Malaysia's Political Impasse: The Battle of Two Tigers


© Picture by Miera Zulyana

Malaysia has been experiencing a hung parliament where no party or coalition controls a reliable majority since March 2020. As premier Muhyiddin struggles to keep in power, the Covid-19 pandemic in the country worsens. How will Malaysia chart its direction with the new Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob?

The 14th General Election in 2018 was a pivotal point for politics in Malaysia moving towards a two-party system and breaking the dominance of the Umno led Barisan Nasional administration in the past six decades - breathing a fresh air into creating a more mature and open democratic space in the country. 

That shining beacon in Malaysia did not last long - all hopes turned bleak in a matter of 22 months as Pakatan Harapan government crumbled in February 2020 when the then prime minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad resigned and his party Bersatu pulled out from the coalition. 

The series of events that unfolded that year led to the rise of Muhyiddin Yassin and the creation of a new coalition out of convenience called Perikatan Nasional.

The two years of Perikatan Nasional government has been broiled in various challenges from outside and from within, and while Umno is part of the government, the party is also acting like an “opposition” despite being the government of the day with Perikatan Nasional. While Muhyiddin Yassin as the president of Bersatu is still holding onto the power at the pinnacle by virtue of his position as the prime minister, the party is at risk of losing it all should a general election be held. 

Malaysian politics is currently in a limbo as Muhyiddin struggles to keep in power, the Covid-19 pandemic in the country worsens further with more than a million cases reported thus far and nearly 10,000 deaths. Daily cases shot up to more than 17,000 despite strict lockdown and imposition of emergency since January 11. 

As the emergency lapses in August, Muhyiddin and Perikatan Nasional are facing pressure from within as well as Umno, the opposition bench calling him to resign over the poor management of the economy and Covid-19 pandemic. 

On 16 August, Muhyiddin finally tendered his resignation to the King and spurred another round of frenzy for new suitors to the prime minister’s post. Among the frontrunners to be appointed as the ninth Malaysian Prime Minister include former deputy prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob of Umno and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim of Pakatan Harapan.

Umno and Barisan Nasional MPs have decided to throw their support behind their vice president Ismail Sabri despite the factional split within Umno, as the prime minister candidate to the King. On 20 August the King convened a special meeting with the Conference of Rulers and deliberated on the appointment of the new prime minister.

Meanwhile, after Muhyiddin’s final address as the prime minister on 16 August, when asked if he will retire from politics, he seemed to be confident in making a comeback in the general election during the closed door session with the senior editors from selected local media organisations.

“Many Malaysians asked 'Abah (father), please to stay on and don't quit, we love you'. It's very touching. I wish I could do that but under parliamentary democracy, the position of the prime minister is based on the provisions of the Federal Constitution,” Muhyiddin quipped ‘Abah’ as his nickname to show familiarity with the ground.

Just hours after his resignation, his team put up a ‘thank you’ video using footage from previous election campaigns and his journey as the prime minister with a sombre background music. The video went viral on social media, particularly on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, and garnered hundreds of thousands of shares and views.

After a week of political frenzy since Muhyiddin’s resignation, the King finally announced on August 20 that his former deputy, Ismail Sabri Yaakob is the 9th Malaysian Prime Minister after securing the support of 114 MPs from the Dewan Rakyat (House of Commons), a slim majority of just three in the Parliament.  

Political quicksand

Today, Malaysia is caught in a political quicksand because most of the political elites are trapped in the past and cannot respond to new realities. The one-party pre-dominance was destroyed in 2018 without building up a healthy two-party system, said Wong Chin-Huat, political scientist at Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development (JSC), Sunway University. He added that Malaysia has been experiencing a hung parliament where no party or coalition controls a reliable majority since March 2020. 

“With the emergence of multiparty competition, parties and politicians should drop majoritarian politics and adopt multi-partisan collaboration, but the main coalitions and the state governments they control still engage in cut-throat competition, trying to outsmart the opponents like gamblers who believe in their luck no matter what,” Chin-Huat said.

Constant political tension

Professor Dr. James Chin, political analyst at Asia Institute, University of Tasmania creatively explained that the tussle for the dominance of power among the Malay political elites between Bersatu and Umno is akin to the Malaysian political mountain and the battle of two tigers. 

