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Malaysia in transition

Malaysia's old guard returns as Ismail Sabri is sworn in as PM

COVID and resentment over party's scandal-tainted past to test new leader

Ismail Sabri Yaakob waves to reporters before his inauguration as Malaysia's ninth prime minister on Aug. 21.   © Malaysia Information Department via Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR -- Ismail Sabri Yaakob was sworn in as Malaysia's ninth prime minister on Saturday afternoon, marking the return of the country's scandal-plagued old guard amid a relentless COVID-19 crisis.

The 61-year-old became the country's third premier in the three years since the last federal election in 2018. Clad in a Malay traditional costume called baju melayu and accompanied by his wife and children, Ismail Sabri took the oath in front of King Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin.

Ismail Sabri hails from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which led the country for about six decades before it lost that 2018 election under swirling suspicions of corruption, especially the embezzlement scandal involving now-defunct state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). Several key figures from the party are still facing graft and abuse of power allegations in the courts, including former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is appealing convictions on seven counts.

Although Ismail Sabri, a lawyer by education, is not facing any charges himself, his appointment has essentially overturned UMNO's election loss -- infuriating many Malaysians on social media. An online petition "We don't want Ismail Sabri Yaakob to be prime minister Malaysia" garnered 360,000 signatures within three days. The hashtag #NotMyPM was also trending on Twitter after Ismail Sabri's appointment was confirmed by the palace on Friday.

Until recently, few Malaysians would have considered him an aspirant for the top job. Besides delivering daily coronavirus updates on behalf of the man he replaced, former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, he kept a relatively low profile.

But Muhyiddin elevated him to deputy prime minister barely six weeks ago. As it turned out, that put Ismail Sabri in the right place at the right time to take the reins after Muhyiddin's government fell this past Monday.

Despite the unease over UMNO's return, even the opposition conceded that Ismail Sabri had gathered the requisite parliamentary support to edge out longtime prime minister hopeful Anwar Ibrahim.

In a statement on Friday, Anwar said the opposition parties acknowledged that the appointment was made based on the constitution and Malaysia's parliamentary democracy system. "For the opposition, this is a challenge for us to work harder to face the 15th general election," Anwar said.

Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, observed that "Ismail Sabri has never been famous for his policy acumen and exhibited political leadership." But the analyst gave the new leader credit for being "smart in politicking, for having engineered his premiership."

Leading the country is likely to prove much more challenging, especially with a thin majority of only four seats and record-setting COVID-19 infections straining both the health system and the economy. Daily cases topped 23,000 for the first time on Friday. Earlier this month, the central bank sharply cut its full-year gross domestic product growth target to 3.0% to 4.0%, versus the previous 6.0% to 7.5% range.

Oh added that the reversal of the people's choice in the 2018 election will not sit well with the public. This, he said, would continue to haunt Ismail Sabri's fledgling government.

To make it work, the new premier's immediate focus will have to be on strengthening relationships within his own party, working with members of his broader coalition and extending an olive branch to the opposition, according to Sivamurugan Pandian, a political analyst from Malaysia Science University.

"I think [Ismail Sabri] should consider working with Anwar Ibrahim closely, not only to kick-start the [pandemic] recovery plan but also to keep support intact if a vote of confidence motion comes up in the lower house later," he said.

Muhyiddin, who also started out with a slim majority in March 2020, managed to last only 17 months, making him the shortest-serving premier in Malaysian history.

Peter Mumford of Eurasia Group predicted the new government is likely to last until elections expected by mid-2022. But the risk of political instability, while lower than in recent months, will remain elevated due to the administration's slender majority and lingering tensions among key parties.

Policy-wise, Mumford expects more of the same for now. "Either way," he said, "the immediate policy impact will be modest and parliament will very likely pass the 2022 budget in the fourth quarter. Ongoing stimulus measures will not be affected and Ismail Sabri will likely stick with the slow pace of fiscal consolidation set out by Muhyiddin."

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