Malaysia's New PM Rules Out Including Opposition in Cabinet

S. Adie Zul and Noah Lee
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia's New PM Rules Out Including Opposition in Cabinet This handout photo shows Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob sitting at his desk on his first day at the Prime Minister's Office in Putrajaya, Aug. 23, 2021.
(Malaysia Department of Information/AFP)

Malaysia’ new prime minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, on Monday ruled out including opposition lawmakers in his cabinet, a day after he urged all political parties to work together to ensure the nation recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, lower house deputy speaker Azalina Othman Said, an UMNO member, heeded citizens’ calls for multi-party cooperation and quit her post on Monday, saying parliament should not have a key official who is a member of the ruling party.

The PM reiterated his offer, announced Sunday, for opposition lawmakers to be part of two bodies focused on pandemic efforts.

“There will be no unity government involving the participation of opposition parties in the Cabinet,” Ismail Sabri said at a press conference after visiting flood-affected people in the northern state of Kedah on first official day as prime minister.

“Cooperation with them [the opposition] does not mean they will be in the cabinet, but they can play their role by channeling their ideas through the Special Committee on COVID-19 and the National Recovery Council,” he said, adding that he would announce the line-up of ministers this week.

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob (in green hat) surveys a flood-hit area of Yan district in Kedah, Aug. 23, 2021. [Photo courtesy Ismail Sabri Yaakob via Facebook]

The first salvo

Ismail Sabri was sworn in by King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah on Saturday, a day after the monarch named the United Malays National Organization vice-president the ninth prime minister of the country. The previous PM, Muhyiddin Yassin, resigned last Monday, having lost support from a majority of lawmakers 12 days before that.

UMNO engineered Muhyiddin’s downfall and returned to power three years after its first-ever shock defeat in the national polls. It was part of Muhyiddin’s ruling alliance, but is now receiving support from the former prime minister’s Bersatu party and its partners.

In his maiden televised national address as prime minister on Sunday, Ismail Sabri urged all lawmakers to put aside differences and work together to rejuvenate the pandemic-battered country.

Despite this message of unity, tensions in the new ruling alliance were on display as early as Saturday night, with a senior UMNO official firing the first salvo at former PM Muhyiddin’s coalition, which is called Perikatan Nasional (PN).

UMNO secretary-general Ahmad Maslan said on Saturday that “this new government is not a PN government, but it is a Malaysian government.”

A day later, Muhyiddin’s party fired back, saying, “To us, it’s a Perikatan Nasional government.” That’s because Muhyiddin’s alliance had more lawmakers supporting Ismail Sabri than UMNO and its partners, a Bersatu official said.

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob receives a document from King Al-Sultan Abdullah during his inauguration at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur, Aug. 21, 2021. [Handout Malaysia Information Department]

Coalition ‘relatively unstable’

Amid these verbal tussles, one UMNO member – Azalina – stood apart from the fray by urging a correction of the “institutional defects of our parliamentary institutions.”

In a Facebook post late on Monday, she said was resigning as deputy speaker of the lower of parliament after having heard the “public's loud and clear demand for multiparty cooperation.”

Being a member of the ruling party UMNO, she indicated, might come in the way of discharging her functions as deputy speaker.

“There is a conflict of roles and responsibilities between being a Supreme Council member of UMNO and as an MP in a ruling coalition,” Azalina said.

For their part, opposition parties reacted to Ismail Sabri’s message about cooperation with caution.

Pakatan Harapan – opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s coalition – said it would “play its role as a constructive and responsible opposition.”

Lim Guan Eng, secretary-general of the Democratic Action Party, which is part of Pakatan, said his party would consider the new PM’s invitation to join the COVID-19 bodies, “provided it is not token representation and a mere rubber-stamp for the government's views.”

Political analysts issued gloomy prognoses.

Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said he mistrusted Ismail Sabri’s offer to the opposition to join the COVID-19 recovery bodies.

“I think this is a very clever and cunning trick, bait from Ismail Sabri that will actually put the opposition in dilemma because on the one hand, if you don’t join this committee or recovery council, you will be seen as not thinking about national interest, not nationalistic, rejecting unity and so on,” Oh told BenarNews.

“But if they accept the offer … and it is very likely this government would end up as a failure, the opposition may also be tainted or soiled by association.”

Similarly, Tricia Yeoh, chief executive of the Kuala Lumpur-based research group The Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), said it was good that the political impasse had ended.

But “IDEAS cautions that the political position that the current coalition is in, is relatively unstable,” Yeoh said in a statement.

“Given that the new prime minister has a slim majority, the prime minister must now work to instill confidence in his new administration in order to secure broad support.”

Ismail Sabri has the support of 114 lawmakers, according to a palace statement, and would lose his parliamentary majority if just four of them changed their minds.

Parliament is set to begin Sept. 6 and the new PM has to hold a confidence vote immediately, as per the king’s decree.

Meanwhile, various ruling coalition members – touting their support for the new PM – are publicly jockeying for positions in the cabinet.

Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.


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