Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has passed a crucial test of his leadership following the passage of his first federal budget, but that does not mean the end of his troubles as the ruling party’s slim majority in parliament will continue to threaten his tenuous hold on power, analysts said.
After six weeks of debate, members of the lower house of Malaysia’s parliament voted to pass Budget 2021, or the Supply Bill 2021, during its third reading on Dec 15. The 322.54 billion ringgit ($79.8 billion) budget is the largest in the country’s history, with most of the funds going to economic recovery efforts and measures to combat COVID-19. There were over 86,000 COVID-19 cases in Malaysia as of mid-December.
A total of 111 Members of Parliament supported the proposed budget, while 108 MPs voted against the bill. The budget will now be sent to the Upper House, or Senate, for ratification.
Analysts said the voting only reaffirmed the ruling Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition’s razor-thin majority in the parliament.
Awang Azman Awang Pawi, associate professor at the Academy of Malay Studies at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, welcomed the passage of the budget, noting that this will finally allow the government to focus on economic development and ensuring people’s welfare. The problem, however, is that Muhyiddin’s position remains “fragile and uncertain”.
“It would be very hard for Muhyiddin to propose anything (to the parliament) because he has no strong support from the MPs,” Awang Azman said.
James Chin, director of the Asia Institute Tasmania at Australia’s University of Tasmania, said PN’s “very slim” majority means Muhyiddin’s position remains precarious. But at the same time, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) leader Anwar Ibrahim’s failure to secure enough votes to defeat the bill exposed the weakness of the opposition camp. This, despite Anwar’s earlier declaration that he had the parliamentary majority.
“This is the end of Anwar’s push to get rid of Muhyiddin. I don’t think the opposition has the numbers to get rid of him,” Chin said.
Chin is hoping that now that the bill has been passed, the Malaysian government can move on and start reviving Southeast Asia’s third largest economy.
In a statement issued after the third reading, Muhyiddin thanked the parliament for its support for the bill. He said that the approval of the 2021 budget will help the government in implementing programs to combat the pandemic and improving Malaysians’ standard of living.
“I hope the Members of Parliament will continue to provide the best service to the citizens and the country,” Muhyiddin said.
The debate over the 2021 budget marked the latest challenge to nine-month old PN-led government, which has been wracked by political infighting and questions over its legitimacy as Muhyiddin assumed the premiership without the support of a popular vote.
Malaysian King Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah appointed Muhyiddin at the end of February after then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad resigned from his post following disagreements over a planned transfer of power to Anwar. The transition was part of Mahathir’s promise to Anwar when they decided to form the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition that won the 2018 elections.
Muhyiddin, who was then part of PH, bolted the party and joined forces with the United Malays National Organization and Malaysian Islamic Party or PAS to form the PN coalition. The PN then endorsed Muhyiddin to the Malaysian monarch.
The new prime minister took oath of office on March 1.
Since then, the parliament has become a testing ground for Muhyiddin and PN. The ruling coalition so far has managed to retain its majority in the parliament. Despite the slim majority, it managed to secure critical wins such as installing a party member as the new House Speaker and passing the Supply Bill.
Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia at Sunway University in Kuala Lumpur, said the deliberations over the Supply Bill have shown where both the PN and the opposition currently stand.
“The 111 to 108 vote is the best reading of both sides’ strength,” he said.
Wong noted that Muhyiddin only has a three-seat majority and as such a defection of just two members is enough to dislodge the PN-led government. However, Wong said the current situation also shows the weakness of the opposition and why Anwar needs to change his strategy if he still wants to become Malaysia’s next prime Minister.
He said the opposition needs to offer better policies on the pandemic, economic development, the environment and ethnic relations if they want to have a fighting chance in the 2023 general elections.
“The opposition’s future hinges not on who is the best Prime Minister candidate, but whether the person can even form a shadow cabinet and offer better policies than Muhyiddin’s,” Wong said.