When Malaysia’s government plunged into chaos last month, many believed the country’s veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad was likely to emerge an even more powerful political force. Instead, it was Muhyiddin Yassin, a much quieter figure, who was eventually appointed prime minister.
Muhyiddin, a conservative Malay nationalist, is a low-profile and cautious politician, say analysts.
“If you look at his political history, every time there has been a political crisis he is the last one to show his hand,” says James Chin, professor of Asian studies at Tasmania University. “He sits between all the warring groups, lets them fight it out, then he will come in at the last minute.”
As the ruling alliance became consumed by a power struggle between supporters of Mahathir and his successor-in-waiting, Anwar Ibrahim, Muhyiddin managed to outmanoeuvre both.
His swearing in as prime minister on 1 March followed a long political career, the majority of which has been spent with Umno, a party that has been in power in Malaysia for six decades and has since been entangled in corruption scandals.
He joined Umno in 1971, in Johor, a Malay heartland, where he was later appointed as chief minister. Muhyiddin also served in several positions in central government, including as deputy prime minister under Najib Razak, but was fired in 2015 after questioning Najib’s handling of allegations surrounding the 1MDB affair, one of the world’s biggest financial scandals.
After his dismissal, Muhyiddin went on to join the Bersatu party, which was set up by Mahathir to oust Najib’s scandal-hit government from power. In 2018 it achieved a historic election victory when voters opted for a multiracial reformist alliance that promised an end to corruption.
But, following the collapse of the alliance only two years later, Muhyiddin has partnered again with Umno, returning to power the same party that he helped to remove from office. With Muhyiddin reliant on support from the former regime, there are doubts as to whether those implicated in corruption scandals will be held to account.
There are also concerns over what Muhyiddin’s government will mean for minorities. His appointment follows growing dissatisfaction among many in the Malay majority, who accuse the previous ruling alliance of giving too much support to minority interests.
About 60% of Malaysia’s population are ethnic Malay Muslims, while the country also has large ethnic Chinese and Indian communities. Muhyiddin, who once described himself “a Malay first”, has included very little representation from minority groups in the key government positions that were announced this week.
Azmil Tayeb, a political scientist, fears that if economic or political troubles get worse, Muhyiddin may be tempted to “exploit ethno-nationalist tensions to divert attention from the real problems”.
It appears likely that Muhyiddin, whose bloated cabinet features far more posts for supporters than that of the previous alliance, will survive a looming no-confidence vote. But critics point out that he was ushered into power through a flurry of backroom deals and does not have a public mandate.
He will face high levels of scrutiny, said Bridget Welsh, an honorary research fellow at the University of Nottingham Malaysia’s Asia Research Institute. “It’s a different era in Malaysia and there is a lot more caution and care over corruption.”
Muhyiddin has tried to define his leadership as being anti-corruption, but some of the individuals in his cabinet were tainted with allegations, although the cases are not ongoing.
He has become prime minister at a difficult time for the country, Welsh adds. “You have the coronavirus, an underperforming economy with very limited economic reform, the significant drop in the oil price and very limited revenue options in terms of the high level of debt that the government inherited from the 1MDB scandal among others,” she said.
Muhyiddin will not only need to prove his own legitimacy as a leader, but also address Malaysia’s deep economic and political problems, she added. “He faces a much more challenging political and economic environment than perhaps I would argue any previous prime minister has ever faced in Malaysia.”