Malaysia’s longest-governing political party reclaimed the premiership it lost in a shock 2018 election defeat after the king on Friday named its candidate, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, as the country’s new leader.
Ismail was the deputy prime minister under the government of Muhyiddin Yassin, who resigned on Monday after less than 18 months in office as infighting in his coalition cost him majority support.
Ismail’s appointment essentially restores Muhyiddin’s alliance. It also brings back the rule of the United Malays National Organisation, which had led Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957 but was removed in 2018 elections over a multibillion-dollar financial scandal.
King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah said Ismail secured the backing of 114 lawmakers for a slender majority. He said Ismail Sabri, 61, will be sworn in as Malaysia’s ninth prime minister on Saturday.
The announcement came after the monarch met state Malay rulers who advised him on the appointment. The king’s role is largely ceremonial in Malaysia, but he appoints the person he believes has majority support in Parliament as prime minister.
‘Back in the driver’s seat’
Sultan Abdullah said in a statement he hopes Ismail’s appointment will bring an end to the country’s political turmoil. He urged lawmakers to set aside their political differences and unite to tackle the country’s worsening pandemic.
“Ismail’s appointment was not unexpected. With this, UMNO is now back in the driver’s seat,” said James Chin, an Asian expert at Australia’s University of Tasmania.
Ismail’s 114 votes exceed the 111 needed for a simple majority but are close to the backing Muhyiddin had and was unable to keep. Ismail is from UMNO, the larger party in the alliance, leaving him on firmer ground, but he still needs Muhyiddin’s party for enough support to lead.
Angry Malaysians launched an online petition to protest against Ismail’s candidacy with more than 340,000 signatures collected so far. Many believe Ismail’s appointment will restore the status quo, with its perceived failed response to a worsening pandemic.
Malaysia has one of the world’s highest infection rates and deaths per capita, despite a seven-month state of emergency and a lockdown since June. Daily new infections have more than doubled since June to hit a new record of 23,564 on Friday, bringing the country’s total to more than 1.5 million cases. Deaths have surged to above 13,000.
Rights groups have criticised security agencies under Ismail’s watch, as they jailed and deported thousands of undocumented migrants and refugees in efforts described as intended to halt the spread of the virus.
‘Many don’t like him’
Ismail may face an unstable coalition in view of his slim majority and divisions within UMNO, said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with Singapore’s Institute of International Affairs.
“There are still many who don’t like him [in UMNO] because they think that he betrayed the party and that by betraying the party, he clinched the top job,” Oh said.
Several UMNO politicians face corruption charges, including President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was convicted last year over a multibillion-dollar scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Both men deny wrongdoing. Both remain highly influential and were among the UMNO lawmakers who withdrew support for Muhyiddin.
A lawyer by training, Ismail has been a member of parliament since 2004 and a cabinet minister under two other prime ministers before Muhyiddin, with portfolios such as rural and regional development, agriculture and domestic trade.
The father of four is popular with grassroots Malaysians, mainly ethnic Malays, who form the majority of a multi-ethnic population that includes ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian minorities.
But he has come under fire in the past for controversial comments about Malaysia’s minority groups.
In a 2015 Facebook post, Ismail urged Malays to boycott businesses run by ethnic Chinese, media said.
He later deleted the post and clarified that the comments were targeted at Chinese businesses that refused to cut the prices of goods, despite a drop in oil prices at the time.
He was also questioned by the police over the posts.
In 2018, Ismail again sparked outrage after accusing the opposition Democratic Action Party, whose members are mainly ethnic Chinese, of aiming to eliminate the special rights of Malays and the uniqueness of Islam, according to media.