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Malaysia in transition

Malaysian king slams Muhyiddin's sudden COVID emergency reversal

Palace suggests ending decree early and scrapping ordinances was unconstitutional

Malaysia's Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin speaks in parliament on July 26 after the legislature reopened, following a seven-month hiatus.   © Malaysia's Department of Information via AP

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia's King Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin on Thursday expressed his unhappiness over the government's handling of the nation's coronavirus state of emergency -- the quiet and abrupt cancellation of which has sparked an uproar in parliament.

The king had proclaimed the emergency from January to Aug. 1. He and his fellow Malay state rulers recently made it clear the declaration should not be extended beyond that date, and urged the reluctant government to reconvene the country's suspended parliament to debate ordinances passed during the period.

After parliament reopened on Monday, however, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's government took both the palace and opposition lawmakers by surprise. The legislature was informed that the cabinet had decided to end the emergency effective July 21, scrapping all the ordinances rather than tabling them for discussion.

This prompted a flurry of condemnation from lower house lawmakers, questions over whether the king had consented to the cancellation, and accusations of an unconstitutional move.

The monarch is not pleased, a palace statement reveals.

"The federal constitution clearly indicates that the power to amend or [order] cancellation of emergency ordinances is vested to the king," Ahmad Fadil Shamsuddin, comptroller of the royal household, said in the statement.

The ditched ordinances included measures to allow the government to take over any premises or private hospitals to handle the COVID-19 crisis; stiffer fines for those not following the virus rules; and increased fines and jail time for those spreading "fake news" about the coronavirus and emergency on social media.

Ahmad Fadil said the king believes the abrupt cancellation of the ordinances on July 21 and misleading statements in parliament undermine the constitution.

"The king is aware that he will need to act on the advice of the cabinet as stated under Article 40(1) of the federal constitution," the statement said. "However, as the head of state, the king believes he is obligated to advise and criticize any unconstitutional actions done by any parties, especially those entrusted to carry the power of the king."

The legislature, which is in session until next Monday, erupted in chaos after the statement was released, with a shouting match between backbenchers and opposition lawmakers.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim called on Muhyiddin, as well as Law and Parliament Affairs Minister Takiyuddin Hassan, to resign. He accused them of treachery and disloyalty.

"The prime minister and parliament minister have misled the members of parliament and the people of this country," Anwar said. "We have no choice but to demand their resignation immediately."

Former Education Minister Maszlee Malik said the issue could leave a permanent scar on the country's history and its constitutional monarchy system.

"The house must do something about this," he said. "If not, this is a black dot on the country's history and we can never erase this mistake."

Both Muhyiddin and Takiyuddin were absent from the house.

However, Takiyuddin on Monday argued the ordinances did not need to be tabled, since the government had decided to end the emergency last week. This was not known to the public until he spoke in the house.

While the emergency declaration may have ended in controversial fashion, the country's actual COVID-19 crisis continues. Malaysia reported a daily record of 17,405 new infections on Wednesday, pushing the total above 1,060,000.

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