OPN 200306 MUHYIDDIN YASSIN-1583488259063
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin poses for a picture on his first day at the prime minister's office in Putrajaya, Malaysia, March 2, 2020. Image Credit: via REUTERS

Muhyiddin Yassin was sworn in as Malaysia’s new prime minister last Sunday after a week of political turmoil triggered by the surprise resignation of Mahathir Mohamad — but he has yet to name any cabinet colleagues.

The legitimacy of Muhyiddin’s government, which came with the support of Malay nationalist parties he previously opposed, has been questioned by the opposing camp led by his former boss Mahathir.

Malaysia’s king on Saturday named Muhyiddin, 72, as being the most likely candidate to be able to command a majority in parliament after days of political twists and turns. Mahathir, 94, disputed the decision saying he instead had the numbers in the 222-member parliament. Mahathir, however, said he had not been able to convey to the palace that he had the majority.

In his first address to the nation, Muhyiddin defended himself. “I know there are those who are angry with me. As expected, there are those who branded me a traitor. Listen well, I am no traitor,” he said on Monday.

Mahathir resigned because he had been angered by pressure from supporters of old rival Anwar Ebrahim, 72, to set a timeline to hand power to him as part of a deal reached to fight the last general election together two years ago. In the end, both Mahathir and Anwar got sidelined by their former coalition partner Muhyiddin, who moved quickly to seek support from people the other two would not work with.

Muhyiddin’s opponents have called for parliament to reconvene on March 9 as originally scheduled so that his majority claim can be tested. That, however, will not happen.

The new prime minister has pushed backed the parliamentary session to May, the earliest opportunity for a no-confidence motion to happen. “By convention you need a cabinet, and then they need some time to adjust themselves to understand their ministries,” said Wee Ka Siong, a lawmaker from the new ruling coalition. “Then only can they answer questions.”

The delay gives Muhyiddin extra time to shore up support and prove his majority in the divided parliament. It’s also set to extend the period of uncertainty following the political turmoil that saw the former ruling coalition implode last week.

Mahathir’s abrupt resignation as premier on February 24 was followed by shifting allegiances among lawmakers in the race to form a government. When support from then-opposition coalition rallied behind Muhyiddin, Mahathir returned to the fray and seemed to gain traction on Saturday, but it was too late as the king named Muhyiddin as the lawmaker most likely to gain the backing of the majority in parliament.

Mahathir has since called for an urgent confidence vote in parliament to show that he has the numbers to form a government, while disputing Muhyiddin’s claim that he has the support of the entire Bersatu party, which includes Mahathir and his son.

Muhyiddin left the former Pakatan Harapan government last week and gained the support of Barisan Nasional coalition, which had been in power for six decades before being ousted in 2018 amid corruption scandals and discontent over living costs.

Appeal to the people

In his first address to the nation, Muhyiddin asked the people to allow him a chance to rule. “Give me a little time to set the main direction of this government and country under the new administration,” he said. And delaying the parliamentary session also gives him that time to make his case.

Long overshadowed by colourful contemporaries, Muhyiddin is a publicity-shy picture of conservatism. When Muhyiddin heard news on Saturday that the king had picked him over Mahathir, he immediately dropped to the carpet in tears to give thanks to Allah.

“He is a very serious, boring man,” said one person who has worked with him for years and did not want to be identified because he was not authorised to speak to the media. “Probably that is what Malaysia needs now rather than a camera-hunting, publicity-stunt type of man.”

A conservative Muslim from the majority Malay community, Muhyiddin staked his claim to the premiership when Mahathir failed to rally support for a unity government after his shock resignation as prime minister last Monday.

“I am a Malay first, I want to say that,” Muhyiddin said in 2010. “But being Malay does not mean that you are not Malaysian.”

Such sentiment struck a chord at a time of disaffection within the Malay majority over a perceived loss of privileges under Mahathir’s government.

“Like a good striker he saw the opening he did not expect, and took advantage to score,” well-known Malaysian lawyer Zaid Ebrahim said of the man who served as interior minister under Mahathir.

Born to a well-known cleric in the southern state of Johor when Malaysia was still under British colonial rule, Muhyiddin became a civil servant before entering politics with UNMO at a time when Mahathir was already prominent in the party.

Muhyiddin became chief minister of Johor at the age of 39 — a nine-year stint that set the stage for his national career. He is a contemporary of Anwar Ebrahim, who rose more quickly within UMNO to become the favoured successor of Mahathir during an earlier stint as prime minister before the two men fell out and began a two-decade-old rivalry.

Muhyiddin also served as deputy to former prime minister Najib Razak before being fired for criticising his boss’s handling of the scandal at the 1MDB state fund over which Najib is now on trial. After being fired by Najib, Muhyiddin joined Mahathir in setting up the Bersatu in 2016 and formed the alliance with Anwar that led to the fall of Najib.

Those who know him well say Muhyiddin, who is recovering from early-stage pancreatic cancer, is very close to his family. He has four children, one of them a well-known singer.

“He is not necessarily the friendliest person. He does take time to warm up to people,” said one person close to him.

—With inputs from Reuters, Bloomberg