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Malaysia in transition

Malaysia parliament battle resumes with Muhyiddin in hot seat

With focus on COVID, opposition not expected to push no-confidence motion

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in parliament last year: This week's session is to be limited to "briefings" on the government's COVID-19 response.   © AP

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia's parliament reopened on Monday after a seven-month suspension, marking the latest crucial moment for embattled Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

Opponents will be looking for chances to attack a prime minister they believe lacks majority support, especially after the biggest party in his coalition officially broke away. Nevertheless, experts say Muhyiddin is unlikely to be unseated during the five-day session.

The legislature has been suspended since January under a COVID-19 state of emergency that expires Aug. 1. Malaysia's King Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin pressed the prime minister to restart proceedings by that date for the sake of checks and balances, and to allow debate and validation of law changes made during the emergency period.

Muhyiddin had indicated he was looking to reopen parliament in September at the earliest. But while the king has limited power to force the issue -- the federal constitution only allows him to convene parliament with the advice of a prime minister -- Muhyiddin clearly felt the heat. Ignoring the king's call would have been perceived as disloyalty to the monarch and his fellow Malay state rulers.

"The prime minister needs to prove that he has always upheld the views of the king despite the various interpretations, thus allaying fears of a constitutional crisis," said political analyst Sara Chinnasamy.

Still, while the lower house will sit for five days between now and next Monday, immediately followed by a three-day Senate session, it may not be business as usual.

Lower house speaker Azhar Azizan Harun in a recent statement suggested the five days will be devoted to "briefing" sessions, where federal lawmakers will be informed of various government strategies pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"There would be no other business in the house besides the briefings," a source in the parliament office told Nikkei Asia.

Azhar said a normal parliament sitting would take place in September, coinciding with Muhyiddin's initial game plan.

The prime minister's rivals were pushing back.

The Hope Pact opposition coalition led by longtime prime minister hopeful Anwar Ibrahim slammed the "no debate" plan and said the decision runs against the king's intention to ensure lawmakers deliberate on the government's pandemic decisions. The coalition said the briefing sessions would not allow that.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has also pledged to walk out if the speaker denies debates. Mahathir has the allegiance of four to six members in the lower house.

Muhyiddin returns to the legislature in an apparently weaker position than before, after the United Malays National Organisation recently withdrew from his coalition, though UMNO cabinet members later backed the prime minister.

Even so, opposition parties have also said they will not be proposing no-confidence motions against Muhyiddin, to keep attention firmly on battling COVID-19 as per the king's wishes.

"No no-confidence motion against the prime minister was tabled by PH (Hope Pact), which wishes to focus on the people's issues following the COVID-19 crisis and the economic recession."

Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said Muhyiddin is unlikely to confront any no-confidence vote thanks to his incumbency advantage. "I don't think he would face any motions of no confidence because like last year, being the government of the day, he sets the agenda of the house and can block any such attempts," he said.

Sivamurugan Pandian, political analyst at Malaysia's National Science University, said lawmakers should put their animosity aside for the current session and focus on the government's recovery plan for the benefit of all. He suggested there might be some fireworks, but hoped there would not be.

Sivamurugan said that Malaysia never lacks for entertainment from "parliament session dramas, and I will not be surprised to see that happening again."

"What I really hope is to allow both the ruling and opposition blocs to reach a consensus on a people-based plan to ensure a speedy recovery from this pandemic," he added.

Sivamurugan also agreed that parliamentarians should be allowed to debate the emergency ordinances.

While the state of emergency that halted parliament may be ending, meanwhile, Malaysia still has a serious coronavirus fight on its hands. Despite a nationwide lockdown since June 1, the country reported more than 15,000 daily infections for the first time last Friday, amid a deadly fourth wave.

Over 1 million cases have been logged since the start of the pandemic, of which 160,000 are active -- pushing the health care system to the brink of collapse. Almost 8,000 deaths have been blamed on the virus.

At the same time, prolonged restrictions are hurting businesses and families. Malaysia has yet to see a full reopening of the economy since March last year, due to various movement restriction orders.

Muhyiddin's government has dished out almost 500 billion ringgit ($125 billion) in economic stimulus packages to soften the pandemic's impact since March 2020. Yet some residents resorted to raising white flags outside their homes to signal their financial desperation.

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