Malaysian government uses COVID-19 to consolidate influence
Malaysia’s new government has successfully used the pandemic to consolidate its power over the country, but its attempt to turn against the Agong (king) may be excessive, writes John Funston.
Authoritarian governments around the world have benefited from lockdowns and other restrictions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and the public reluctance to challenge governments in the face of an existential public health threat has helped them tighten their grip .
This has been the story of the pandemic for Malaysia, even as its government has shifted from being the global standard bearer of successful anti-pandemic policies to being recognized as a disaster.
Let’s take a look at how it happened. The current government of Perikatan Nasional (PN) came to power in late February 2020, just weeks after the first case of COVID-19 was detected in Malaysia on January 24.
This government is an opportunist alliance of deserters from the previous Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, the long-standing former ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the Islamist Party and local parties in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak. Her nomination by the Agong (king) was controversial, as it included parties strongly rejected in the May 2018 elections and lacked a full parliamentary majority at the time.
As part of its response to COVID-19, the ruling coalition began to impose restrictions on political activity, preventing public protests against what many saw as an illegitimate government.
This continued under the relatively successful national lockdown between March and May. The public’s willingness to accept the restrictions was aided by government assistance to victims of the closure and a successful public relations campaign portraying Prime Minister Muhyiddin as a folkloric, humble and fatherly figure, or “Abah”, to the head of a “concerned” government.
Several “heroes of COVID-19” – including the Agong, Muhyiddin, Director General of Health Noor Hisham and Senior Minister (Security) Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob – were even commemorated on a large mural in the capital of the ‘Selangor State, Shah Alam.
But a seemingly humble and benevolent government soon came to be seen as complacent and arrogant. This was particularly noted in the disregard of the rulers to follow their own restrictions. Their actions were underestimated while the general public were fined heavily on the spot for similar offenses.
For example, the Minister of Plantations, Industries and Commodities, Khairuddin Aman Razali, visited Turkey from July 3-7, 2020, but did not quarantine his home upon his return to Malaysia. He initially paid a symbolic fine, but after three months he was cleared of legal proceedings by the attorney general’s office because he had not received a form to submit to quarantine.
Around this time, the government began to lose control of the pandemic. In September, Sabah state elections were called when former government-aligned UMNO chief minister Musa Aman was cleared of 46 corruption charges involving suspected money laundering and bribes of over $ 44 million, resulting in the desertion of 14 politicians from the PH-aligned Warisan government.
Meanwhile, after weeks of daily positive single- and double-digit tests, COVID-19 numbers had risen to around 700 by early October.
Speaking to the nation on October 6, Prime Minister Muhyiddin said a repeat of the national lockdown was not necessary, and said the new wave of infection could be stemmed with knowledge gained since the start of the pandemic.
He warned, however, that Abah may have to “use the cane” if people do not follow government guidelines – a remark that many have received badly, considering that the government is more two-tier and its shortcomings than the general public.
Nonetheless, on October 23, the cabinet agreed to ask the Agongs to declare a state of emergency to fight the pandemic. The main objective, which did not escape many Malaysians, was to prevent a meeting of parliament, and in a controversial move, this was rejected by the Agong, after consulting his fellow leaders.
Finally, on January 12, the Agong declared a state of emergency, which will remain in effect until August 1, including as a centerpiece a ban on all parliamentary meetings.
Since that declaration, the government has messed up almost every aspect of controlling the pandemic. Government leaders contradicted themselves and sought individual or party advantage rather than the common good, they were unable to deliver and implement coherent policies, and these failures brought health services to the brink of collapse. disaster, placing enormous costs on ordinary Malaysians.
Yet rulers have been free to cross the country and even travel overseas as they wish, while ordinary Malaysians are locked in and insufficiently compensated for lost income.
On top of it all, the spread isn’t even curbed. Since the emergency was declared, the death toll from COVID-19 has risen from 555 to over 9,000. Daily positive tests are now around 17,000, and in June Bloomberg ranked Malaysia 51 out of 53 countries in terms of effectiveness in the fight against the pandemic.
The public has reacted actively – criticizing government policies online and providing emergency aid to those in desperate need, who have started to fly a white flag to cry out for help.
Some have compared the white flags to “surrender to dysfunction,” and even suggested that Malaysia is on the way to state failure.
Yet the government has denied any real problems, with Prime Minister Muhyiddin saying in June that people’s kitchens are “full” with government-supplied provisions, so they don’t have to worry.
At the same time as it botches the deal with COVID-19, the government has used it as a shield to consolidate its political dominance – replicating the kleptocratic, coercive and authoritarian ways of a privileged Malay elite before 2018.
But after a falling out between the prime minister and the Agongs, the latest attempt to hide behind the pandemic could be a step too far.
To legitimize the state of emergency, the Agong sought to ensure that she and her dismissal followed the constitutional requirement that they be discussed and approved by parliament, prior to the signing of the Agong.
Fearing that he would not have a majority, Muhyiddin sought to avoid this, telling parliament that the state of emergency had already been revoked by the cabinet, so no further parliamentary action is needed.
THers saw an unprecedented confrontation in which Agong and the prime minister publicly accused the other of not adhering to the constitution. In turn, Muhyiddin sought to anticipate the problem by using the pandemic as an excuse to shut down parliament indefinitely, energizing a hitherto ineffective PH-led opposition.
In the past, the mandate gave Malaysian prime ministers the power to do almost anything, but this situation will be a test of whether that power includes challenging the Agongs and the constitution.