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With another ex-PM charged, further turmoil a risk, analysts say

Malaysia has already seen five prime ministers in six years.

3 minute read
Former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin leaves the Kuala Lumpur court complex after being charged with corruption and money laundering, March 10.
Former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin leaves the Kuala Lumpur court complex after being charged with corruption and money laundering, March 10.

Malaysia could face further political polarisation and Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim risks a backlash as his administration prosecutes his opponent and predecessor Muhyiddin Yassin just three months after a divisive election, analysts say.

Muhyiddin, who was prime minister for 17 months between 2020 and 2021, was charged on Friday with abuse of power and money laundering over projects launched under his premiership. He has pleaded not guilty and said the charges were politically motivated.

Anwar has dismissed that and said the matter was entirely up to the law enforcement agencies.

But the case could make the Anwar government even more unpopular among the country's conservative, Malay majority for targeting the opposition even as it has senior leaders in its fold facing criminal graft charges, observers told Reuters.

That in turn could bring more political uncertainty in a country that has seen five prime ministers in six years. Anwar's alliance is expected to face a formidable challenge from Muhyiddin's coalition at elections in six states, which are due by June.

"It's a big test for Anwar, who has people in his government who are facing corruption cases," Bridget Welsh, political analyst at the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute, told Reuters.

"His administration will face a broad crisis of credibility unless there is an effort to undertake more meaningful reforms... This narrative of persecution feeds into the polarised dynamic of Malaysian politics," she said.

Muhyiddin is the second prime minister in Malaysia's history to be charged for corruption soon after losing an election, and his case has thrown a spotlight on the various fissures in the country's politics.

In a multi-ethnic, multi-faith country, Muslim ethnic Malays form a majority, while the ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian minorities are mostly Hindu, Buddhist or Christian.

Anwar runs a progressive, multi-ethnic bloc but has faced criticism for joining hands with the corruption-tainted Umno to form a government after he failed to win a majority in last year's election.

Anwar appointed Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as his deputy despite multiple criminal graft charges.

Muhyiddin leads a conservative ethnic-Malay, Muslim alliance that has portrayed itself to be clean of corruption, and that made huge inroads in the Malay heartlands in the election. Anwar does not enjoy popularity in that base, surveys have shown.

In another possible political fall-out, the charges against Muhyiddin could potentially weaken his party and strengthen the role of the Islamist party PAS within the opposition bloc, said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with Singapore's Institute of International Affairs.

"A PAS-dominated Perikatan Nasional will be heavy on religious sentiment. That can echo with an increasing conservative cohort in Malaysian electorate," Oh said, referring to the opposition bloc.

Revenge politics?

Anwar maintains that the case against Muhyiddin was not politically motivated. For stability, it is important for his government to signal that it was not targeting the opposition, said political analyst Wong Chin Huat.

"As long as Anwar can hold and expand the middle ground by demonstrating state impartiality, instead of revenge politics, his government would be safe and the international community needs not worry about political instability," Wong said.

Unlike recent prime ministers, Anwar has not made any changes to the leadership of the country's law enforcement agencies upon winning power.

In fact, Muhyiddin appointed the top civil servants who were instrumental in the investigations into his alleged graft: the chief of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and the attorney-general.

The MACC on Friday denied interference in its investigation process.

Muhyiddin is not the first prime minister to blame political motivations for the accusations against him.

Anwar himself served jail time for corruption and sodomy before becoming prime minister, charges he insists were designed to keep him from power. He was pardoned in 2018.

Malaysian politics has been in a flux since Najib Razak lost the election in 2018, bringing to an end an uninterrupted rule by the Umno party that had governed for more than 60 years since independence.

Najib, who has also claimed political persecution, is now serving a jail term for graft related to the multi-billion dollar scandal at state fund 1MDB.