“What happened in 2020 is that you have Bersatu suddenly coming in trying to be the dominant, and more importantly holding the position of the Prime Minister from Bersatu. You can only have one tiger in the Malaysian political mountain. Now you have the ‘old tiger’ Umno facing the ‘new tiger’ Bersatu, and they are trying to fight it out,” he said.

Chin also mentioned that a constant political tension in the Malay community will continue to persist and until this issue is resolved, then Malaysia will have a certain stability again. 

Meanwhile, Dr. Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, believes that the current political situation is not quite a so-called brain death situation. He said that it is rather an elite power struggle situation. 

“We don't have an election and therefore whoever is elected is basically power struggle and gain between and among them, to try to see whether any of them forge together a parliamentary majority and thereby becoming prime minister,” Oh said. Unfortunately, the people do not have a lot of say on the political crisis because Malaysians only vote every four or five years during the general elections.

Growing dissent

The Perikatan Nasional government was expecting that the economy would recover in the following year but Covid-19 continued to ravage further and put the country into another turmoil of both pandemic and economic downturn. 

According to the Department of Statistics Malaysia, more than 700,000 people are unemployed. The recent Graduate Statistics 2020 showed that 202,400 of graduates were unemployed in 2020 compared to 165,200 in 2019.

During the implementation of the full lockdown measures in May 2021, many low- and middle-income Malaysians were left to struggle in the midst of unemployment and rising cost of living. Despite the announcement of various packages and assistance initiatives by the government in June, Malaysians organised themselves to run the white flag campaign to help those in need of food aid during the movement restriction order. 

What followed after that was the campaign of black flags to show dissent and dissatisfaction towards the Perikatan Nasional government and they have acted strongly against those critical of the government including satire and parody works by activists. 

The government's failure to lead the nation out of the health and economic crisis, and the opposition's failure to offer effective competition leaves voters with no enthusiasm for any blocks. 

The Royal Rumble

It is almost unheard of for the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Sultan Abdullah of Pahang to openly rebuke the government of the day. But the royal rebuke came on July 29 when the palace issued a press statement showing the King’s dismay towards the remarks made by the law minister that the cabinet had revoked the emergency ordinances. The King and the Conference of Rulers had decreed in the last meeting in June not to extend the emergency and called on the government to resume the Parliamentary sitting.

Muhyiddin later issued a statement that evening rebutting the palace statement that he had fulfilled his role as the prime minister according to the Federal Constitution and proper procedure in revoking the emergency ordinances.

Chin said that Muhyiddin and Perikatan Nasional had made fundamental political mistakes due to the poor advice from his inner circles. 

“Muhyiddin was badly advised. He should not have issued rebuttals to the King. If you look at the statement that came out it was basically like a legal argument that he has fulfilled his constitutional duty that he has told the King, he has advised the King that he doesn't really need the King to lift the emergency, go through a cabinet decision and advise the King. 

“The reason why I say it is a mistake is because you know in Malay culture it is still very feudal, you never rebut the King. Face is a very important issue“, Chin opined.

Malaysia looks forward

Moving ahead, Chin-Huat believed that the current political stalemate will continue as it is without any exit plan and despite having a general election at this moment, the crisis will still persist without an end.  He said all parties should reach a political ceasefire agreement that allows the government to survive in exchange for opposition‘s inputs in policymaking. That will be necessary irrespective of the prime minister and parties in government. 

While Malaysia's governance crisis on health, economy and democracy is fundamentally structural rather than personal, the failing leaders are but symptoms of the political illnesses.

Such political illnesses will be a constant struggle in search of a maturing democracy in a young country like Malaysia. While shifting back and forth between an authoritarian government in the neo-feudalistic democratic system, Malaysia is moving from a two-party dominance into a more coalition based politics with a greater need for a multi-party system in coalition politics.

Although the future of Malaysian politics remains to be seen, it is in fact in a transition phase of a maturing democracy. It is certainly in the uncharted waters for the upcoming general election, the force of the young voters will play a strong stabilising and influential factor in the country.

“They have proven themselves to be willing to twist and turn the written Constitution as well Constitutional conventions in order to stay on in power. They are politically illegitimate now.”

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