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Malaysia in transition

Malaysian king confers with Mahathir and peers on COVID emergency

With expiry weeks away, all parties given a say ahead of key rulers meeting

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad waves as he leaves an audience with the king on June 10.   © Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia's king, in an unusual development, summoned all political party leaders this week to private audiences, giving them an opportunity to have their say on the COVID-19 crisis and the controversial state of emergency that expires in seven weeks.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim were among those invited to see King Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin, amid rampant speculation that current Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin may be eyeing an emergency extension beyond Aug. 1.

The audiences, which will continue into next week, set the stage for a special Conference of Rulers next Wednesday, chaired by the king. Malaysia has a unique constitutional monarchy system, in which nine state rulers take turns being king for five-year terms.

This will be the second such conference Sultan Abdullah has urgently called. At the first, last October, the rulers rejected Muhyiddin's initial proposal of an emergency, though the king later granted one in January as coronavirus cases soared.

Besides the emergency, Malaysia is also under a strict COVID-19 lockdown, which was due to end on Monday before the government extended it Friday evening. The curbs will last at least another two weeks, until June 28, with daily infections remaining well over 5,000.

The king is using the consultations to "verify information and get feedback on pertinent issues related to parliament, the emergency, COVID-19, vaccinations and the general election," said Sivamurugan Pandian, a political analyst at Malaysia's National Science University. He said the Conference of Rulers might endorse the king's decisions on the issues that matter most, predicting a "consensus among all rulers to show support by all states."

Speaking to the media online on Thursday, Mahathir said he discussed a range of topics with the king during his 45-minute audience.

"I told him that Malaysia is now facing four crises at the same time: health, financial, political and social. ... This is a failed government," said Mahathir, taking a jab at Muhyiddin, who ousted him in a political coup in February 2020.

Mahathir, who turns 96 next month, said he also advised the ruler that a highly anticipated federal election should not be held too soon, fearing a wider spread of the pandemic. "There was no indication about the end of the emergency, although [the king] did ask if the election could be held next year or anytime soon," Mahathir said.

Parliament has been suspended under the current state of emergency -- seen by political observers as Muhyiddin's strategy to remain in power amid rumors that he has lost a majority in the legislature. Parliament has not convened despite a green light from Sultan Abdullah himself and pressure from various parties. Muhyiddin has promised to call an election once the coronavirus is under control.

Mahathir said the king "was taking down my points, possibly to present the views of all political leaders in the conference of rulers."

Anwar, who met the monarch on Wednesday, said he made a case against extending the emergency period, and requested that parliament be reconvened as soon as possible.

"We have voiced our opinion that continuation of the emergency will result in losses to the country, not help in the management of COVID-19, and will affect the economy especially for the lower-income groups," Anwar said.

Malaysia's King Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin: He will chair a Conference of Rulers next week.   © Reuters

The former deputy prime minister argued the emergency is a separate issue from the government's efforts to contain the pandemic. "Efforts to remedy the situation do not require a state of emergency, so we have asked His Majesty to block any attempt to prolong the emergency," he said.

Besides battling COVID-19, Muhyiddin's priority is political stability. His government is on shaky ground, especially considering his soured ties with the largest party in the ruling coalition -- the United Malays National Organisation. UMNO has rejected any collaboration with Muhyiddin's Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu) in the upcoming federal polls.

UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was set to meet Sultan Abdullah on Friday, followed by leaders from Borneo parties next week.

Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said the ongoing audiences and the Conference of Rulers are the result of widespread perceptions of official "incompetence" in handling COVID-19 as well as "sentiment against the undemocratic approach by the government by prohibiting the parliament to reconvene."

"These unpopular sentiments have come to the extent where the king would have felt it is appropriate to try to resolve some political concerns," he said.

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