Moment of reckoning during difficult times


Malaysia does not have any protest. What we have is a parliament with a minority government (or a government with a razor-thin majority) led by Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

AS protests raged on the streets of Bangkok in early October against King Maha Vajiralongkorn and his family, Thailand declared an emergency.

The king, who lives in Germany and comes back for only short visits, ordered the crackdown after what was described as an action by protestors that had an impact on the royal motorcade carrying his wife.

But after just two weeks, the Thai Prime Minister lifted the emergency. And he himself is now facing calls to resign.

Malaysia does not have any protest. What we have is a parliament with a minority government (or a government with a razor-thin majority) led by Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

The moment of reckoning has come for Perikatan Nasional (PN). It faces the prospects of seeing Budget 2021 being stymied due to rising opposition from within its loose coalition of political parties.

Under ordinary circumstances, when a Prime Minister or chief minister faces a vote of no confidence, he would be replaced or fresh elections would be called after consultations with the head of state. This happened in Sabah.

The resultant Sabah state elections saw a new coalition of parties come to power. It was democracy at work.

But the downside to observing democracy in the midst of a pandemic was the rise in Covid-19 cases. The whole of Sabah is under lockdown, and many have lost their lives.

The spread of the virus has caught on in Peninsular Malaysia despite the social distancing rules.

It raises the question if social distancing rules are really effective, especially when there is an election.

Selangor and several other states that hardly saw any Covid-19 between March and September are seeing a second and third wave building up, with an ever-increasing number of victims.

Under the circumstances, should the government call for a fresh general election in view of the shaky position of the ruling Perikatan Nasional government?

In an ideal situation, a fresh mandate should be called. That is true-blood democracy. But we are not in an ideal situation. We have seen what happens when polls are called.

Also, there is a growing group of the people who are simply fed up with the politicking and just want a stable government until at least the country comes out of the Covid-19 situation.

They just want to run their businesses and affairs. Things are already tough enough without the political shenanigans.

Unemployment is rising and more people are seeing their level of incomes dropping. Ask any small business operator and they will tell you that business has dropped by at least 40%.

In the midst of the dire economic situation, the Budget 2021 is crucial. What the government has in store to keep the economy running is important for businesses and investors.

In the last few weeks, it has become obvious that the Muhyiddin government may not get the support when Budget 2021 is tabled at the next Parliament sitting next month.

Some parties within the PN coalition want a smooth handover of power, which is not likely to happen. Hence, the threat of a vote of no confidence against the Prime Minister.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad resigned in February this year in a move that was seen to prevent Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim from taking over. Apart from that one incident, rarely does an incumbent Prime Minister step down.

So what we have is a unique situation of a serving Prime Minister possibly not having the support of the majority in Parliament. Yet, the prospects of a fresh elections are hardly appetising. In fact, it churns the stomach. A smooth handover is also not likely because nobody knows for sure who really commands the support of the majority in Parliament.

Muhyiddin can be ousted but is there anyone who can rightfully claim his position as PM? Assuming Anwar takes over, can anyone say with certainty that his new government will not collapse over the next two years?

Hence, Malaysia is planning an emergency, like Thailand did. The details have yet to be spelt out.

However, what has been made clear is the Emergency Rule will affect only political activities.

It does not touch on economic and other daily activities of the country. It does not mean soldiers patrolling the streets or curfew being imposed.

The broader objective of Emergency Rule is to allow Budget 2021 to be passed and the current government to stay in power – at least until the Covid 19 pandemic is contained.

Whether this argument will affect investor confidence is yet to be seen. Until the details are out, nobody can predict with certainty how big an impact the emergency would have on the market.

Having an Emergency Rule is certainly an unorthodox method of overcoming the current predicament of a minority government ruling a country besieged by the Covid-19 pandemic.

But Malaysia has undertaken unorthodox methods before and survived.

According to the Constitution, the Emergency Rule is for a period up to six months, upon which it has to be reviewed.

For investors, such rules should only be put in place as a temporary measure due to the unique situation the country is facing. A prolonged Emergency Rule is not healthy as it leads to abuse of power.

It should be reviewed after six months – or even before – and once the situation permits, powers should go back to Parliament. Thailand, after all, only had a two-week emergency.

M Shanmugam is the former specialist editor of The Star. The views expressed here are solely that of the writer’s.

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