KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia's king on Thursday rebuked Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's government for misleading Parliament over the status of coronavirus emergency measures, sparking renewed calls for the embattled leader to resign.
Muhyiddin obtained royal consent to declare the emergency in January, allowing him to halt Parliament and rule by ordinance without legislative approval. Critics have slammed the emergency as a ruse for Muhyiddin to cling to power at a time when his razor-thin majority in Parliament is in jeopardy.
Parliament reopened Monday for the first time this year after Muhyiddin caved to pressure from the king, but the government said the five-day special session would only be to brief lawmakers on the the pandemic and no other motions would be allowed.
The king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, took issue with Law Minister Takiyuddin Hassan's statement to Parliament on Monday that the emergency ordinances had been annulled on July 21, ahead of the scheduled Aug. 1 expiration.
The monarch said he didn’t approve the proposed annulment and that Takiyuddin’s statement was “inaccurate and has confused” members of the legislature.
Sultan Abdullah said he had asked the law minister and attorney general to present the matter in Parliament for debate and was disappointed it wasn’t carried out. He said the government’s hasty move was an affront to the rule of law and disregarded the king’s functions and powers as the head of state.
The king's statement immediately sparked an uproar in Parliament, with opposition lawmakers shouting “treason" and demanding Muhyiddin resign.
The king's statement shows the Cabinet led by Muhyiddin has “violated the constitution, insulted the royal institution" and that Takiyuddin has deliberately lied to the house, said opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who filed a motion of no-confidence against Muhyiddin.
Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and members of the United Malays National Organization, the biggest party in the ruling coalition, have echoed calls for Muhyiddin to resign.
Muhyiddin was defiant and defended his government's action. The Prime Minister's Office said in a statement later Thursday that Muhyiddin had written to the king on July 23 to advise him on the Cabinet's decision to annul the ordinances, and had advised him again during an audience on July 27. It said that under the constitution, the king must accept the Cabinet's advice and act based on it.
“The government is of the view that all the actions taken are in order and in accordance with the provisions of the law and the federal constitution," the statement said.
Earlier, Deputy Prime Minister Ismail Sabri, an UMNO member, insisted in a statement that the government still has majority support.
The opposition has previously accused Muhyiddin of trying to avoid votes in Parliament that may show he has lost majority support and prompt the king to call for a new leader.
The Parliament session was delayed after the Health Ministry ordered a swab test for all lawmakers following two positive COVID-19 cases in Parliament. The house deputy speaker later said Parliament will be postponed to Monday as two more cases have been detected, ignoring shouts of protests from lawmakers who accused the government of orchestrating the delay to buy time amid the crisis.
Analysts said the unprecedented royal rebuke further undermines Muhyiddin’s unelected government, which took power in March 2020 with a tiny majority in Parliament.
“Muhyiddin was dependent on the king’s support. He was standing on the back of the king’s support. Today that leg was pulled away,” said Bridget Welsh of Malaysia’s University of Nottingham and an expert in Southeast Asian politics.
“It will increase pressure for him to quit and weaken his support at a time when he is seen as mismanaging the pandemic," she said.
Welsh said Muhyiddin “is trying to make it a legal interpretation battle when it is actually a cultural battle about respect for Malay traditional authority."
Despite the emergency measures, the government has failed to curb a worsening surge in coronavirus infections, with total cases breaching the 1 million mark on Sunday.
Muhyiddin became prime minister after initiating the downfall of the reformist government that won the 2018 elections. His Bersatu party formed an unstable alliance that includes UMNO, which was ousted in the 2018 polls.
UMNO, the largest party in the alliance, has been unhappy at playing second fiddle to Bersatu and recently said it would withdraw support for Muhyiddin. But some of its lawmakers still back the prime minister.