Malaysia’s political power play: Game of Thrones?

How the ongoing power plays between Malaysia’s most prominent political parties affect the nation’s democracy, ethics, governance structures and economic well-being amid a global pandemic.


Malaysian politics has truly been a gripping tale these past few months. Just like a critically acclaimed miniseries, it has many twists and turns replete with a cliffhanger ending – leaving its viewers holding on to their seats.

Let’s start with what kicked it all off: On February 24, news of then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s surprise resignation shook Malaysia to its core. Mahathir, whose victory in the 2018 elections ousted the allegedly kleptocratic regime of Najib Razak and his party United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), appeared confident that he would be re-appointed to the position again after his surprise resignation.

Turns out, things wouldn’t turn out in Mahathir’s favour. Despite widespread public expectations that the 94-year old politician would retain his role, the Malaysian palace announced on February 29, after a series of intense interview processes by the King himself, that Muhyiddin Yassin will assume the role of the country’s next prime minister.

Many Malaysians, including Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim, reacted indignantly and questioned the statesman’s appointment and whether he truly received the parliament’s majority vote. The opposition was quick to reveal their support numbers post the announcement by the palace. Malaysians helplessly watched these events unfold, and the opposition parties snubbed the swearing in of the new prime minister in a show of revolt.

So far, Muhyiddin continues to face intense public scrutiny from within his own coalition (especially from UMNO), the opposition and the ever more vociferous public. A member of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, he controversially split his own party Bersatu and has replaced several government-linked company heads with his PN party mates.

Even the threat of the coronavirus fails to hamper the momentum of this changing of guards in the statutory bodies and government-linked companies. Although priorities have (rightfully) shifted and the Muhyiddin administration works hard in response to the Covid-19 crisis, political unrest and resentment is still on the rise – albeit overshadowed by the pandemic.

To say that the country is currently divided in terms of political opinion is a gross understatement. Several have even compared the many shocking political twists and turns to the HBO series Game of Thrones with the ultimate victors still unknown. But to be able to follow Malaysia’s countless political twists and turns as well as its significance, one needs to understand its complicated history that led to this juncture of a throne for grabs.

Dangerous liaisons

Much of the controversy stems from how Mahathir was supposed to pass the prime minister torch to Anwar Ibrahim, his supposed successor as agreed under the terms of Pakatan Harapan (PH). Though the differences of the two have been well documented, and for a while being bitter political rivals, they set aside the differences and formed the Pakatan Harapan coalition in an effort to throw the allegedly corrupt Najib Razak and the Barisan Nasional rule out of office. (Spoiler alert: In what is now deemed to be a historic upset, they won.)

Ibrahim Anwar (left) with Mahathir Mohamad

A crucial aspect of the Mahathir-Anwar alliance was a promise the former made. Mahathir would be sworn in as prime minister, but by mid-term he would step down and hand over the position to Anwar.

By February however, the fulfilment of this promise didn’t seem to be set in stone. Growing impatient over what he perceived to be Mahathir’s reluctance to step down, Anwar and his camp became louder in seeking the announcement of a handover date. Irked, the prime minister responded: “I have said I will step down after APEC. No time, no date, no nothing. Only after APEC. It is up to me – whether I want to let go or I do not want to let go. That is the belief the coalition has shown me.”

It appears that Mahathir wasn’t the only one turned off by Anwar’s seeming impatience as he is often termed. By February 23, the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (the political party which Mahathir currently leads) wanted to quit the Pakatan Harapan coalition, deeming Anwar’s request unacceptable.

On the morning of February 24, Bersatu formally announced that they will be leaving the Pakatan Harapan alliance – much to the chagrin of Mahathir, as he has already agreed to hand over the position post-APEC. This consensual agreement was announced via a late press conference on the 21st of February by Anwar and Mahathir. The events of the February 24 would come as a turning point not only to Malaysians, but also to its history in years to come.

By the afternoon of the same day, Mahathir handed in his resignation to the King, citing his disagreement with Bersatu’s plans to admit UMNO into a “unity government” as the reason. (Cue the public’s shock.) The King accepted but asked him to remain interim prime minister while the monarch determines who would be his replacement.

