A Rocket into the Unknown

In preparation for Malaysia’s 15th General Election, DAP has to contend with re-evaluating its image of a majority Chinese-based party to a more cosmopolitan image that would also appeal to the country’s non-Chinese. Credit: THESTAR


When Parliament reconvenes this week — the first meeting of the fourth session of this 14th Parliament — the government bench will be led by a new yet familiar face in the form of Ismail Sabri Yaakob. His new cabinet, refreshed following Muhyiddin Yassin’s resignation as Prime Minister, looks oddly familiar as well. Only nine ministers were replaced with the total number of ministers and deputy ministers remaining at a fairly bloated number of 69.

While it seems not much will change in government policies especially surrounding COVID-19, there has been a notable effort by the new Prime Minister to placate all sides, including the opposition. Just weeks into his premiership, he proposed reforms as part of a confidence-and-supply arrangement with Pakatan Harapan, and appointed Muhyiddin to lead national recovery efforts against the pandemic,

This puts into question the strategies and next steps for the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Pakatan Harapan, where their hopes of retaining control of the government that once belonged to them appear to have vanished. At least until the next General Election.

How did this Happen?

Much of this uncertainty had come when Muhyiddin successfully advised the King to declare a state of Emergency on 12th January 2021, which among other things, expanded executive powers and hamstrung parliamentary democracy. At the time, his Perikatan Nasional coalition government appeared to have become a minority government with the support of only 108 Members of Parliament (MPs) following the withdrawal of three MPs from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

However, when COVID-19 cases and deaths continued to rise, the King and the Conference of Rulers issued a rare statement to restore Parliament proceedings to discuss primarily on issues brought about by the pandemic. This led to Muhyiddin’s administration acquiescing to His Majesty’s demand, where Parliament would reconvene from 26th July to 5th August — five days for the lower house Dewan Rakyat, and three days for the upper house Dewan Negara or the Senate.

The return of parliamentary proceedings meant that the state of Emergency and its related laws called Emergency Ordinances would be discussed, given that the government had previously said that plans to extend or revoke it would be done by 1st August. As that deadline loomed and fears of a vote that might expose the Prime Minister’s minority hand in Parliament increased, de facto law minister Takiyuddin Hassan announced, on the first day that Parliament reconvened, that all Emergency Ordinances were revoked, to the surprise of many MPs in the Dewan Rakyat.

As this debate intensified, it reached a crescendo when the Palace issued an unprecedented statement which presented a version of events that took place between the Palace and Muhyiddin’s administration that were contrary to the latter on the revocation of the Ordinances. This led to the Perikatan Nasional government being criticised and branded as derhaka or traitors given the Malay people’s fealty towards the monarchy.

Taking advantage of this situation, UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi announced that he had garnered sufficient numbers from his own party to withdraw support for Muhyiddin, therefore putting on the record that he no longer had a majority in Parliament. In light of this, Muhyiddin, who leads the Malay-dominated Bersatu party, held a press conference to state that he had met the King and had assured both him and the public that he still had the numbers, and that the Parliament will reconvene again in September.

However, when more from UMNO including ministers pulled out of Muhyiddin’s government, he had to admit defeat and resign shortly. This led to a week of transition where both UMNO and Pakatan Harapan were scrambling in search of sufficient MPs to form a new government. In the end, Ismail Sabri managed to attain the support of 114 MPs to become the new Prime Minister.

A United Opposition?

Discussions on the DAP are inevitably intertwined with the fate of Pakatan Harapan. On paper, the opposition coalition remains a unified alliance. Throughout the health, political and economic crises that have ensued since the fall of the Pakatan Harapan government in late February 2020, the coalition has responded via joint statements issued either by its Presidential Council, comprising the top leadership of its constituent parties – People’s Justice Party (PKR), DAP and National Trust Party (AMANAH), or by its groups of MPs and former ministers and deputy ministers.

When opposition MPs marched to Parliament to protest the abrupt suspension of its recent sitting, the image of Malaysia’s love-hate political stalwarts Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim standing side-by-side renewed speculation and, to supporters of Pakatan Harapan, hope of a unified front. The question of unity within Pakatan Harapan has centred on the question of its Prime Minister candidate. The coalition has maintained Anwar Ibrahim as its sole candidate for the top post. However, this has yet to be reciprocated by its larger allies Pejuang and Warisan.

Pejuang carries its support for former Prime Minister Mahathir, whose seeming resistance to handing over power to Anwar became a core issue prior to the fall of the Pakatan Harapan government. In the days after his resignation, Pakatan Harapan MPs proposed Anwar as their choice of Prime Minister candidate, a last-minute switch from Mahathir, who had expected to carry support from Pakatan Harapan and its allies.

