Deciding to be Malaysia’s PM8: An Organizational Trust Perspective

Muhyiddin Yassin received the royal mandate to become the eighth Prime Minister of Malaysia. Credit: AFP


In the recent political crisis in Malaysia, Muhyiddin Yassin would have been presented with two options to stabilize the situation. These two options, representing the current public sentiments in Malaysia, were to either call for a snap election in Malaysia or to accept the royal mandate as the eighth Prime Minister of Malaysia, PM8. Muhyiddin decided on the latter and has established his cabinet within the first nine days of his appointment. By employing organizational trust, this commentary seeks to provide insights into how Muhyiddin’s decision to be PM8 as the best option for him and his Bersatu party.

Relevance of Organizational Trust in Politics

In Rousseau and colleague’s 1998 study, organizational trust was defined as “a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behaviour of another.” From this definition, two inferences can be made. The first is the importance of a relationship between an organization and its members. Not only does it ensure a high level of commitment of members to their organization but their willingness to undertake risks with their organization. Second, as a psychological state, it is dynamic and not hardwired such as one’s personality. This, thus, explains the potential for recruitment of new members as well as current member’s exit. These inferences outline the importance for any political organization to develop and maintain a strong and reliable power base particularly during political jostling.

Also, key to this theory is how the organization’s leader is seen as an extension of the organization. This is because the organization’s directions and policies are set by its leader, particularly in organizations with vertical organizational structures. Therefore, the role of the leader is instrumental in developing organizational trust amongst new members and maintaining it in current members. The next sections not only demonstrate how Muhyiddin’s image of being a trustworthy Premier is being developed but also explains the complexity of organization-member relationship in Malaysia’s political background. By understanding this complexity, we can, thus, obtain insights on the political ramifications of his decision.

Working The A-B-I of Trustworthiness to Muhyiddin’s Advantage

Currently, Muhyiddin’s image of trustworthiness is being developed to centre on three factors: his ability, benevolence and integrity. These three equally important factors can be distilled from his actions, achievements, and statements by him and others. With regards to his ability, Muhyiddin has amassed decades of political experience and has held several senior government positions. Leveraging on his experiences, he has recently seen early but limited successes in his choice of cabinet appointees. Through political manoeuvring, he kept to his word of not selecting senior coalition party members who were currently involved in graft trials and foregoing the hotly contested Number 2 Deputy Prime Minister appointment. By creating four senior minister positions, it reduces the potential for power struggle.

Rhetorically, not only is his political career easily accessible via the internet, the recent regular mentions of his career in both local and international news media serves to remind readers of his ability. Further reinforcing this are statements by other coalition party leaders supporting Muhyiddin as PM8. This included statements of their “full support behind Muhyiddin’s leadership” and how his appointment as PM8 have brought about “blue skies” after a period of “dark clouds.” There were also efforts to dispel any compromise to his ability including downplaying any health issues.

Currently, there are still four challenges to his ability which could subsequently affect his trustworthiness. These challenges entail managing the COVID-19 pandemic in Malaysia, ensuring the coalition government does not unravel prior to the next General Election, ensuring the efficiency of his cabinet and steering clear of highly controversial issues, and uplifting Malaysia’s economy. A recent example of a controversial issue is the focus on getting flight attendants to wear Syariah-compliant uniforms by a PAS cabinet appointee instead of their potential retrenchment due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Inherent in political appointments is the notion of servitude to the people and working feverishly in their best interest, exemplifying benevolence. This was also highlighted in Muhyiddin’s first televised message as Premier. He has declared himself to be a “Prime Minister for all”, distancing himself from his initial “Malay first” proclamation. However, his detractors are preventing this by constantly highlighting the lack of minority representations in his cabinet. Policies involving bread and butter issues are good opportunities for Muhyiddin to build his benevolence. This does not only include provision of subsidies but also effective communication to Malaysians when working on unpopular policies. Public communication is also particularly important with global developments that impact Malaysia. The global drop in oil prices for example can work in his favour if Malaysians believe that the cheaper prices is due to Muhyiddin’s benevolence and ability. Such narratives are currently prevalent amongst his supporters on social media platforms.

When discussing about his integrity, one cannot look past how he was sacked from UMNO and his deputy Prime Minister post for his strong stance against then-Premier Najib Razak over the 1MDB debacle. This is still seen today with his decision to not include graft suspects into his cabinet. Muhyiddin has also tackled any “traitor” labels levelled at him head on. He also sought to obtain the moral high ground by seeking Dr Tun Mahathir’s forgiveness for any hurt feelings and his endorsements for the new government. This was a bid to quell the trending #NotMyPM tag and prevent the perception that he has committed the grave sin of betrayal as espoused in Islam. This is particularly important in Muslim-majority Malaysia. As highlighted by Dr Mahathir, Muhyiddin’s integrity is still dependent on how the trials of Najib Razak and others are concluded.

Which Organization? Whose Members? Interconnected Impacts of Organizational Trust

Unlike business entities where the roles of organization and members are distinct, Muhyiddin is an extension of two organizations, political party Bersatu and coalition government Perikatan Nasional. There are also two types of members namely, the Malaysian public and Members of Parliament (MPs). Despite this complex relationship, how successful Muhyiddin inculcates organizational trust will have interconnected impacts on all members. If successful, he not only can step out of Dr Mahathir’s shadow in Bersatu and the Premiership. By doing so, he stands to gain a personality cult status as an effective Prime Minister as Dr Mahathir had once enjoyed. Unfortunately for Dr Mahathir, his stocks have been marred by political tensions within his previous coalition party. With Muhyiddin being seen as the alpha in Bersatu, he could be forgiven for no longer having Dr Mahathir in Bersatu in the future. By gaining organizational trust by potential electorates, he would also be in a better position to keep the Premiership appointment in Bersatu for the next eight years; i.e. completing the remaining three year tenure and securing the next General Election.

With high approval ratings, the current coalition members would face tougher resistance to displace Muhyiddin and Bersatu should they one day decide to. They may instead accept Muhyiddin and Bersatu as necessary kingmakers for their continued opportunity to be a part of Malaysia’s government. This is despite Bersatu possessing slightly smaller number of MPs than Barisan Nasional. Additionally, with this, it will be unlikely that Bersatu “be eaten up alive by the two Malay parties.” Dr Mahathir has also recently predicted that a no-confidence motion against Muhyiddin unlikely to succeed. He attributed this to Muhyiddin potentially offering “sweets” or inducements to Mahathir’s supporters to switch camps. However, it must be noted that to offer sweets and for the sweets to be accepted, one must first possess sweets and has the ability to distribute them. The recipient must also trust that the sweets offered to them will be beneficial and not poison. Therefore, deciding to become PM8 gives Muhyiddin and Bersatu the time and opportunity to ensure that all of these would transpire.

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

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