By February 25, Mahathir proposed in private meetings with politicians a unity government of individuals instead of the status-quo party system, one that would be open to all except those linked to corruption charges (such as ex-PM Najib, who is allegedly involved in the 1MDB financial scandal). Pakatan Harapan immediately turned down this proposal, claiming that it would give Mahathir special powers. Instead, they announced that they would back Anwar as incumbent prime minister.

The palace announced on February 28 that the King still hasn’t made a decision on who would assume the prime minister role. Sensing his opportunity, Mahathir worked hard, meeting with several government officials – including Pakatan Harapan. By the end of the day, he felt confident that he secured both Anwar’s support and the majority parliamentary vote.

Najib Razak

Plot twist: He didn’t. On February 29, King Abdullah appointed Muhyiddin Yassin as the country’s eighth prime minister. This announcement stunned Malaysians who were expecting Mahathir to reclaim his old position – including Mahathir himself, who immediately questioned the legitimacy of his rival’s appointment.

But his grievances may be even more deep-seated. Muhyiddin, whose candidacy was nominated by Bersatu and backed by both UMNO and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, has demonstrated his willingness to bring back the tarnished UMNO into power – therefore rendering everything Mahathir and the Pakatan Harapan alliance achieved in 2018 void.

Muhyiddin’s ascent

Upon taking power, Muhyiddin undid several decisions made by the previous administration. First, he dismissed several heads of government-linked companies, choosing to replace them with his Perikatan Nasional politicians in the main, a move criticised by many as a means to consolidate power.

Then, there’s the issue of his legitimacy as prime minister. Both Mahathir and Anwar claim that they have the support of 112 of the 222 Malaysian parliament members and were ready to prove this come the next parliamentary sitting on March 9.

On March 4, Speaker of the House Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof announced that the parliamentary sitting will be delayed to a one-day session on May 18. This move enraged the opposition and the public, noting accountability and transparency key to a democracy is being placed at stake. Select reports claim that this is Muhyiddin’s move to buy enough time to consolidate power and support prior to the next parliament session.

By and large, the move does not bode well for Malaysia’s Democracy Index and Rating, which did well under the previous administration. In 2019, Malaysia moved by nine places under Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. On the Elderman Barometer on Trust in Government, Malaysia shot up by 20 points in 2018 to 60 points from 40 points in 2017.

Real-life repercussions

Muhyiddin’s move in replacing leaders of government-linked companies is a fiercely debated topic now in Malaysia amidst the pandemic woes. In an opinion piece for Focus Malaysia, Setiawangsa lawmaker Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad argues that this was “an unhealthy trend if many members of parliament are appointed to replace professional technocrats,” citing the loss of many qualified ex- leaders of government-linked companies.

Conversely, pro-Muhyiddin Malaysians claim that the move was inevitable. They believe that each prime minister has a right to choose his own government and that the Pakatan Harapan administration failed in making government-linked companies accountable and transparent to the public. What came as a surprise though is how the current deputy president of UMNO declined taking a top position in a government-linked company, citing his interest to focus on the party instead. This is seen by many analysts as a sign of dissension within the Perikatan Nasional coalition.

The landmark victory of Mahathir and Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan alliance sprung forth a hope in many citizens for cleaner and more democratic governance. But the rise of Muhyiddin threatens to sabotage all that and bring the corruption-tainted Barisan Nasional years back into power.

In a political climate reaping the consequences of numerous corporate governance lapses under the BN government, this comes as a real threat. The state founded government-linked companies and statutory bodies in the 1950s as a strong arm for rapid social development. Yet over the years, this value proposition is thoroughly compromised as politicians continue to harness them as a power base. Clearly, the lines between business and politics remain heavily blurred in Malaysia.

Furthermore, the regulations governing these bodies have now come into question. More than ever, Malaysian citizens loudly call for the government to review the regulations of statutory bodies, align it with how businesses have evolved and ensure accountability tools are made clear and transparent. The rampant sackings and reappointments of heads of government-linked companies often impede actual progress and diminish the roles of boards.

