If you haven’t heard, Malaysia’s government collapsed on Monday after an attempt at a political coup. However, you’re not to blame if you can’t understand what’s going on. Malaysia’s political drama has become increasingly complex in the past 5 years and can be dizzying for anyone without sufficient background knowledge.
I summarise key events and persons you need to know to understand dynamics and motivations behind the political maneuvering thus far. Malaysian politics is so much deeper than personalities involved in the recent attempted coup. With that being said, this article is written for outsiders looking to orient themselves to Malaysian politics (or for confused Malaysians needing more context).
The Game: Parliamentary System
Malaysia follows the Westminster system where the Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives) is the most important legislative body. The Dewan Rakyat has 222 seats, all contested simultaneously in the General Elections.
The Yang di-Pertuan Agong (YDPA or King) ceremonially appoints a new Prime Minister that has the support of at least a simple majority in the Dewan Rakyat (112 seats). The PM then selects his Cabinet to form government.
Historically, Malaysia’s Parliament has organised around coalition-based governments. As any given political party may not get 112 seats, they form a coalition with other parties to meet this number (such as UK’s Tory-LibDem 2010 coalition). The first Barisan Nasional (BN; previously Alliance Party) government was a multiparty coalition comprised of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC).
An important note is that individuals (not political parties) are elected into Parliament. For this reason, MPs can individually change who they support as Prime Minister.
The First Change of Government: 2018 General Elections
Up until recently, the BN government was the longest ruling, democratically-elected government in the world. UMNO, the Malay-based political party of BN, led the coalition and traditionally held the PM position.
Tun Dr Mahathir, or Tun M
Tun M’s leadership as the 4th Prime Minister from 1981–2003 saw BN’s glory days as economic reform successfully ushered in a financial boom. Besides his reputation as a political maverick and father of modernisation, Tun M was also despised across the aisle due to his use of draconian laws to stifle political opposition.
Anwar Ibrahim, or DSAI
A student activist-prodigy, DSAI was widely seen as Tun M’s successor. After founding the Islamic Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM), he joined UMNO and quickly rose in ranks. In 1993, he was appointed Deputy PM. However, amidst opposing views on the 1997 Asian financial crisis and nepotism within the government, DSAI was sacked from UMNO by Tun M in 1998 after allegations of sodomy (and sentenced to 6 years in prison). This sparked the Reformasi movement, giving rise to BN’s biggest challenger especially after Tun M resigned in 2003.
Reformasi to 1MDB
Reformasi, later formalised into PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat) joined forces with opposition parties DAP (Democratic Action Party) and PAS (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia) to form a coalition widely known as Pakatan Rakyat. These unlikely friends successfully denied BN of a two-thirds majority in Parliament in the 2008 and 2013 General Elections.
In 2014, DSAI attempted to perform a political manoeuvre called the Kajang Move that attempted to install him as the Chief Minister of Selangor, the richest state in Malaysia, through a by-election. A few weeks before the move, DSAI was once again sentenced for a second round of sodomy charges causing him to be an ineligible candidate. At this juncture, two individuals become pivotal to personality politics in the BN/Reformasi rift.
Azmin began his career as DSAI’s political secretary during the latter’s term as Minister of Education in UMNO. When DSAI was sacked and took loyals with him to join the Reformasi movement, Azmin followed and became one of the founders of PKR. Climbing ranks to become PKR Deputy President in 2010, Azmin built a solid following within the party. In the aftermath of the failed 2014 Kajang Move, Azmin (instead of DSAI) was installed as the Chief Minister of Selangor.
The 6th PM of Malaysia (and son of the 2nd) was under pressure after leading BN into losing the popular vote in the 2013 General Elections. While unclear if Najib had any hand in DSAI’s sodomy trial, he now faced a weaker opposition without a clear leader. Najib also found himself on the bad books of Tun M as UMNO due to his poor handling of racial relations.
Readers are probably familiar with Najib Razak as the face of the 1MDB scandal that saw billions stolen through an elaborate multinational scheme. News about Najib’s involvement in 1MDB began to surface in 2015, prompting a second round of rage from Tun M (who joined a protest demanding for a vote of no confidence against Najib). While BN’s house was in a mess, Pakatan Rakyat — the opposition coalition — was not free of complications.
Pakatan Harapan: An Unlikely Coalition
With the death of Tok Guru Nik Aziz — PAS #1, moderate Muslim, popular among non-Muslims and never-UMNO — the same year, the Islamic Party became increasingly radicalised under its new leadership. After various rifts with liberal-leaning, predominantly non-Malay/Muslim DAP, PAS left the Pakatan Rakyat coalition. Remaining opposition parties (PKR, DAP and Amanah, a splinter party from PAS) regrouped as Pakatan Harapan.
