KUALA LUMPUR -- New Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on Monday rejected criticism that he betrayed the nation by aligning himself with a scandal-plagued opposition party.
"Listen, I am not a traitor," Muhyiddin said in a televised address. "My conscience is clear that the reason why I am standing here is to save the country from continuous chaos."
The race for Malaysia's top political post was largely considered to be a two-horse race between former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. But Muhyiddin was appointed prime minister over the weekend after snubbing Mahathir and his former coalition partners in favor of the opposition.
"I did not long for the prime minister post," the new leader said. "I only stepped forward to save the situation when the two prime minister candidates failed to win support from a majority of lawmakers."
Muhyiddin said he met with Mahathir before his appointment, and that he received the former leader's understanding regarding his decision.
The remarks come amid public anger over his coalition, which includes the United Malay National Organization, whose former leader Najib Razak faces corruption allegations tied to state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad. UMNO was defeated in the 2018 election, and its return to power is widely seen as a betrayal.
"For a start," Muhyiddin said, "I promise that I will appoint individuals who are free of graft, possess integrity and caliber in my cabinet."
Mahathir had harshly criticized Muhyiddin on Sunday. But the new leader justified his appointment, saying that dissolving the parliament for an election would have created too large a political vacuum.
Muhyiddin's coalition also includes the Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, sparking fears of more pro-Malay policies. Muhyiddin on Monday said that he planned to be a "prime minister for all ethnic groups" in an attempt to ease concerns among ethnic Chinese and Indians.
Muhyiddin is looking to finalize his cabinet quickly to cement his position as prime minister. But Mahathir insists that he has a majority of lawmakers on his side, and is preparing to submit a no-confidence motion against Muhyiddin to parliament.