Muhyiddin Yassin, Malaysia’s current prime minister

Thankfully, the Malaysian Anti Corruption Act was introduced in 2018 to strengthen corporate governance and to incorporate, among others, a new section (17A) on corporate liability for corruption. This amendment establishes a new statutory corporate liability offense of corruption by a commercial organisation under Malaysian law and deems any director of a commercial organisation personally liable for the same offense if the commercial organization is found liable, unless the relevant individual can prove that the offense was committed without his or her consent and that he or she had exercised the requisite due diligence to prevent the commission of the offense. This change is expected to be fully enforced by June 2020.

Whether the government’s executive and legislative branches have been fully briefed of the liabilities of arbitrary appointments is unclear. Suffice to say, the ongoing corruption cases for 1MDB, Solar Power and SRC serves as proof for the need of clear demarcation and separation of powers.

The hearings in courts also show that government-linked company leadership positions must go to those unafraid to speak truth to power. Often, those in charge of these bodies remain silent in the face of injustice for fear of their jobs. Unless these institutions and its leaders remain distinct and independent in the face of political warfare, Malaysia will continue to see its institutions erode.

What’s next?

As the Covid-19 lockdown eases, the Malaysian political scene will unfold double-time, especially as key players like Anwar, Mahathir and Muhyiddin approach center stage on new battlegrounds.

More significantly, several concerned citizens continue to take the government and its regulators to account. Malaysia’s vociferous social media scene brings to the fore (with much unease) the most senior members of the government to accountability.

The country’s pivot of change remains its people. In an environment where trust in institutions has suffered below average prospects, the reliance of the public on their oversight bodies and regulators to take officials to account is fast diminishing. The opposition and the media constantly call into question the silence of regulators, especially regarding the recent unjust removals of chairmen, boards and CEOs.

Through this political turmoil, it will be the Malaysian people who will run the show of democracy. As people continue to step up and make themselves heard, the people alone will be the kingmakers needed to correct the country’s political and corporate governance. In Malaysia, it appears that we are returning to the true essence of Greek democratic rule, where the cries of the masses ultimately rule the land.

How the ongoing power plays between Malaysia’s most prominent political parties affect the nation’s democracy, ethics, governance structures and economic well-being amid a global pandemic. Malaysian politics has truly been a gripping tale these past few months. Just like a critically acclaimed miniseries, it has many twists and turns replete with a cliffhanger ending – leaving its viewers holding on to their seats. Let’s start with what kicked it all off: On February 24, news of then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s surprise resignation shook Malaysia to its core. Mahathir, whose victory in the 2018 elections ousted the allegedly kleptocratic regime of...

How the ongoing power plays between Malaysia’s most prominent political parties affect the nation’s democracy, ethics, governance structures and economic well-being amid a global pandemic.


Malaysian politics has truly been a gripping tale these past few months. Just like a critically acclaimed miniseries, it has many twists and turns replete with a cliffhanger ending – leaving its viewers holding on to their seats.

Let’s start with what kicked it all off: On February 24, news of then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s surprise resignation shook Malaysia to its core. Mahathir, whose victory in the 2018 elections ousted the allegedly kleptocratic regime of Najib Razak and his party United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), appeared confident that he would be re-appointed to the position again after his surprise resignation.

Turns out, things wouldn’t turn out in Mahathir’s favour. Despite widespread public expectations that the 94-year old politician would retain his role, the Malaysian palace announced on February 29, after a series of intense interview processes by the King himself, that Muhyiddin Yassin will assume the role of the country’s next prime minister.

Many Malaysians, including Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim, reacted indignantly and questioned the statesman’s appointment and whether he truly received the parliament’s majority vote. The opposition was quick to reveal their support numbers post the announcement by the palace. Malaysians helplessly watched these events unfold, and the opposition parties snubbed the swearing in of the new prime minister in a show of revolt.

So far, Muhyiddin continues to face intense public scrutiny from within his own coalition (especially from UMNO), the opposition and the ever more vociferous public. A member of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, he controversially split his own party Bersatu and has replaced several government-linked company heads with his PN party mates.

Even the threat of the coronavirus fails to hamper the momentum of this changing of guards in the statutory bodies and government-linked companies. Although priorities have (rightfully) shifted and the Muhyiddin administration works hard in response to the Covid-19 crisis, political unrest and resentment is still on the rise – albeit overshadowed by the pandemic.

