KUALA LUMPUR, March 6 — Political pundits have expressed doubt that Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin could lead a genuinely multi-cultural government as the head of a minority party in an ultra-Malay coalition.
Analysts believe Muhyiddin could be forced to make concessions to appease its more dominant ally Umno, which has drifted farther to the right in recent years, either through a larger share in the yet-to-be formed Cabinet lineup, posts in government-linked firms or federal contracts.
“Muhyiddin will of course not be able to run his government like how Umno used to dominate in Barisan Nasional,” Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with Singapore’s Institute of International Affairs, told Malay Mail.
Umno had formed a political pact with PAS prior to the current political realignment that saw Muhyiddin’s Parti Bersatu Pribumi Malaysia pull out of Pakatan Harapan and shortened its rule prematurely.
Between them the two parties share 52 federal seats, a dozen more than Bersatu’s 30 seats.
And despite being its acting chairman and president, Muhyiddin remains liable to internal strife with the faction aligned to the influential Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad having openly disapproved of the former’s leadership. Dr Mahathir resigned as party chairman purportedly to protest Muhyiddin’s pact with Umno.
“I think he would indeed have to accommodate the demands of, for example Umno and PAS. But what is Umno? Umno is a party saddled with a lot of characters, a lot of scandals, and cases and prosecutions,” Oh said.
“So from the Umno side, there will be a lot of demands from the various projects and so on. Even [the projects], people are already getting used to it, because after all we were ruled by Umno for more than 60 years.”
Bersatu, Umno and PAS are now part of a loose coalition of Malay parties called Perikatan Nasional (PN), whose rise to power was aided by the support of 18 former BN MPs from Sarawak, now in a separate bloc called the Coalition of Sarawakian Parties (GPS).
Umno, a party whose founding members were originally moderate nationalists, has turned more right-wing since support for the party began to wane in the past two decades.
Detractors claimed the party has become increasingly ethno-centric over the years by exploiting Malay suspicion of other races to garner support.
On the first day in office, Muhyiddin addressed on live television a nation beset by partisan division vowing to become a prime minister for all.
The pledge was met with widespread criticism, although some analysts feel the Bersatu chief could overcome that by ensuring those picked for his Cabinet are effective, corruption-free and done on merits.
“By appointing ministers that are capable of running their ministries effectively is one way of proving his government is for all,” said Azmi Hassan, geostrategist with Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.
“No more appointments according to party hierarchy as always being done here before this.”
But with no sides having a clear majority, loyalty can be indefinitely tested. For Muhyiddin, this means liability to pressure from any side wanting concessions as his allies could threaten to pull support anytime their demands are not met.
“Of course, considering Bersatu is not the dominant party in his government, this will be an uphill task,” Azmi said.
“But the beauty of this predicament is that if Muhyiddin can elect ministers not according to party standing, then his government will gain the trust of the people that his government is for all.”
To date, Muhyiddin has yet to announce his Cabinet although Umno secretary-general Tan Sri Annuar Musa hinted on Tuesday that negotiations are already underway.
However, in a series of tweets this week, Annuar has made several suggestions on how he, or Umno, think the PN government should be like, such as making Bumiputera rights a top agenda just as past BN administrations did, an assertion that is likely reinforce scepticism about Muhyiddin’s multiculturalist message.
Annuar has also cautioned Muhyiddin against any witch-hunt, in addition to warning against focusing on a prime minister’s “personal idealism” in coalition politics.
Azmi believes the outcome of the bargaining would be the first acid test for Muhyiddin’s leadership, as voters are expected to watch closely how the seasoned politician handles the demands of its more dominant PN ally, Umno.
“The appointment of Cabinet ministers, for example, will demonstrate Tan Sri Muhyiddin’s acumen in handling Umno politicians since it will not be an easy task,” he said.
“I am hoping that when dealing with Umno in relation to ministers’ appointment, seniority or party position will not play a major factor and this goes to other parties as well in Perikatan.”
Muhyiddin, an experienced politician with over four decades of experience in the government, including as deputy prime minister, took office amid one of the country’s worst political crises, and the legitimacy of his appointment is still in doubt.
As premier, he has delayed the first Dewan Rakyat sitting this year for more than two months to May 18, a move detractors claim reaffirm allegations that he was appointed on the back of minority support.
But analysts believe Muhyiddin is likely to ride on the popular backing of a large segment of the Malay electorate, particularly from lower-income and rural voters, to bolster his standing and paint any challenge to his leadership as an attempt to upend a Malay government.
“Bersatu dan Umno are like identical twins in many ways,” said Kartini Aboo Talib, deputy director of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Ethnic Studies.
“The Malays have no problem accepting both. It never hurts to have more or the more the merrier as long as they are united.”