By Liew Chin Tong
FOR a man who was deeply involved in a political coup early this year, it’s strange for Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin to say that people are fed up with politics and instead wanted to the government to work hard for the people.
Most people can see that it is actually the main players in his fledgeling Perikatan Nasional (PN) government that are jostling for positions and power during this current Covid-19 crisis in Malaysia.
Perhaps the PM made the remarks in his attempt to hide the fact that, at this moment, he is merely a sitting duck despite his immense powers as the head of the government.
Why do I say this? Let me begin with a true story. Lim Kit Siang and I rushed back from our events in Johor on July 25, 2015, at the request of Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s secretary-general Datuk Seri Saifuddin Nasution Ismail for an emergency discussion. As close allies, we consult each other regularly, especially on major developments in politics.
Saifuddin told us he heard that then attorney-general Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail was going to charge the then PM Datuk Seri Najib Razak for abuse of power in the SRC International case in the following week. Lim took time to ponder, and said to us: “Will Najib be a sitting duck waiting to be slaughtered?”
Three days after that, on July 28, 2015, Gani, Muhyiddin and Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal were sacked from the Barisan Nasional government.
Now back to today. Muhyiddin is governing his shaky coalition with 10 groups within PN.
There are four factions in Bersatu – those who joined in 2016, those who joined Bersatu from Umno after Pakatan Harapan won the general election in 2018, Azmin Ali’s group and Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s supporters who could create an upset in the Bersatu party election which has been delayed ostensibly due to the Covid-19 situation.
There are another four are competing factions in Umno comprising one each led by Najib, party president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, and a non-aligned group which include deputy president Datuk Seri Mohammad Hassan and Khairy Jamaluddin.
The other two factions in PN consist of PAS and Gabungan Parti Sarawak.
Ideally, Muhyiddin would want to get rid of Mahathir’s supporters and find a way not to hold Bersatu party elections. He wants to avoid Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir’s challenge for the Bersatu presidency Although it’s difficult for the Kedah Mentri Besar to win, it’s not an impossible task.
Muhyiddin also knows that among the four Umno factions, he could only trust Hishammuddin Hussein’s group.
PKR renegade Datuk Seri Azmin Ali is hoping to have a party structure that he could play a significant role and could bring in his grassroots supporters who currently have no political home due to the limbo in Bersatu. He also needs to create a political space for his non-Malay supporters who are no longer welcome in PKR yet has nowhere to go.
For Muhyiddin’s government to gain legitimacy, he needs to show that he runs a clean government. The voters, particularly the deciding swing voters among the Malays, value integrity highly, apart from economic wellbeing.
Apart from ensuring jobs and economic wellbeing for ordinary Malaysians, the PM must show voters that he is committed to fighting corruption. Otherwise, he would never gain moral legitimacy for launching the political coup against the democratically elected Harapan government.
To convince the people, he needs to demonstrate his commitment to fighting corruption by allowing justice to take its course – for Najib and Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Mansor and Zahid to go to jail if they are convicted by courts for corruption.
The only problem is, can he do so without Umno revolting?
If waiting for court conviction is too much of leaving matters to chance, could Muhyiddin resort to breaking up both Umno and Bersatu at the same time before the Umno big wigs strike back?
There is a rumour in the city that Muhyiddin, Azmin and Hishammuddin are trying to form a new party. For them, this could be a brilliant solution to solve all the problems. There’s no need to worry about Bersatu election, Azmin’s supporters could find a political home, and Hishammudin’s faction could bring the real support that Muhyiddin needed.
However, there are two challenges to this plan.
First, Muhyiddin has only a maximum of 113 or 114 seats. If the Harapan parties (PKR, DAP and Amanah) and Warisan, as well as Mahathir faction of Bersatu members of Parliament, stick together, Muhyiddin has no room to manoeuvre.
If Muhyiddin, Azmin and Hishammuddin manage to break up this “Pakatan plus” coalition, they would be able to form their new party without the need to have both Najib and Zahid’s groups. In their calculations, they probably would attempt to lure the support of a few Pakatan MPs.
Second, Muhyiddin must be very careful with Johor Umno. Its leaders are so eager to wrest power they lost in the last general election.
My friendly advice to the PM whom I used to work very closely with and had many candid conversations during our time as Harapan partners is this – Umno could pull a fast one on him in his own backyard in Johor.
A snap election in Johor may mean the end of Bersatu in the state as well as the possibility of Muhyiddin even losing his Bukit Gambir state seat.
In these tense political undercurrents, it could be Muhyiddin that would trigger something to tear down and tame his Umno challengers. Or it could be Johor Umno that would trigger the beginning of the onslaught against the PM.
For Harapan and the allies who choose to side with us, such as Warisan and the Mahathir faction of Bersatu, we must stick together. Malaysians who voted for Harapan expecting a clean government and better economic opportunities will still support us.
This commentary first appeared in the Malaysiakini. The views here do not necessarily reflect those of this portal.
Liew Chin Tong is a Senator and former deputy minister for defence.