Hoping for a Malaysian-first PM

Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin clocking-in on his first day at work as Prime Minister. - Filepic

‘Politics will not change. But society can as long as we collectively realise that politics is just a profession and the ones who dominate it are those who work the system the best.’

“You said we have a Malaysian Cabinet and Malaysian government but we have a PM that said ‘I am Malay first’, ” a 30-something Chinese woman threw that comment out at a panellist at Offici-ally Harith Iskander, a live talk show at the Joke Factory in Kuala Lumpur last Monday night.

She was referring to Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s statement in Parliament on March 31,2010. Muhyiddin, who was then Barisan Nasional Deputy Prime Minister, said he was first a Malay, but that did not mean that he is not a Malaysian at heart.

“How can I say I am a Malaysian first and a Malay second. All Malays will shun me and say it’s not proper, as Indians will also say they are Indian first, ” he said.

The then Umno deputy president said this in response to DAP adviser Lim Kit Siang’s challenge for him to resign if he refused to admit that he is a Malaysian first and a Malay second as proof that he was in full support of the 1Malaysia concept.

“Tan Sri Muhyiddin was ambushed in Parliament by that question point-blank. He had no choice but to give a politically correct answer given how the question was posed to him by the then Opposition, and (his reply) was subsequently taken out of context, ” says social media practitioner Tai Zee Kin, who was one of the panellists.

It was a full house at the Joke Factory. The serious topic at Malaysia’s top comedian’s live talk show was: With Malaysia’s PM8, what’s next? I was also one of the four panellists at Harith’s live talk show.

“Let me answer your question by telling you what a former minister (from Borneo) told me yesterday when we were talking about Muhyiddin’s ‘I am Malay first’ statement’, ” I said to the woman who had asked a valid question that was undoubtedly on the minds of many worried Malaysians, especially non-Malays.

“The minister told me that he attended Muhyiddin’s daughter’s wedding and he noticed that the family spoke in English and they had guests from Manila, Jakarta and other parts of the world. His impression of the family was that it was cosmopolitan.

“The thing with most of the public is they judge a politician by the headlines they read. The headline gives a one-dimension perspective of the politicians. Sometimes the headline doesn’t represent the politician.”

I asked the former minister what he thought of Muhyiddin as Prime Minister.

“A little concern I had about Muhyiddin was his reversal of (Tun Dr) Mahathir Mohamad’s policy on the usage of English for Science and Maths. He was expressing concern that rural students were disadvantaged. But the Education Ministry then did not do the necessary to enable them to know English. I am not certain whether this is (the then Education Minister) Muhyiddin’s stand or the ‘deep state’. But certainly, acquiescence perhaps, ” he said.

On what kind of prime minister his former Cabinet colleague would be, the politician from Borneo said: “Well, he went to bed with ‘dirty dozens’! All of them will be extracting from him their pound of flesh. This would be his first hurdle.

“He has attempted to show statesmanship in his first address to the nation. But it will be difficult to realise given his new partners, ” he said.

“But knowing that this is his only term, as I think a second term is not within reach, he would want to leave a legacy to ice an illustrious career. A Malaysia for all as espoused by the government led by his ‘Bosku’ (former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak).”

On Thursday, I was in KL to meet up with Tan Sri Chua Soi Lek, who had worked with the new Prime Minister since 1986 when he served as a two-term state exco when Muhyiddin was Johor Mentri Besar. They became Cabinet colleagues when both were promoted to be Federal ministers.

“If you ask me, Muhyiddin’s biggest setback is he doesn’t have a friendly look. By nature, he is not a friendly person. Outwardly, he looks very stiff and not very friendly. But if you know him, actually he is a kind-hearted person, and he is very hardworking, ” said the former MCA president and Health Minister.

On what kind of PM Muhyiddin will be, Chua is confident that the Pagoh MP will be inclusive.

“When he was Education Minister, he gave government land and funds to Chinese schools, ” he pointed out.

He added that Muhyiddin would be pro-development.

“He is very concerned with infrastructure development and industrialisation. People credit Johor’s industrialisation to his two terms as Johor Mentri Besar, ” he said.

A plus point for the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia president is that the public will have a low expectation of him as Prime Minister, according to Bridget Welsh, an honorary research fellow at the University of Nottingham Malaysia’s Asia Research Institute.

“Muhyiddin comes into an environment with lower expectations, when Malaysians want the politicking to stop.

“So if he can stabilise the situation and have some concrete deliverables or positives, this will increase his ratings very quickly, ” she said at an interview in KL on Wednesday.

“The second crucial thing is he is a person who is experienced. So he knows the different aspects of government and he has allies in the system, ” she said.

In terms of his negatives, Welsh said Muhyiddin is a man beholden: “The power grab is also going to grab him, and it’s going to constrain him to be able to move forward until he gets the numbers (of MPs) and, of course, how he will make the combination of those numbers potentially can undermine him, ” she said.

“The second negative that he has is that he faces multiple Oppositions – from Pakatan Harapan and from different parts within the civil service and others who may not want to want him to succeed.

“And he also has his own coalition. If anything, he should be aware it’s not something that he can fully rely on.”

Welsh said Umno is the most destabilising force in this new government. Many in Umno, she said, recognise that their political fortunes could have potentially been even better if snap polls had been called. It is also a party that doesn’t have a very good record of sharing power, she said.

The challenges the new Prime Minister face, according to Jason Leong, the CEO of SIP Advisory (which provides strategy, infrastructure, planning and advisory services), are:

> Outrage management – Muh-yiddin needs to engage the people more and directly to manage the significant public outrage at the change of government. He has to do things that resonate with the people and capture their imagination, for example, introduce a bigger economic stimulus plan, offer pragmatic education reforms and announce stringent health measures to combat Covid-19.

> Manage the perception that he is leading a Malay-centric Cabinet and government – He has to show his administration is broad-based by engaging well with all the Chinese and Indian community stakeholders, as that would be DAP’s main line of attack against him.

> Conflict management within Perikatan Nasional – The parties must learn how to quarrel with each other without breaking up (eg, Barisan Nasional for over 40 years versus Pakatan Harapan for less than two years).

Universiti Utara Malaysia political lecturer Prof Dr Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani was one of the audience members at the Officially Harith Iskander show, at which what’s next in Malaysian politics also discussed.

Politically, Mohd Azizuddin noted that the Prime Minister will struggle, as he does not have a solid majority.

“Even the majority he has is being questioned by Pakatan. The majority he has is so slim that anything can happen. Meaning, during his administration, he will always be thinking if he has enough numbers to be in power, ” he said.

“If PN (Perikatan Nasional) MPs get upset with him, they can defect to Pakatan or be independent. That could make the government crumble.”

If not having a sizable number of MPs in his corner prolongs until the next sitting of Parlia-ment, on May 18, we could see snap polls this year, said Mohd Azizuddin.

The plus point for Muhyiddin, according to him, is that he is a seasoned leader.

“Nobody disputes whether he can be a PM, as he used to be Deputy Prime Minister. He has 40-plus years experience climbing the political ladder, ” he said.

I asked Harith what sense did he get from the panel discussion he had hosted.

“Politics will not change. But society can as long as we collectively realise that politics is just a profession and the ones who dominate it are those who work the system the best, ” the comedian said.

Let’s pray that Prime Minister Muhyiddin will be Malaysian first.

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