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What happens now? Ex-top judge answers questions on latest political development

Gopal Sri Ram addresses a number of issues from whether the prime minister has lost the majority to what happens if he resigns.

3 minute read
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin with Yang di-Pertuan Agong Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah at Istana Negara, Oct 21, 2020. Photo: Facebook
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin with Yang di-Pertuan Agong Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah at Istana Negara, Oct 21, 2020. Photo: Facebook

Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi yesterday indicated by way of a media conference that at least 11 MPs from the party had revoked their support for Muhyiddin Yassin.

Former Federal Court judge Gopal Sri Ram, who during his years on the bench delivered more than 800 judgments considered as leading legal authorities in Commonwealth courts, answers some frequently asked questions by the public regarding the constitutional and legal aspects of this latest development.

1. Does the announcement by Zahid mean Muhyiddin Yassin’s government has lost the majority?

The announcement of the withdrawal of support outside the Dewan Rakyat is useless, it has no effect in constitutional law.

The proper place to test the confidence is on the floor of the Dewan Rakyat. It is possible that some opposition MPs could support the government.

2. Zahid has said that statutory declarations (SDs) of MPs who revoked their support for the prime minister would be submitted to the palace.

They can send all the SDs to the palace, it does not matter. It is only the floor of the Dewan Rakyat that matters.

An SD is worthless because it is not a floor vote. Losing confidence means losing the confidence of the Dewan Rakyat. Until there is a floor vote that carries a no-confidence motion, the government continues in power.

The government does not fall based on SDs sent to the palace.

3. How does a floor vote take place?

A resolution must be passed for a vote of no confidence in the Dewan Rakyat. What if the MPs who revoked their support change their mind?

“There is no such thing as interim PM in the Federal Constitution. Our constitution does not recognise an interim PM, only a caretaker government when Parliament is dissolved.”

There may be opposition MPs who may not want a general election at this time, and who will therefore support the government and defeat the confidence motion.

The usual way in which confidence is tested is by moving a motion to reduce the salary of the PM by RM1. If the motion passes then the government falls because the budget providing for expenses (including the PM’s salary) has failed.

4. How does the prime minister prove or show that he still enjoys the majority?

He can show it in the Dewan Rakyat, such as when the vote on the 2021 budget was carried out last year. The government succeeded, that was the last time a test of support was done.

Only during a Parliament session can the PM’s majority be proven. Any other way shows an ignorance of procedures.

5. Is Muhyiddin legally bound to resign? What happens if he does not resign?

He is legally bound to run the government, and he has to ignore political manoeuvres.

If a motion of no confidence passes, then the PM may ask the Agong to dissolve Parliament.

But the Agong has discretion. If he refuses to dissolve Parliament, then the PM and his entire Cabinet will resign.

It is then for the Agong to send for the person who in his opinion is likely to command the majority of the House and to appoint a prime minister, who will then form the Cabinet.

6. But a minister has resigned.

If one or two ministers resign, he can appoint another minister or ask other ministers to take over that portfolio.

7. Can Muhyiddin be brought to court if he refuses to resign?

No, he can’t be brought to court because there is still no proof of the loss of confidence. Again, it can only be tested on the Dewan Rakyat floor.

8. If Muhyiddin resigns, what is the next step?

If the prime minister resigns, the whole Cabinet falls.

If Muhyiddin wants to resign, he has to have an audience with the Agong and give his reasons. The Agong may not accept his resignation.

This happened when Dr Mahathir Mohamad tendered his resignation last year.

9. Can the Agong appoint an interim PM and administration?

There is no such thing as an interim PM in the Federal Constitution. There is a provision for a caretaker government, but only when the Dewan Rakyat is dissolved. Our constitution does not recognise an interim PM, only a caretaker government.