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Malaysia in transition

Malaysian king presses Muhyiddin to reopen parliament immediately

Palace and state rulers oppose COVID emergency extension beyond Aug. 1

Malaysia's King Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin inspects an honor guard: He has taken on a prominent role in managing the nation's fractious politics.   © Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia's king has called on Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to reconvene the country's suspended parliament immediately, despite the latter's statement just a day earlier that the legislature could resume in September.

King Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin, who chaired a special conference of Malay state rulers on Wednesday, made it clear he wants parliament to fulfill its purpose. Separately, the rulers also came out against extending the country's COVID-19 state of emergency, due to expire Aug. 1.

The call for resuming parliament "is to ensure the lower house representatives debate the emergency ordinances and the national recovery plan" that Muhyiddin has set, Ahmad Fadil Shamsuddin, comptroller of the Royal Household of the National Palace, said in a statement. This instruction is not technically binding, but it heaps significant pressure on the prime minister.

Malaysia has been under the state of emergency since mid-January, with parliamentary proceedings halted the entire time. The country is clearly struggling with the virus, reporting thousands of cases per day, but the prime minister's opponents have argued the suspension is his way of keeping a shaky grip on power.

Speculation has been rampant that Muhyiddin wants to extend the emergency decree. But in a separate statement on Wednesday, the Keeper of the Rulers' Seal, Syed Danial Syed Ahmad, said that besides the unanimous call to reopen parliament immediately, the state rulers also concurred that the emergency should not run beyond Aug. 1.

The rulers also said Malaysia needs a stable government that commands the majority support of the people, to ensure successful implementation of policies, Syed Danial said.

The palace's Ahmad Fadil said Sultan Abdullah is well-aware of parliament's role in allowing lawmakers to consider important issues, especially related to the pandemic response. "The elected representatives can discuss the allocations for government's expenditure in order to help the people in distress and to rehabilitate the national economy," he said.

Before Wednesday's royal conference, Sultan Abdullah had granted both face-to-face and virtual audiences to 18 political party leaders, including former premier Mahathir Mohamad and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Almost all the leaders echoed calls for reopening parliament right away, and against prolonging the state of emergency.

On Tuesday, the eve of the rulers conference, Muhyiddin said his government was looking at September or October as the possible timing to restart the legislature. He said proceedings should only resume once daily new COVID-19 cases drop below 2,000 and the vaccination rate reaches 40% of the population. Infections are averaging over 5,000 for the past seven days.

"I would like to give a commitment that the parliamentary session can be held in phase three [of the recovery plan], which is around September or October, by following the strict standard operating procedure," Muhyiddin said. "This is my position from the beginning, that the system of parliamentary democracy should function again at an appropriate time -- which is once the cases are under control and we have almost achieved herd immunity."

As Sultan Abdullah pointed out months ago, there is no rule stopping parliament from sitting even during an emergency. Yet Muhyiddin's government has remained steadfast about the need for a suspension.

Under heavy pressure from rights groups and opposition parliamentarians, the government has at least explored the possibility of setting up a "hybrid" legislature, with some proceedings conducted online. But Muhyiddin's team argues the country cannot afford serious political instability while COVID-19 continues to spread.

Anwar late last year repeatedly insisted that Muhyiddin no longer controlled a majority. And the prime minister's coalition looks only more precarious now, after the largest party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), vowed in March to sever ties with his Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu) in the next federal election.

The king, however, appears to have put Muhyiddin in check with his public call for a swift return to legislative business.

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