Anwar too has been seen to chart a way back into power for the coalition, without the awareness of his coalition partners. When he announced that he had secured ‘strong, formidable, convincing’ parliamentary support during a press conference last September, DAP Secretary-General Lim Guan Eng, who was campaigning for the Sabah state election, appeared unaware of Anwar’s majority.

Anwar himself ultimately did not disclose where his additional support came from, but speculation was rife that he had gathered support from UMNO MPs, including those with existing corruption charges. Throughout this period and recently, DAP has appeared loyal to Anwar Ibrahim’s leadership of the Pakatan Harapan coalition though grassroot sentiments are changing, particularly after Anwar’s most recent inability to secure a majority. While parties in Pakatan Harapan appear steadfast behind him, there are increased calls for new leadership of the Opposition noting Anwar’s inability to secure sufficient support for himself, and to prevent the continued defections within PKR.

Potential Scenarios and Alignment

The question now is what will happen next? What are the potential ranges of scenarios that could happen, especially for Pakatan Harapan?

When Muhyiddin Yassin resigned, it opened the door for a host of possible realignments within Perikatan Nasional, UMNO and Pakatan Harapan itself. However, with the palace announcing Ismail Sabri’s support of 114 MPs, the question of legitimacy has lost its bite. That question loomed heavy over Muhyiddin Yassin’s administration as it was never made clear during his appointment how many MPs had declared their support for him nor was a vote of confidence held.

Although Ismail Sabri’s government may now possess the support of 114 MPs, it is still a shaky coalition. Bersatu — which has 31 MPs — will not stand idly by when its president Muhyiddin was brought down by one faction of UMNO. It is perhaps for this reason that Ismail Sabri recently appointed his predecessor as the chairman of the National Recovery Council. It is considered a minister-level appointment, where he is expected to lead the country’s recovery strategy against the pandemic.

Another faction that Ismail Sabri will have to please is those within his own party, UMNO. Although the party came together to put forth successfully Ismail Sabri as their Prime Minister candidate in the most recent transition, there were simmering tensions between Ismail Sabri — a vice president in the party — and president Zahid Hamidi.

UMNO secretary-general and Pontian MP Ahmad Maslan revealed that Ismail Sabri had been the party’s third choice for Prime Minister, after Zahid passed up the opportunity and his deputy president Mohamad Hasan was ineligible by virtue of not being a MP. Zahid had been unhappy with Ismail Sabri’s reluctance to break away from Muhyiddin’s government before his resignation, but was pressured by allies to back Ismail Sabri instead.

There will be pressure on Ismail Sabri to curry certain favours for Zahid’s faction, where many of them including himself as well as former Prime Minister Najib Razak, have pending corruption cases. Given the uncertainty within UMNO itself, it appears only wise for Ismail Sabri to cover all bases by looking to the other side for some help.

Pakatan Harapan leaders met with the new Prime Minister days into office to discuss possible areas of collaboration in lieu of scuttling a potential vote of confidence. This is followed by a promise of reforms by the Prime Minister to the Opposition which appeared well received, though short of a formal pledge of support from the Opposition.

Notably a vote of confidence is still missing from the agenda for the upcoming Parliamentary sitting. Despite some initial criticism against the confidence vote from MPs, these calls have been hushed upon the government’s explanation that the King himself had told Ismail that a vote of confidence would not be required. Combined with the public’s fatigue towards political disagreements and the need to unite against the larger enemy in sight, COVID-19, it appears that conciliation ahead of the next General Election is the current strategy.

Negotiating with the Devil?

Key to this conciliatory tone lies in the reforms offered by Ismail Sabri including laws on anti-party hopping, the elevation of the position and funding of the Opposition Leader’s office equivalent to a ministerial level, and ensuring the lowering of the voting age to 18 are seen through. Some, including the term limit on any prime minister, will require a constitutional amendment.

This may signal a change in approach to ensure the survivability of this new UMNO-led Perikatan Nasional 2.0 government that still retains a razor-thin majority in Parliament. Ismail Sabri also knows he needs insurance especially in the lead-up towards the October vote for Budget 2022, which is likely to be an “election budget” in preparation for an impending General Election in 2022 if the government can bring the spread of COVID-19 under control.

The devil in this offer will lie in the details and the sincerity of the one offering it. This brings back the dilemma that was previously pointed out by DAP’s Damansara MP Tony Pua and Bangi MP Ong Kian Ming. Before Muhyiddin resigned, he offered a last-ditch solution to keep him in and UMNO out of the premiership, proposing a package of reforms that were favoured by Pakatan Harapan.

