Muhyiddin’s 100 Days

Despite coming into power through what many Malaysians consider to be illegitimate means and refusing to test his majority in Parliament, it is important to recognise the areas where Muhyiddin Yassin’s government has performed well and equally, where it is falling short – even failing.

Below I identify eight of the key areas where there have been important changes in governance.

1. Communication: Muhyiddin’s government has managed communication more effectively. There is a better sense of government priorities and clearer messages – even if some of these messages have been reversed.

Muhyiddin and his cabinet have avoided open attacks on each other. This shift, however, has come with a return to practices of excluding alternative voices in the media, worrying crackdowns on some journalists and a remobilisation of media outlets under BN. This said, messages are clearer – even the exclusionary ones.

2. Greater connectivity in priorities: The government’s priorities are more closely related to the needs of the electorate. While Pakatan Harapan was initially focused on addressing the legacy of Najib Razak and gradually moving toward people-centred programmes, the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government has focused on livelihoods and public health from the get-go – immediate concerns that people can connect to.

There have been four government packages to address some of the economic fallout, which has created goodwill. The effective flattening of the Covid-19 curve – building on policies set in place during the Harapan government and professionalism of the Health Ministry – has saved lives.

3. Pain alleviation: While modest in spending and scope, the cash transfers and loan moratorium have eased hardships. The improved access to capital and other supports have eased some of the suffering businesses are facing. These have been appreciated both as they have been largely needs-based and because they have been needed.

Looking forward, much more needs to be done to enhance relief toward those in the B40, who continue to suffer financially, and to strengthen the economy, especially when the moratorium in paying loans comes due. Programmes to date have largely been low-hanging fruits, rather than more substantive initiatives to fill gaps in the social safety net.

4. Personal appeal: While many continue to remain angry at Muhyiddin for his betrayal of voters who put him into office, Muhyiddin is popular, especially among Malays, outside of the Klang Valley/Penang, and women. His perceived humility, listening image, as well as his low-key management style have won him supporters.

He contrasts with the negativity of Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and personally has stayed away from engaging in attacks on his political challengers (allowing others in his administration to do so). There has also been a modest ‘rally around the prime minister’ effect during the Covid-19 crisis, and among some, he has been given a probation period (as opposed to a honeymoon).

Muhyiddin has a core group of people who strongly oppose him, however, reflecting the polarisation of Malaysia’s politics and residual anger by voters who feel betrayed.

5. Political capture and patronage: Muhyiddin is seen as beholden to his political allies who he is dependent on for power and has apparently returned to his Umno roots in outlook and engagement. He has entered a sucking vortex where he is increasingly dependent on dolling out patronage to allies and unable to create a counter current. This limits his capacity to set his own path and shape his own legacy.

In a matter of weeks, the number and scope of politicians appointed to government positions is significant and is seen to be seriously undercutting decades of reform in the management of government-linked companies (GLCs).

Another key element in the political capture is that Muhyiddin has allowed some of the worst practices involving treatment of critics to return. These practices only serve to alienate support and galvanise opposition to his tenure. A reliance on curbing rights is a sign of weakness, not strength.

6. Dismantling reforms: Malaysia had made important gains in addressing corruption, strengthening the rule of law and checks on abuses of power in recent years. Here too, in a matter of weeks, many of these needed reforms have eroded. Questions surrounding legal deals and upholding the rule of law reverberate widely.

Cases are being wheedled down to ‘sweet’ deals and charges outrightly withdrawn – as occurred this morning with former Sabah chief minister Musa Aman. Questions are rightly being asked whether former prime minister Najib Razak is next, and whether the integrity Muhyiddin stood up for in 2015 was all a sham, a failed power challenge rather than looking out for Malaysia’s well-being.

Malaysia cannot afford to lose the comparative advantage it gained in recent years as a more transparent, democratic and clean government vested in correcting problems of the past, not repeating them. Parliament is urgently needed as an arena to debate and strengthen ideas to address the challenges Malaysia is facing.

7. Exclusion: Concerns have been raised about the persistent exclusion of women and non-Malays in major positions in government, and in some policy areas. There is also limited engagement with youth, those under 30. The mobilisation of anti-foreign worker sentiments has also fed into perceptions of exclusion. While many civil servants extend outreach, these are not properly reinforced by more inclusive leadership.

8. Losing opportunities: Muhyiddin’s government also is invested in heavy politicking and its focus on shoring itself up has undercut attention to governance. The move toward pandering to partners and playing politics has come as the cost of using the Covid-19 crisis to address underlying problems Malaysia is facing.

Reform has not only taken a back seat with the backdoor, it seems to have been thrown out altogether. This makes it even harder to transform and strengthen Malaysia moving forward.

In its first 100 days, Muhyiddin government can point to important successes and has concrete deliverables – notably four ‘stimulus’ packages and steering the country through an impressive flattening of the curve with Covid-19. The challenge ahead is to address the shortcomings, rather than to succumb to them.

As the second post-Mahathir prime minister, Muhyiddin has yet to show that he is indeed his own man, that he honours the promises he made during the GE14 campaign to move Malaysia forward. The past shows that positive sentiments can quickly transform into disappointment, and that anger surrounding transactional politics can grow into a movement for change.