As Malaysia digests the results of its hung election, of whom the most stunning beneficiary has been the PAS Islamic party, most of the party leaders have played their cards close to their chests.
Both PH and PN claim (which can’t both be true) that they have secured the support of a majority of MPs.
PN’s Muhyiddin is well known to have lied on that front before, having been appointed as PM in 2020 when he didn’t have the numbers. However, the Agong chose to believe him at the time and gave him months to exert patronage and get a shaky lead in place by postponing Parliament.
Yet, for now, as the Palace has again come up with strange proposals instead of following precedent and principle agreed the world over (which is that the largest party gets invited first to attempt to form a government) Muhyiddin and Anwar have been keeping their data to themselves. Meanwhile, PAS’s Hadi Awang has been silent as a stone.
By contrast, about midday Saturday, Sarawak’s GPS leader, Abang Johari, came out like a foghorn proclaiming his fond fancy of being the ‘Kingmaker’ of Malaysia and announcing that a deal was reached.
His own GPS (22 seats) had agreed to join with PN (73 seats) and BN (30) seats to form a coalition, he declared. So, no need for Anwar as the leader of the largest PH bloc (82 seats) to present himself at the palace to try and make his own deal.
This, the self-designated ‘Premier’ explained, showed how important a power-broker the Sarawak indigenous based coalition is, because together PN and BN can’t muster enough seats… even if they were able to cobble the support of a wide jumble of mini-parties and independents.
It seemed odd to have the smallest component of this deal make such an announcement, in advance of the Palace having invited a leading contender to make their bid! It came just a short while after photos had been circulated of a ‘private meeting’ that morning between Muhyiddin, Hadi and Johari.
Missing from that photo, however, was Zahid Hamidi, the President of UMNO and official leader of BN.
Sure enough, certainties started to somewhat crumble during the following hours as Zahid’s entourage dismissed it as ‘fake news’. Eventually, Zahid himself categorically rebutted Abang Jo’s implied assertion that he had signed up to some tripartite deal by issuing a statement. He could not have been blunter:
“Referring to a statement by GPS chairman and Sarawak Premier Tan Sri Abang Johari Openg, I would like to stress that BN had never once negotiated with GPS to give its agreement on forming a federal government with PN.
“I would also like to add that to date, there have been no discussions with PN on forming a federal government with them,”
Not a very good start to the collaborative governing arrangement that was being proposed. Weary Malaysians have already endured nearly three years of bitter infighting between the same actors and any re-group is unlikely to see things getting better, as these events have clearly demonstrated.
The indications became even more negative when it was further announced that the UMNO President, who has trenchantly asserted his right to decide on such negotiations (in the face of calls for him to resign after a very bad night for BN), will be having talks with none other than Anwar in the morning – shortly before the Agong’s deadline for information. A source laughably described the meeting as ‘routine’.
If the largest and third largest blocs do cut a deal and Zahid carries his party, which is now constrained by anti-hopping laws, Anwar will indeed (unlike PN) have made his majority in just one stroke – and everyone will know about it, not just the palace.
Whatever the outcome, the waves caused by Abang Jo’s unravelling declaration have been reverberating in Sarawak, sparking shock and dismay. Why? Because the real figures who now in charge of Muhyiddin’s PN are clear to see from the election data, which has marked a sea-change towards extremism in Malaysia.
Out of the 73 PN seats Muhyiddin’s Bersatu party represents just 24, whilst PAS has gleaned 49. This is a huge leap from the 18 PAS held last time round and is a testimony to the millions ploughed by Gulf donors into religious schools run by clerics allied to PAS. This was the other side of the coin with the expanded youth vote that should have been predicted but was somehow ignored by those who should have better understood.
Thus the insult against Anwar that he is a front for DAP holds even more for Muhyiddin who is a front for one of the more extreme Islamic parties on the planet. The original 18 PAS MPs have spent the past three years getting their first taste of federal office by cajoling in all directions to tighten up on freedoms in the country and to start interfering in people’s lives in line with their religious views. They want to extend Sharia law to replace ever greater chunks of the civil code – all anathema to the many non-Muslims in the country, a great many of them in Sarawak.
Just one indicator of the mistrust that Hadi engenders is his role as a Vice President of a body (International Union of Muslim Scholars) that has been branded as a ‘terrorist organisation‘ even bySaudi Arabia. He was chastised for visiting Iran during one of its conferences back in 2016 and later there was much speculation after Muhyiddin appointed Hadi (his then junior partner) as ‘Special Envoy to the Middle East’ that the special envoy appeared grounded from making actual visits to the region for that very reason.
Hadi has a long history of divisiveness in Malaysia, sometimes with fatal consequences. His bigotry towards other religious and ethnicities in the diverse nation is consistent and notorious and it flavoured much of the more ugly campaigning over the past few days. And he is now the effective SENIOR partner in the coalition that Muhyiddin represents.
Were there to indeed be a PN/BN/GPS coalition to take office in Malaysia the most powerful actual figure in it would be Hadi in terms of his party’s ability to change people’s lives through legislation and pressure on his allies. Something, that apparently Abang Johari welcomes.
Yet, there is one region in Malaysia where PAS has never gained a single seat – that is East Malaysia, where Abang Jo, himself a Muslim, knows well to heed the sensitivities of the largely Christian native population. Hadi wanted to see Bibles confiscated and burned on the pretext that Christians (whom he treats as second class heathens) had dared to use the word for Allah also, which means God.
The Muslims of Sarawak take care to behave inclusively and moderately and to tolerate non-Muslim customs. In fact, GPS won the election on a sea of alcohol distributed to Christian communities by Muslim politicians. Yet Hadi would like to see the sale of alcohol banned amongst all manner of attacks on the freedoms of Muslims and non-Muslims alike in Malaysia.
So, tonight people in Sarawak have been asking each other why did Abang Johari display such eager and ready support for PN and Hadi Awang, for whom Muhyiddin is now second fiddle?
What is so wrong with the more diverse and tolerant PH and UMNO combination?
Did not Abang Jo court the native parties and Chinese alike to achieve his GPS win in Sarawak? So why the now slavish preference to work with the aggressive proselytisers from PAS?
Of course, GPS will not be kingmaker in this suggested coalition anyway, since the numbers cannot be achieved without BN. Yet another sprawling Muhyiddin cabinet would have to contain scores of incompetent ministers in order to keep first PAS, then Bersatu, then UMNO, then some crucial micro-parties and finally GPS happy with enough goodies and vast salaries for all.
Why does any of this make sense for the average person in Sarawak is what people from that state are asking? And, what was the point of that noisy intervention so soon after Sarawakians had voted with a very different sort of government in mind?