To say that the country is currently divided in terms of political opinion is a gross understatement. Several have even compared the many shocking political twists and turns to the HBO series Game of Thrones with the ultimate victors still unknown. But to be able to follow Malaysia’s countless political twists and turns as well as its significance, one needs to understand its complicated history that led to this juncture of a throne for grabs.

Dangerous liaisons

Much of the controversy stems from how Mahathir was supposed to pass the prime minister torch to Anwar Ibrahim, his supposed successor as agreed under the terms of Pakatan Harapan (PH). Though the differences of the two have been well documented, and for a while being bitter political rivals, they set aside the differences and formed the Pakatan Harapan coalition in an effort to throw the allegedly corrupt Najib Razak and the Barisan Nasional rule out of office. (Spoiler alert: In what is now deemed to be a historic upset, they won.)

Ibrahim Anwar (left) with Mahathir Mohamad

A crucial aspect of the Mahathir-Anwar alliance was a promise the former made. Mahathir would be sworn in as prime minister, but by mid-term he would step down and hand over the position to Anwar.

By February however, the fulfilment of this promise didn’t seem to be set in stone. Growing impatient over what he perceived to be Mahathir’s reluctance to step down, Anwar and his camp became louder in seeking the announcement of a handover date. Irked, the prime minister responded: “I have said I will step down after APEC. No time, no date, no nothing. Only after APEC. It is up to me – whether I want to let go or I do not want to let go. That is the belief the coalition has shown me.”

It appears that Mahathir wasn’t the only one turned off by Anwar’s seeming impatience as he is often termed. By February 23, the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (the political party which Mahathir currently leads) wanted to quit the Pakatan Harapan coalition, deeming Anwar’s request unacceptable.

On the morning of February 24, Bersatu formally announced that they will be leaving the Pakatan Harapan alliance – much to the chagrin of Mahathir, as he has already agreed to hand over the position post-APEC. This consensual agreement was announced via a late press conference on the 21st of February by Anwar and Mahathir. The events of the February 24 would come as a turning point not only to Malaysians, but also to its history in years to come.

By the afternoon of the same day, Mahathir handed in his resignation to the King, citing his disagreement with Bersatu’s plans to admit UMNO into a “unity government” as the reason. (Cue the public’s shock.) The King accepted but asked him to remain interim prime minister while the monarch determines who would be his replacement.

By February 25, Mahathir proposed in private meetings with politicians a unity government of individuals instead of the status-quo party system, one that would be open to all except those linked to corruption charges (such as ex-PM Najib, who is allegedly involved in the 1MDB financial scandal). Pakatan Harapan immediately turned down this proposal, claiming that it would give Mahathir special powers. Instead, they announced that they would back Anwar as incumbent prime minister.

The palace announced on February 28 that the King still hasn’t made a decision on who would assume the prime minister role. Sensing his opportunity, Mahathir worked hard, meeting with several government officials – including Pakatan Harapan. By the end of the day, he felt confident that he secured both Anwar’s support and the majority parliamentary vote.

Najib Razak

Plot twist: He didn’t. On February 29, King Abdullah appointed Muhyiddin Yassin as the country’s eighth prime minister. This announcement stunned Malaysians who were expecting Mahathir to reclaim his old position – including Mahathir himself, who immediately questioned the legitimacy of his rival’s appointment.

But his grievances may be even more deep-seated. Muhyiddin, whose candidacy was nominated by Bersatu and backed by both UMNO and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, has demonstrated his willingness to bring back the tarnished UMNO into power – therefore rendering everything Mahathir and the Pakatan Harapan alliance achieved in 2018 void.

Muhyiddin’s ascent

Upon taking power, Muhyiddin undid several decisions made by the previous administration. First, he dismissed several heads of government-linked companies, choosing to replace them with his Perikatan Nasional politicians in the main, a move criticised by many as a means to consolidate power.

Then, there’s the issue of his legitimacy as prime minister. Both Mahathir and Anwar claim that they have the support of 112 of the 222 Malaysian parliament members and were ready to prove this come the next parliamentary sitting on March 9.

On March 4, Speaker of the House Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof announced that the parliamentary sitting will be delayed to a one-day session on May 18. This move enraged the opposition and the public, noting accountability and transparency key to a democracy is being placed at stake. Select reports claim that this is Muhyiddin’s move to buy enough time to consolidate power and support prior to the next parliament session.

