KUALA LUMPUR – Former premier Muhyiddin Yassin has been handed the chair of the National Recovery Council (NRC) less than three weeks after he was forced from office, reflecting his influence in Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s government of uneasy partners.
Barely an hour after the appointment was announced on Saturday (Sept 4) the Attorney-General said “there is no need to legitimise the Prime Minister’s appointment and the government that has been formed legally.” Last month, the King had decreed that Tan Sri Muhyiddin’s successor should affirm his position in a parliamentary confidence vote.
Mr Muhyiddin’s return as NRC chief, a position with ministerial status, was announced by the Chief Secretary to the Government Zuki Ali.
In a statement, Tan Sri Zuki said the cabinet had agreed to the move on Wednesday “based on the government’s faith” on the former prime minister’s “ability to lead the nation’s recovery strategy and is aimed at achieving the best economic impact and restoring the lives of the public badly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Mr Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition supplies nearly half the MPs in the 114-strong government bench, a slim majority in the 222-seat Parliament where two are vacant.
He was NRC chairman before quitting as prime minister on Aug 16, prior to which official sources told The Straits Times that he had offered the chair to influential former premier Mahathir Mohamad in a bid to restore his parliamentary majority after about 15 Umno MPs withdrew their support for his government. Umno was the single biggest bloc propping up the PN government.
The withdrawal was sparked by accusations of treason after the King, Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah, publicly rebuked the Muhyiddin administration when it refused to abide by his request for the revocation of Covid-19 emergency ordinances be tabled to Parliament.
Attorney General Idrus Harun’s statement on Saturday that “the appointment of a new Prime Minister needing to be legitimised by any other party other than His Majesty… is not in line with provisions in the Federal Constitution” could risk similar backlash.
Prior to picking Datuk Seri Ismail as the new premier on Aug 20, Sultan Abdullah had decreed that whoever was appointed “should as soon as possible present a confidence motion” in Parliament.
“The PM is trying to end the political instability that started under his predecessor,” BowerGroupAsia political analyst Adib Zalkapli told The Straits Times. “Testing confidence in Parliament is the right thing to do, as requested by the King, but with the House divided almost equally, it takes real political courage or some kind of guarantee from the opposition to table a motion of confidence. Nonetheless, he is risking accusations of treason that also plagued Muhyiddin.”
Mr Muhyiddin survived on a wafer-thin majority in parliament since taking power in March 2020, and was eventually ousted when Umno president Zahid Hamidi ordered all of his party’s 38 MPs to pull out from the government in early August as the country was gripped by the Covid-19 crisis.
But Mr Ismail, an Umno vice-president who also served as deputy premier under Mr Muhyiddin, led about two dozen MPs from his party to choose to stay in government. He was sworn in as prime minister within days of his predecessor’s resignation after Umno MPs agreed to back him and end the political impasse in the country. Mr Ismail eventually formed a government made up of the same MPs from the same parties as those in the Muhyiddin administration.
The 70 ministers and deputies appointed by Mr Ismail are also nearly identical to those in Mr Muhyiddin’s cabinet with Zahid’s faction gaining just one deputy ministership.
The move to elevate Mr Muhyiddin, whose 18-month tenure as prime minister is the shortest in Malaysian history, to the NRC chair could further ostracise rivals in Umno, barely two weeks since Mr Ismail took power.
The Straits Times has learnt that Zahid and Mr Ismail are also at loggerheads over whether Parliament Speaker Azhar Harun should be retained, as the Umno president wants the role handed to one of his supporters.