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Saturday, October 31, 2020

How Malaysia almost fell into the abyss

 


It started with rumours that a cabinet reshuffle was on the cards. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s support was shaky at best, after reports that Umno was considering to pull away support from his Perikatan Nasional (PN) government.

Umno made certain demands, details of which were not made public, and if those demands were not met, Umno MPs would no longer support the prime minister.

As such, when it was reported that a special cabinet meeting was to take place on Friday, Oct 23, many assumed that this meeting was to discuss a cabinet reshuffle in order to acquiescence to Umno's demands.

Yet, while the meeting was taking place, several mainstream media outlets began to publish an opinion by academic professor Shamrahayu Ab Aziz on what a proclamation of emergency would entail. This caught many by surprise, as no one expected the cabinet meeting to be about advising the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to proclaim an emergency under Article 150 of the Federal Constitution.

Yet by the end of the special cabinet meeting, reports began to surface that the cabinet had agreed to take this course of action. The reports quoted sources from within Putrajaya, even though no official confirmation came from the government.

On the same day itself, it was reported that the prime minister, along with an entourage of ministers and senior civil servants, had met with the Agong to propose the imposition of the Article 150 proclamation. However, His Royal Highness saw fit to first confer with the nine Malay rulers on the issue, and did not immediately agree to the prime minister’s request.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media began to set the narrative in favour of the emergency. It was a ‘political emergency’, they said. Things will be as they are, only ‘political activities’ would be halted. They also claimed that this would be a ‘medical emergency’, because of the rising Covid-19 numbers which saw new cases in this third wave soar beyond the cumulative cases in the first and second waves of the pandemic in Malaysia.

The mainstream media also portrayed as if there were only two choices left to the government; proclaim an emergency or face a general election at the height of the coronavirus wave. Several outlets published polls with only these two choices, in a less-than-subtle attempt to sway public opinion in favour of the emergency.

Legal eagles argued that current laws were sufficient to deal with the pandemic, and opined that from a constitutional point of view, the circumstances that would allow the government to proclaim an emergency was simply not present.

Others spoke up against the emergency too. Civil society warned against the effect that an emergency would have on civil liberties. Academics argued that an emergency was not needed, while the Malaysian Medical Association came out with a statement that what Malaysia needed was more aid to Sabah, instead of an emergency. Economists also warned of the devastating effect an emergency would have on the fragile economy.

Political parties from across the divide also made it known that they did not support a proclamation of emergency. Top Pakatan Harapan leaders, Pejuang, Muda, and even several Umno leaders went on record to say they did not support an emergency.

It was clear that by the time the rulers met on Sunday, Oct 25, by and large the public did not buy into the need for an emergency.

Thankfully, the rulers were in consonance with the prevailing public opinion. After the meeting, the Agong, through the comptroller of the royal household, opined that an emergency was not needed at that point in time and therefore did not agree with the prime minister’s proposal to proclaim one.

The keeper of the royal seal also issued a statement, representing the Malay rulers.

"The rulers were of the view that it was important to respect the mechanism of check and balance between all branches of the government and also the Agong's role to balance various demands in ensuring justice and curtailing (membatasi) any elements of abuse of power," he said.

The word "membatasi" was the only one to be highlighted in red in the statement. The other words were printed in black.

This statement is significant as it suggests that the rulers were of the view that there could be elements of abuse of power in an emergency, and that the Agong's role is to ensure that executive powers are not abused.

The country breathed a collective sigh of relief. At a time when checks and balance of executive action is of the utmost importance, the country had dodged a nuclear missile in the form of an emergency.

If this was any other head of executive, it would be politically untenable for them to continue with their position. Such a major political gambit in order ensure that the prime minister continues to hold onto power by way of pushing the emergency button had failed. The responsible thing to do would be for the prime minister to resign.

However, Muhyiddin is still the prime minister, and business proceeded as usual in the days that followed. It was as if we did not come close to the point of no return and nearly fell into the abyss of emergency rule.


SYAHREDZAN JOHAN is a civil liberties lawyer and political secretary to Iskandar Puteri MP Lim Kit Siang. - Mkini

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of MMKtT.

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