By and large, the move does not bode well for Malaysia’s Democracy Index and Rating, which did well under the previous administration. In 2019, Malaysia moved by nine places under Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. On the Elderman Barometer on Trust in Government, Malaysia shot up by 20 points in 2018 to 60 points from 40 points in 2017.

Real-life repercussions

Muhyiddin’s move in replacing leaders of government-linked companies is a fiercely debated topic now in Malaysia amidst the pandemic woes. In an opinion piece for Focus Malaysia, Setiawangsa lawmaker Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad argues that this was “an unhealthy trend if many members of parliament are appointed to replace professional technocrats,” citing the loss of many qualified ex- leaders of government-linked companies.

Conversely, pro-Muhyiddin Malaysians claim that the move was inevitable. They believe that each prime minister has a right to choose his own government and that the Pakatan Harapan administration failed in making government-linked companies accountable and transparent to the public. What came as a surprise though is how the current deputy president of UMNO declined taking a top position in a government-linked company, citing his interest to focus on the party instead. This is seen by many analysts as a sign of dissension within the Perikatan Nasional coalition.

The landmark victory of Mahathir and Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan alliance sprung forth a hope in many citizens for cleaner and more democratic governance. But the rise of Muhyiddin threatens to sabotage all that and bring the corruption-tainted Barisan Nasional years back into power.

In a political climate reaping the consequences of numerous corporate governance lapses under the BN government, this comes as a real threat. The state founded government-linked companies and statutory bodies in the 1950s as a strong arm for rapid social development. Yet over the years, this value proposition is thoroughly compromised as politicians continue to harness them as a power base. Clearly, the lines between business and politics remain heavily blurred in Malaysia.

Furthermore, the regulations governing these bodies have now come into question. More than ever, Malaysian citizens loudly call for the government to review the regulations of statutory bodies, align it with how businesses have evolved and ensure accountability tools are made clear and transparent. The rampant sackings and reappointments of heads of government-linked companies often impede actual progress and diminish the roles of boards.

Muhyiddin Yassin, Malaysia’s current prime minister

Thankfully, the Malaysian Anti Corruption Act was introduced in 2018 to strengthen corporate governance and to incorporate, among others, a new section (17A) on corporate liability for corruption. This amendment establishes a new statutory corporate liability offense of corruption by a commercial organisation under Malaysian law and deems any director of a commercial organisation personally liable for the same offense if the commercial organization is found liable, unless the relevant individual can prove that the offense was committed without his or her consent and that he or she had exercised the requisite due diligence to prevent the commission of the offense. This change is expected to be fully enforced by June 2020.

Whether the government’s executive and legislative branches have been fully briefed of the liabilities of arbitrary appointments is unclear. Suffice to say, the ongoing corruption cases for 1MDB, Solar Power and SRC serves as proof for the need of clear demarcation and separation of powers.

The hearings in courts also show that government-linked company leadership positions must go to those unafraid to speak truth to power. Often, those in charge of these bodies remain silent in the face of injustice for fear of their jobs. Unless these institutions and its leaders remain distinct and independent in the face of political warfare, Malaysia will continue to see its institutions erode.

What’s next?

As the Covid-19 lockdown eases, the Malaysian political scene will unfold double-time, especially as key players like Anwar, Mahathir and Muhyiddin approach center stage on new battlegrounds.

More significantly, several concerned citizens continue to take the government and its regulators to account. Malaysia’s vociferous social media scene brings to the fore (with much unease) the most senior members of the government to accountability.

The country’s pivot of change remains its people. In an environment where trust in institutions has suffered below average prospects, the reliance of the public on their oversight bodies and regulators to take officials to account is fast diminishing. The opposition and the media constantly call into question the silence of regulators, especially regarding the recent unjust removals of chairmen, boards and CEOs.

Through this political turmoil, it will be the Malaysian people who will run the show of democracy. As people continue to step up and make themselves heard, the people alone will be the kingmakers needed to correct the country’s political and corporate governance. In Malaysia, it appears that we are returning to the true essence of Greek democratic rule, where the cries of the masses ultimately rule the land.

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