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Malaysia in transition

Ismail Sabri named Malaysia PM, putting scandal-hit party on top

New leader from UMNO to be sworn in on Saturday in reversal of 2018 election

Ismail Sabri Yaakob has been designated Malaysia's next prime minister, succeeding Muhyiddin Yassin.   © Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia's next prime minister will be Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the palace announced on Friday, putting a party hit by corruption scandals and ousted by voters back in the driver's seat.

The appointment of the 61-year-old Ismail Sabri marks the return of an administration led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) -- a Malay-ethnic political party that lost to an opposition coalition led by Mahathir Mohamad in the 2018 election. Allegations of corruption, including the massive embezzlement scandal involving state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), were a key factor in voters' decision to boot out UMNO after six decades of uninterrupted rule.

Now the party is returning to the prime minister's office without fresh polls. UMNO was instrumental in pressuring Muhyiddin Yassin, who had nudged out Mahathir last year, into resigning on Monday after only 17 months on the job.

Ismail Sabri will be sworn in on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. local time, the palace said in a statement. "The king hopes with the appointment of the prime minister, the government should continue efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic immediately to ensure safety and security of the people as well as the well-being of the country, which have been deeply affected," read the statement, signed by the comptroller of the royal household, Ahmad Fadil Shamsuddin.

"The king also expresses hope that with the appointment, the political tussle will end and all lower house members can set aside political agendas to focus on efforts to combat the pandemic," the palace added.

The incoming premier is believed to have the support of 114 members of parliament -- once again a thin majority in the lower house of 222 seats, where two are vacant. He edged out long-time prime minister aspirant and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

The final decision was made after King Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin held a special conference with his fellow Malay state rulers -- apparently to secure a consensus, even though the appointment was at the king's sole discretion under the constitution.

Ismail Sabri's cabinet is expected to retain most of Muhyiddin's lineup to ensure continuity in the battle against COVID-19. In tweeting his congratulations to the new prime minister, UMNO's Hishammuddin Hussein, who was Muhyiddin's foreign minister, wrote in Malay: "The most important thing a country needs is stability. It is to enable the country to return to focus on dealing with the crisis #COVID19, restore the economy and defend the welfare of the people."

Muhyiddin on Thursday declared that his own coalition of 50 members of parliament was backing Ismail Sabri, but stressed that the support was conditional on the new cabinet excluding any UMNO members facing court cases.

Although Ismail Sabri has not been implicated in corruption himself, he is the vice president of a party closely tied to the 1MDB scandal that rocked Malaysia and the financial world.

Money from 1MDB is alleged to have been misappropriated by former Prime Minister Najib Razak, also of UMNO, and a few others. At least $4.5 billion is thought to have been siphoned off and, according to U.S. authorities, used to purchase luxuries ranging from a superyacht to Picasso artwork.

Najib was convicted last year on seven charges of financial misconduct and abuse of power in connection with a 1MDB subsidiary. He denies wrongdoing and is appealing the verdicts, while facing numerous other charges. Despite the legal woes, he remains an influential figure in UMNO.

Other UMNO members are caught up in scandals as well. Separate from 1MDB, party President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi faces multiple allegations of corruption, money laundering and misuse of power -- all of which he also denies.

The party's reputation is sure to follow Ismail Sabri's new government. But some critics take issue with the new prime minister himself.

Muhyiddin and his cabinet were compelled to resign after losing the support of 15 UMNO members of parliament, ostensibly because of their failure to control the spread of COVID-19 infections. Before becoming deputy prime minister last month, Ismail Sabri was in charge of a cabinet security group and briefly chaired National Security Council meetings on COVID-19 -- tying him to the government's alleged failures.

New cases on Friday surpassed 23,000 for the first time.

King Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin appointed Ismail Sabri as prime minister after conferring with fellow royals.   © Reuters

An online petition titled "We don't want Ismail Sabri Yaakob to be prime minister Malaysia" blames him for "mishandling" the pandemic, while also accusing him of promoting racial segregation between Malays and ethnic Chinese. The petition had received over 350,000 signatures as of Friday evening.

Some opposition figures expressed a willingness to work with the new premier, however. Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, a former youth and sports minister who left Muhyiddin's Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu) to establish his own youth-oriented group, tweeted his congratulations. "I will continue to serve as an opposition member of parliament, bringing policy ideas and balancing every government decision," Syed Saddiq wrote.

Ismail Sabri, a lawyer by education, is a fourth-term lawmaker and began his public life in 2004 as a member of parliament from his birth state -- Pahang on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. He was then appointed minister for youth and sports in 2008, under former premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. He has been a federal minister ever since, except for a short stint in the opposition from 2018 to 2020. He also served as parliament's opposition leader for a year.

Married with four children, one of his sons is well-known singer Dafi Ismail Sabri, while his son-in-law is Indonesian fashion designer Jovian Mandagie.

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