Muhyiddin’s Failures and the Fall of the First Unelected Government in Malaysia

Serving as Malaysia’s PM8 for 17 months, Muhyiddin Yassin resigned on 16 August 2021. Credit: AP Photo


Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s resignation on 16 August 2021 made him the shortest-serving prime minister in Malaysian history. He will be remembered mostly for his failures in managing the country’s health and economic crises.

Back in March 2020, when Malaysia began its battle against the Covid-19 pandemic, Muhyiddin took over the elected government, on the pretext that the incumbent had failed to address people’s grievances. With the support of some PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat—People’s Justice Party) rebels, he convinced the Agong that he had the majority.

Rocky Administration from the Start

His administration was largely Malay-Muslim, since his Perikatan Nasional (PN—National Alliance) coalition did not have many Chinese and Indian representatives. That government promised to be inclusive, yet the cabinet composition was anything but.

The government was also treading on dangerous grounds when it decided to work with the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), when some of its leaders were facing corruption charges. It was rocky from the start because it could not sufficiently satisfy politicians in UMNO seeking to be freed of such charges.

His government also included Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (Parti Islam se-Malaysia—PAS), the conservative Islamist party that fiercely opposed Pakatan Harapan, which it painted as liberal and anti-Islam. Muhyiddin’s Malay credentials went way back before the 14th General Election in 2018 when he wanted PAS to be part of the electoral pact against UMNO, which PAS refused because of its opposition to DAP. Tun Dr. Mahathir overruled that attempt and decided to align Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Malaysian United Indigenous Party—Bersatu) with Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope).

In its early days, Muhyiddin’s administration managed to address the perception that Malay rights were under threat. With a largely Malay cabinet, some rightist concerns were managed.

His cabinet was however bloated, with 72 ministers and deputy ministers, mainly consisting of those who aligned with PN. Those who were not given cabinet positions were appointed chairman in government-linked companies. In a leaked audio of a meeting, he was heard saying that this is part of a “scheme of things” to solidify his majority in the government. Conspicuously missing from these positions were UMNO leaders facing court cases.

On the administration front, the government was unfortunate to have had to channel most of its energy fire-fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. Its early responses were admirable because the virus was relatively contained. However, it faced the dilemma of balancing life and livelihood. The relief and stimulus packages that his administration offered, while not a total failure, were simply inadequate in easing the people’s hardship. Unfortunately, infection rates soared when his administration reopened some economic sectors after the movement control.

When his allies in Sabah tried to overthrow the Parti Warisan Sabah (Sabah Heritage Party)-led government, the Chief Minister responded by dissolving the assembly, consequently forcing a state election. Though Muhyiddin’s alliance of parties managed to narrowly win this state election, it came at a hefty cost with little gains. From this victory, he was able to install his party man to be the new chief minister. But this win was marred by a new wave of Covid-19 infections due to large-scale election campaigning. This provided the opposition ammunition to attack his leadership on the pretext that he was only interested in consolidating his power at all cost.

This power struggle is also evident in state assemblies. In some states, he managed to get Bersatu to hold onto power, but in several others like Malacca, Bersatu ceded control to UMNO. UMNO also managed to replace Bersatu for state leadership in Johor and Perak.

Failing to Legitimise his Power

Muhyiddin had failed in implementing an effective pandemic management which could have helped legitimise his power. Additionally, his administration was quick to claim credit when infection rates declined but were equally quick to blame the people for not adhering to safety and hygiene protocols when infection rates soared.

Muhyiddin also tried to project an image of a likeable PM but was not receptive to opposition. His attempts to silence the opposition included short parliamentary sittings and thwarting any attempts to test his majority via a speaker who would do everything to deny a confidence motion.

Meanwhile, UMNO—at least the faction aligned with its president, Zahid Hamidi—began to show displeasure at the Muhyiddin-led government. Both Zahid and former PM Najib Razak were still facing court cases. Najib had also previously been convicted of corruption. UMNO began to highlight the failures of the government in managing the disease and economic crisis, and distanced itself from the government, even when most of the ministers addressing these issues were from UMNO.

To further his consolidation of power, Muhyiddin successfully declared National Emergency on his second attempt with the Malaysia’s King also known as Agong. Through this, he suspended parliament until the Agong decreed in July 2021 that it should be held before the emergency ended. To Muhyiddin’s advantage, he planned the session to entail only briefings instead of the normal sitting.

It is ironic that someone claiming to uphold Malay special position is in direct confrontation with the palace, but Muhyiddin did just that. It was also unprecedented that the Agong had to ask the speaker of the Dewan Rakyat for the speaker’s confidence in the PM. The Agong had no choice but to do so as the direct confrontation was publicly carried out.

Despite the pressure coming from the palace, Muhyiddin still wanted to cling on to power. As his last resort, he offered to carry out reforms not dissimilar to what Pakatan Harapan had wanted to do. Unfortunately for him, this was too little too late.

Towards the end of his premiership, he showed that he had lost touch with the ground. When UMNO made a firm decision to withdraw its support from PN with 14 of its members writing to the King to state their withdrawal, it was clear that his days were numbered. Two of his ministers from UMNO resigned. Instead of shoring up support and filling these vacancies, he appointed Ahmad Faizal Azumu, former MB of Perak who was overthrown by UMNO, as his adviser with a ministerial status.

On several occasions, he has also shown his insensitivities with the people’s plight. When civil society started a campaign to ask people in economic distress to fly a white flag if they are in need of food or other assistance, his response was that there was no need to, because his government’s assistance was already adequate. He even jokingly said that they should fly the dark blue flag (which is PN’s colour). Despite his public relations campaign of being everyone’s “Abah” or “father”, he somehow had projected himself as arrogant and insensitive.

He had his chances, but from the beginning, his flirting with UMNO was nothing but a political suicide. He should have seen it coming. After all, it was UMNO that sacked him.

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.


  • Tunku Mohar Mokhtar is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, International Islamic University Malaysia. His research interests are Malaysian politics, its electoral system and Malaysia's foreign policy.

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