Power of surprise? One year for PM Ismail Sabri

Malaysia’s “accidental” prime minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, has reached the one-year milestone.

He has two to thank for getting here – government partner Bersatu, whose leadership put him in the position in the first place when they appointed him into the strategic deputy prime minister position; and opposition Pakatan Harapan, who kept him in office through a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that assured his government had adequate support in Parliament on key votes until last month.

In the past week, as his first anniversary as PM approached, there had been a litany of press buffing him up, predominantly emphasising his generosity, humility, and likeability. The focus has been on Ismail Sabri the person. One column even went as far as to describe him as “populist extraordinaire”.

The aim has been to put a positive spin on his leadership and to shore up Ismail Sabri’s ongoing attempts to continue to stay in his position. They are trying hard – too hard.


Mixed record in govt: Non-decisions

The irony is that there are a few successes of the Ismail Sabri government. There has been greater political stability, some important legislation, a stabilising Covid-19 situation – even if still serious, and moderate economic growth if one looks at recent gross domestic product numbers.

While inflation is hitting hard amid worrying global stagflation and widening social inequality, economic recovery is far from over. Compared to a year ago, the situation has (marginally) improved.

For all of the negativity surrounding Malaysia, there is now more space to speak out, a strengthening of some political institutions including Parliament, and comparatively less use of repression and fear.

While there continue to be horrific reports of deaths in detention, over-the-top abuses of power in the crackdown on a comedy club and rampant corruption, these issues are being exposed and openly discussed.

The three most egregious failings of Ismail Sabri’s administration have been the terrible response to floods, the complete lack of an effective response to widespread corruption, and gaps in the social safety nets, as too many Malaysians continue to struggle to eke out a living. Persistent poverty in places such as Sabah, Sarawak, Kelantan, and in urban Kuala Lumpur is being ignored.

The reality for Ismail Sabri is that few of the governance successes (and shortcomings) can be tied to him personally. He has benefitted from being in the right position at the right time, a trait that allowed him to become prime minister in the first place.

Ismail Sabri has yet to articulate a vision for his leadership of the country, reinforcing the view that he is a seat warmer rather than fulfilling the potential of the seat of power.

His “Keluarga Malaysia” tagline has fallen flat due to two important developments.

Firstly, he has quietly ratcheted up Malay nationalistic rhetoric, a divisive force in the country. Unlike former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government, which legitimised itself as the protector of the Malay community but recognised that this was not enough, there are fewer meaningful outreach efforts to Malaysia’s minorities under Ismail Sabri’s current government.

Secondly, the notion of “family” has been seriously undercut by his government’s decision that denies Malaysian mothers the ability to pass on citizenship to their children if they are born overseas. It has devastated children, mothers and fathers who have had to suffer from a sexist and discriminatory law. It is needlessly cruel.

As had been characteristic of his leadership, Ismail Sabri’s “just happy to be in the PM position” approach has been seen to be a non-decider, letting others make decisions and staying away from political fights.

Seen to be doing relatively little in office and coming out for the occasional press conferences after the fact, he has avoided being personally blamed for the failings and excesses of power by those in government.


Another Mr Nice Guy: A weak positive

The “nice guy” approach was first honed during the tenure of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Initially lauded for reforms and opening up political space, Abdullah increasingly faced more challenges from Umno and faced growing public disappointment for unmet expectations.

As a non-elected PM, Ismail Sabri, in contrast, has had few expectations without a mandate. He has made even fewer promises.

It has been easy to be above a low bar. Governance (or the lack thereof) has aimlessly plodded on. Some civil servants and departments have performed well, others less so.

With the exception of the terrible floods in Selangor last December-January, Ismail Sabri has yet to face an intense groundswell of anger and disappointment, in part because of a fatigued, less engaged and already disappointed/fed-up electorate.

With people’s choices denied awaiting an election, there has been a tolerance of Ismail Sabri’s weak leadership.

Weaknesses in Ismail Sabri’s leadership have had some ironic positives. Not having a clear agenda has also allowed him greater flexibility and compromise.

He has also allowed others to shine. Successes in policy areas and legislation can be tied to specific ministers, notably in health by Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin and Parliament and law by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Parliament and Law) Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar.

Not all of his ministers are performing, however, with serious shortcomings in areas such as education, environment, and social development.

While some ministers have been proactive, too many others have followed the pattern of letting others lead and falling short. Too many of the ministers lack the competency to do their jobs.

Others with initial high expectations, such as technocrat-turned-politician Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz, have lost their shine.


Pivotal decisions ahead

There are also risks to political weakness. Abdullah learned that, in the end, pleasing everyone meant pleasing almost no one. Ismail Sabri is adopting a pleasing only a few and not alienating everyone approach with the hope that it will end in his favour.

Ismail Sabri is not a “strong” Malay leader, and this affects his ability to win over the traditional Malay ground in particular.

Ismail Sabri has less charisma. He lacks the same personal popularity as Muhyiddin, for example, and while he is not as polarizing as former prime minister Najib Abdul Razak, he does not (yet) have his own significant personal base of support.

He also lacks a strong foothold in Umno, which ultimately will decide his political fate. No matter what is promised to bring forward an election, the minute he dissolves Parliament, he turns over control to the party leadership (in which he is still a second-tier leader) to decide his fate and to the electorate.

As he passes the one-year mark, Ismail Sabri is nevertheless setting out his path into history. As has been the feature of his time in office, it is happening outside of his direct control and the result of things set in motion before he assumed office.

Importantly, the Federal Court’s decision on Najib’s SRC International appeal will be on his watch. He will reap the results. With the IGP already moving forward against those attacking the judiciary and judges, he (and the country) will also benefit from standing up for this critical political institution.

The main personal political battle for Ismail Sabri will rest with how he manages his competitors for power.

So far, he has successfully dodged displacement, delayed elections, and diverted the intense pressure he is receiving from both Bersatu and Umno to accommodate their demands.

In this regard, he has shown he is defining his own amiable less-is-less style. He has been quite deft in avoiding the pitfalls of crisis and confrontation, and their associated political costs. He has yet to fall to Abdullah Badawi’s political fate of being pushed out.

While it is still the early days, Ismail Sabri has effectively captured the power of surprise – at least so far.


First published on malaysiakini.com.