As 1MDB allegations grew larger, Tun M and Muhyiddin (Najib’s DPM, whom he sacked) formed their own political party in 2016 — Bersatu (PPBM). Hoping to attract BN voters tired of Najib’s corruption stories, Bersatu joined Pakatan Harapan gearing up for the 2018 General Elections. Truly believing the enemy of my enemy is my friend, Pakatan Harapan brought together Tun M and his fiercest opposers to take down Najib and BN.
The 2018 General Elections saw a three-way contest: BN, Pakatan Harapan and PAS. On the 9th of May 2018, Pakatan Harapan emerged victorious by gaining a simple majority of 113 seats (121 seats, if you count Warisan, an East Malaysian party friendly to the coalition). A stunning defeat for BN, Tun M was appointed the 7th Prime Minister at 92 years old.
Contest for the 8th Prime Ministership
Shortly after, Tun M lobbied a royal pardon for DSAI (who was still in jail during the 2018 General Elections). This paved the way for DSAI to potentially become the 8th PM, as promised by Tun M despite no clear timeline established. In October 2018, DSAI re-entered Parliament after winning a by-election.
Meanwhile, Azmin was appointed Minister of Economic Affairs, a role seen as the #3 government spot (equivalent to the Minister of Finance). Unknown forces were out for Azmin as he was embroiled in a sex scandal in 2019 after a PKR member, Haziq Aziz, alleged that Azmin was the other man in a sex video.
Tensions were high as speculations of competing political ambitions between DSAI, Azmin and Tun M destabilised the Pakatan Harapan coalition. Tun M and DSAI had traces of bad blood from the 90s, while DSAI and Azmin were testing waters to see who truly had control over PKR. Azmin was seen allying himself with Tun M, supporting the latter finishing a full PM term.
UMNO, with wounds still fresh from electoral defeat and a new leader in place, lost more seats as many of its MPs defected to Bersatu. In 2019, talks between UMNO (38 seats) and PAS (18 seats) were underway that floated Muafakat Nasional, a coalition centered around these two Malay-Muslim centric parties. Ethnic minority parties MCA and MIC only have 2 and 1 seats respectively. By the end of 2019, this new Opposition coalition was on its way to be formalised.
The Sheraton Move
A week before The Sheraton Move, PAS had strangely announced it wished to table a vote of confidence supporting Tun M as PM. Following Friday (21 Feb 2020), Pakatan Harapan held a Presidential Council meeting to discuss Tun M’s succession plan but no date was fixed.
On Sunday morning, five closed-door meetings were held almost simultaneously by UMNO, PAS, Bersatu, GPS (East Malaysian party) and Azmin’s PKR faction consisting of MPs loyal to him. Together, these parties would have enough seats to form a simple majority and overthrow Pakatan Harapan. The party leaders were granted an audience with the YDPA, spurring wide speculation of a backdoor government. Saturday ended with a dinner attended by 131 MPs from aforementioned parties at the Sheraton Hotel and an UMNO leader claiming the Pakatan Harapan “is over”. Civil society organisations called this a betrayal of the people’s mandate and a non-democratic way of gaining power.
Malaysians anxiously woke on Monday morning wondering if the speculations were true. In the span of a few hours, PKR sacked Azmin (and Azmin pulled his faction out of PKR) and Bersatu announced its departure from Pakatan Harapan, causing government to collapse after losing its simple majority in Parliament. Tun M then stunningly resigned as Prime Minister and Bersatu’s chairperson.
DSAI called this a betrayal. A subsequent meeting at Tun M’s residence with DSAI, PKR’s Wan Azizah, DAP’s Lim Guan Eng and Amanah’s Mat Sabu was held prior to DSAI’s meeting with the YDPA.
It became clear in DAP’s press conference that Tun M had no intention to perform this coup. Lim Guan Eng argued that it simply didn’t make sense for Tun M to work with UMNO, given his purpose of coming out of retirement was to reject them. Tun M once again met with the YDPA and was appointed to serve as interim PM until a new government is formed.
Without a coalition with a clear majority in Parliament, the coming days will have Malaysia enter new territory as it considers various possible outcomes (including snap elections).
Regardless, the sudden termination of government has placed serious setbacks on institutional and social reforms set out by the (previous) Pakatan Harapan administration. A contrast from 2018 where Malaysia was called a victory for Asian democracy, democratic institutions and norms are at risk now more than ever. Perhaps it’s time to consider buying Malaysian stocks as the market hits a 9-year low.