Malaysia’s eighth prime minister has already described himself as merely a ‘footnote’ in history. With the nation’s shortest prime ministerial tenure of only 532 days, Muhyiddin Yassin’s seventeen months in office will be remembered chiefly for the Covid-19 pandemic, arguably one of Malaysia’s most traumatic experiences.
Officially, nearly 14,000 people lost their lives and over 1.5 million tested positive for Covid during Muhyiddin’s tenure. And while the catalyst for his downfall was UMNO defections from his coalition, he left office after facing public pressure over his government’s mishandling of the pandemic as his popularity rating dropped lower than any prime minister in the country’s history. For many, his time in office is best forgotten.
Yet, before attention inevitably turns to UMNO’s return to power, it’s worth looking back at Muhyiddin’s time at the helm as it represents a confluence between the past and future of national politics.
Muhyiddin Yassin was a political child of Dr Mahathir Mohamad. That Muhyiddin lasted in office for so long given he came into power without an elected mandate and with a razor thin majority for his government is a testimony to what he learned from Mahathir.
Muhyiddin used the power of his office to extend his tenure, wielding patronage, pressure and calculated use of divide-and-rule to his advantage. In some ways he was more adept than his mentor. But ultimately, unlike Mahathir, who chose his own terms to exit, Muhyiddin’s survivalist politics failed and he was pushed out of office.
The damage from undercutting political reforms, weakening institutions and relying on levers of power, though, echo Mahathir.
Echoes of the past
Like many of his generation, Muhyiddin lived with a romantic vision of the past. His use of folksy language and view of citizens as children for whom he was the self-proclaimed ‘abah’, or father, reflected his deep patriarchy and feudal outlook.
People were to be talked to, and expected to follow (especially women, who were given secondary leadership roles). He reveled in the early adorations of public support, not fully realizing it was never about Muhyiddin the person but, rather, for the office he held.
For some, especially the older generation and those in the Malay heartland, this worked, providing security amidst uncertainty. For others, the approach grated and reinforced perceptions he was a relic.
That Muhyiddin continued to hold onto this language and the view that he deserved to be prime minister right up to his last speech showed a disconnect and cocooned reality that had tuned out public criticism.
Some may see Muhyiddin as ‘Mahathir-lite’. Despite being an ‘all Malay government’ epitomising the race-based politics that underscored Mahathir’s tenure, Muhyiddin’s government did not have the space to deploy communal politics against its citizens.
Muhyiddin’s failings – and the price he paid
Although there were beer factory and pub closings, there were no open kris wavings or mass hate rallies. Aid programs were largely needs-based and the ‘enemy’ focus pivoted to migrants and undocumented persons.
His government harassed journalists, activists and peaceful protestors but did so without the same fanfare of the past, in part due to the population’s preoccupation with unending lockdowns. He avoided directly arresting his political opponents, letting other agencies impose charges instead. In fact, even politicians who were convicted were not imprisoned.
Unlike with Najib Razak and Abdullah Badawi, it was not Mahathir that led to Muhyiddin’s downfall. Ironically, it was Najib, another of Mahathir’s savvy political children, who was instrumental in rallying UMNO defectors and in positioning Ismail Sabri Yaakob, one of his protégés, for higher office.
Muhyiddin’s tenure in office will not be remembered for policy landmarks or successes, which is the same that can be said of his previous positions in office, except his tenure as Chief Minister of Johor where he is remembered for positioning himself for a rise within UMNO.
By the time he had left office as prime minister, his government’s early sound management of the pandemic and ratcheting up of social relief measures had been overshadowed by eventual realities of mismanagement and inadequate support for those suffering.
Part of this was due to complacency, misjudging the scope of the pandemic and resistance to learning from policies that were not working. Change is hard when those in power are blinded by their own entitlement and false impressions of success.
Muhyiddin’s government lacked adequate competency and never worked together cohesively. Policies were reactive, piecemeal and unevenly communicated. His Cabinet was divided over its approach to the pandemic, trying to find a sweet spot between allowing the economy to remain open and containing Covid.
It tried to please everyone, but ended up pleasing only a few – and themselves. It was not able to spend its way out of the crisis in part due to the yoke left by Najib on the country’s finances.
Cynicism and realism now the new norm
Malaysia has been losing global competitiveness and Muhyiddin’s government failed to reverse this trend. Many worry he exacerbated further decline, which will make it even harder for Malaysia’s economy to strengthen. Muhyiddin, like Mahathir during the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, let structural problems go unattended and worsen.
The legacy Muhyiddin’s government leaves has less to do with what was done but, rather, what was not done. In mishandling Covid, Muhyiddin’s tenure exposed poor governance and transformed how the government was perceived. Needed reforms were not carried out.
Rather than being part of a solution, the government has become seen as part of the problem. Muhyiddin’s preoccupation with his own political survival forced citizens to find ways to survive on their own. Too many continue to struggle.
By opting for a narrow ‘all-Malay’ political base and not genuinely reaching out to all Malaysians across ethnicities and political divides (until a too late last-minute reform offer), Muhyiddin poorly positioned himself to harness the public support he needed to offset elite challenges.
More Malaysians now see politicians differently, with greater cynicism and realism. It has not been an easy awakening. Yet at the same time, social resilience has strengthened and a new generation of leaders have emerged, less caught up with race politics and with greater concern for societal well-being. A new generation shaped by Covid and Muhyiddin’s government is reshaping national politics.
Muhyiddin does leave his own political children too; allies like Azmin Ali and those such as Hamzah Zainudin and Tengku Zafrul Aziz, whose political careers he made.
But arguably the most important political child he leaves behind is Ismail Sabri, who takes over the leadership mantle in a Muhyiddin way, without direct confrontation. As a leader weaned by Mahathir’s political children, both Najib and Muhyiddin, it remains to be seen how much Malaysia’s new prime minister has learned, how much space he will have to operate and whether he will be his own man.
With its complexities, increased demands by citizens and experience with crisis, Malaysia is no longer the place Mahathir governed, and while Machiavellian political tactics of the past may be effective in securing power, Muhyiddin has shown they are not enough to stay in power for long.