This led to Pua and Ong posing questions as to whether deposing Muhyiddin as Prime Minister would be the optimal choice, when doing so might lead to UMNO being back at the driving seat despite its leading members facing corruption charges in court — akin to winning the battle, but losing the war. However, they were squarely rejected by their own leadership and supporters who appeared to be more keen with seeing Muhyiddin go instead.

Against this landscape, the DAP – the largest party in the opposition and the Parliament – will have to carve out its position not just in response to immediate political manoeuvres but in its longer term strategy in approaching the next General Election.

15th General Election in Sight

Thus far, the DAP’s electoral strategy appears to have paid off. In the last General Election, the party secured 42 out of 47 parliamentary seats contested. More impressively has been party discipline which, barring a scandal and defections involving a state executive councillor in Perak, has remained steadfast.

By comparison, its ally PKR emerged from the last election with 47 parliamentary seats, the largest share in the House, but has lost 12 of its MPs to defections. First, in a series of defections which secured the Perikatan Nasional government and more recently the defection of former minister and party Vice President Xavier Jeyakumar. DAP MPs have also been quick to sound the alarm on messages of inducement urging them to support the current government ahead of a no-confidence motion in September.

Party discipline, however, does not mean the party is void of internal challenges either – in particular over the long-term position of the party. Since the party’s recent success emerging as a major force in Parliament and State Assemblies, the party has had to re-evaluate its image from the majority Chinese-based party that it was known as, and which many grassroot supporters still hope for, to a more cosmopolitan image that would appeal to the country’s non-Chinese, and importantly to the sizeable Malay community.

For its 55th anniversary in March 2021, the party chose the theme “Demokratik. Adil. Peduli: Muhibah” (Democratic. Fair. Caring: Muhibah). ‘Muhibah’ is a Malay term roughly translated to mean multiracial goodwill. To that end, the party’s injection of young leaders has taken to social media promoting events in Malay, increasing Malay membership and promoting the party’s work specifically aiding rural Malays. The party’s approach towards Malay membership and leadership has been part of its agenda for the past two elections. However, the success of this strategy in elections has been slowcoming. Of its 42 elected MPs, only one – Raub MP Tengku Zulpuri Shah Raja Puri – is Malay.

Aside from the General Election, which could be called as soon as the pandemic situation is eased, DAP itself faces its own party elections. State-level party elections were already underway before the country entered its second round of nationwide lockdowns in May 2021. The party’s national convention, which was due in June, would be the main focus of party-watchers. Secretary-General Lim Guan Eng has reached the end of his term-limit in the party’s top post. His successor will have to continue in setting the party’s position going into the next General Election.

Some factions of the party, including vocal Selangor state leader Ronnie Liu, have accused the party’s new direction as abandoning its Chinese support base that have stood with the party over the decades. Discontent among this faction bubbled through the party’s stint in Government where they were criticised for being soft on issues involving the Chinese community specifically – the recognition of UEC certification by public universities and the inclusion of jawi (arabic script) into the national syllabus for Bahasa Malaysia. The internal debate on the party’s direction and the level of Lim’s involvement in the party’s new leadership are seen as key questions in the run-up to the party’s election.

However, the results of concluded party elections in Johor, Perak and Penang suggest that these factions have not fractured the party. In Johor, incumbent state leader Liew Chin Tong – the party strategist seen squarely in Lim’s camp – was returned to the state committee with 10 of his allies filling up most of the 15-state committee positions up for election. In the run-up to the party’s national congress, National Organizing Secretary Anthony Loke has been seen as a natural and likely successor to Lim.

Loke himself had begun charting his outlook for the party. Citing the likelihood of no coalition securing a majority of its own, he broached the possibility of collaboration with any party post-election. This openness to a confidence and supply agreement has also been tested by the party in the state assemblies of Perak and Johor, where the party’s assemblymen (in the Opposition) supported the Budgets of the Bersatu-led government’s in return for concessions in their budgets.

With a murky course ahead in Malaysia’s political waters, the party appears to have sight of both its immediate and longer-term strategies. However, as the political undercurrents continue to tug the country into new territory, Malaysians will likely have to wait until the next General Election to catch their breath and survey the new ships and captains that emerge in these uncharted waters.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence. Republications minimally require 1) credit authors and their institutions, and 2) credit to STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD  and include a link back to either our home page or the article URL.


  • Daniel Subramaniam is a communications and public affairs consultant based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

  • Ryan Chua is a Malaysian current-affairs commentator based in Singapore, where he is pursuing his Master in Public Policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He is experienced in public sector policy-making and research, and is interested in the nexus between politics and policies.

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