaders to solve their differences through negotiations so as not to plunge the country into a political crisis when it was facing the Covid-19 pandemic.
Later that month, the King declined to declare an emergency despite the Cabinet’s proposal to do so to contain the pandemic.
However, in December, he declared an emergency in the Gerik parliamentary seat in Perak and the Bugaya state seat in Sabah, in effect cancelling the by-elections that were supposed to be held. Both by-elections were due to be held on Jan 16.
Speaker Azhar Harun has a fiery debut
At end-June, the government submitted a parliamentary motion to terminate the term of Tan Sri Mohamed Ariff Mohd Yusof as the Speaker.
At the same time, Election Commission chairman Datuk Azhar Azizan Harun, better known as Art Harun, resigned from his post. He was named the new Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat in July.
Azhar had a fiery debut as the Speaker, with the House erupting into a shouting match over his appointment without a vote, which opposition members of parliament (MPs) questioned. Azhar explained that there was no vote because only one name was proposed for the Speaker’s post.
Also in July, Azhar was criticised for requesting that the trial judge adjourn the trial of former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak so that he could attend parliament.
Azhar resisted repeated calls for a motion of no confidence in the prime minister to be brought forward in the parliamentary order paper. For this, he cited the Westminster Convention, which states that the Speaker has no power to bring forward such a motion.
Owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, the parliamentary sittings in November were shortened, and only 80 MPs were permitted in the Dewan Rakyat in order to comply with physical distancing rules.
Among other controversies, three government MPs who were under quarantine sparked a protest when they were allowed to enter the House to vote on a ministry’s budget for 2021.
Going beyond patronage politics
Muar MP Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman left his mark on the political scene this year by being the face of a new brand of politics that seeks equal representation for women and young people in parliament and an end to patronage politics.
The former youth and sports minister was already getting noticed as the youngest member in the cabinet of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, which collapsed in February.
As the leader of Armada, the youth wing of Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), Syed Saddiq had already established a platform to engage young people in political activism and had developed a following for breaking old school stereotypes.
A notable campaign that he drove was to enlist support for the Undi18 movement to lower the voting age to 18.
Syed Saddiq, 27, filed an application to register the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (Muda) in September, aiming to appeal to young people of all races and religions, although age would not be a bar to membership. The party aims to leverage on its strength in the social media space.
When the PH government fell after an exodus of MPs from coalition members Bersatu and PKR, Syed Saddiq was among five lawmakers from Bersatu who stood with Mahathir and did not join the new Perikatan Nasional coalition. As a result, they were sacked from Bersatu.
While Mahathir went on to set up Parti Pejuang Tanah Air, choosing to appeal to the Malay voter base, Syed Saddiq opted to take the multiracial route to unite young Malaysians.
Muda, which means “young”, draws inspiration from France’s En Marche and Thailand’s Future Forward Party, and regional youth-led movements.