SINGAPORE: Many Malaysians were caught by surprise when Muhyiddin Yassin, a leader who had hitherto taken a backseat to more charismatic and vocal leaders such as long-time Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and anointed successor Anwar Ibrahim, rose to assume the country’s top role last weekend.
But tracing his political path, there were early signs of the vital ingredients at play that eventually laid a path for him to the pinnacle of power.
One statement from Muhyiddin reveals this most. When prompted by journalists in 2010 at a 1Malaysia event, then Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin declared to a stunned audience that he considered himself “Malay first, and Malaysian second”, adding also that young Malay Malaysians lagged behind in education.
The matter-of-fact statement was revealing of Muhyiddin’s personality and political outlook in at least three interrelated aspects. These same inclinations also suggest the direction he will chart for Malaysia going forward.
READ: Commentary: Three underlying forces fuelled Malaysia’s recent political crisis
READ: Commentary: Was the Pakatan Harapan coalition doomed to fail from the start?
First, the “Malay first” statement places race and religion front and centre in Muhyiddin’s personal beliefs and political narrative.
Born into a family of religious scholars, Muhyiddin joined the Malay nationalist UMNO party in Pagoh in 1971 after graduating with degrees economics and Malay studies. He has since been seen as a key personality in the conservative clique in UMNO.
When Anwar was building up his political support within UMNO and beyond by promulgating a series of Malay-centric and religiously inspired policies, Muhyiddin was part of his UMNO youth camp, culminating in the 1993 Wawasan putsch, which propelled Anwar to the party’s deputy president position and Muhyiddin vice-president.
Fast forward nearly two-and-a-half decades later, after Muhyiddin broke with UMNO, he decided to form the Malay-only Bersatu party with Mahathir.
It was a big gamble where Bersatu championed for a clean break with UMNO and sought to win over the Malay ground. Muhyiddin understood how frustrated Malays felt, dealing with rising costs-of-living, yet having to stomach rumours of cronyism and corruption in the government.
The payoffs in unseating a decades-long government then were huge.
READ: Commentary: Mahathir Mohamad remains the eye of the political storm brewing in Malaysia
A DARING POLITICAN
Second, Muhyiddin’s “Malay first” statement came at a time when the 1Malaysia communal harmony narrative was promoted with much fanfare by the administration of the then prime minister Najib Razak.
Muhyiddin did not mind breaking with political correctness. It may have been a reflection of his true beliefs but it is also likely that he did not want to be “shunned” by his conservative Malay grassroots support, and saw a niche for claiming the Malay supremacist political ground.
This same opportunistic daringness was seen earlier, when he openly called for a faster power transition from a beleaguered prime minister Abdullah Badawi, who lost many seats in the 2008 general election, to Najib, thus strengthening Najib’s political hand.
READ: Commentary: Malaysia’s political carousel brings a hit to its economy
READ: Muhyiddin Yassin: Malaysia’s veteran political survivor
Muhyiddin was politically rewarded. He had his path to the role of UMNO’s deputy president cleared and subsequently became Najib’s deputy prime minister. Both Najib and Muhyiddin were then supported by Mahathir, the most senior UMNO party veteran.
But as education minister, Muhyiddin did not hesitate to dismantle Mahathir’s much vaunted policy of the teaching of science and mathematics in English in national schools and revert to Malay as the language of instruction, sensing that this was what most conservative parents also desired.
When the 1MDB series of scandals gradually broke in 2015, Muhyiddin publicly called for a closer scrutiny of Najib’s associated irregularities, again sensing tremendous popular revulsion and an opportunity to unseat Najib, at a time when most of his cabinet colleagues chose to defend Najib.
This was Najib’s Achilles’ heel and Muhyiddin’s blow opened the floodgates and riled up angry Malaysian voters. Muhyiddin paid the ultimate political price for his 1MDB dissension by being unceremoniously fired by Najib from Cabinet, but this then led him to form Bersatu.
Third, Muhyiddin’s deliberate pronouncement of his “Malay first” stand was also an expression of his political flexibility. He was then part of Najib’s administration and continued to at least pay lip service to Najib’s 1Malaysia campaign, even holding up the “I Luv PM” placards to shore up support for Najib as occasions demanded.
Earlier in his political career, he also did not mind being sent back from the federal government where he was a deputy minister at the trade and industry ministry, to assume the role of chief minister of his native Johor state in 1986, and proceeded to build up his considerable local support base there.
The swing in Johor, where Muyhiddin started his political career in 1978, has been a chief reason for the Barisan Nasional’s massive loss in the 2018 general election.
READ: Commentary: Why Malaysia’s debate on race, education and vernacular schools will rage on
READ: Commentary: Malaysia’s national consensus on race and politics risks unravelling
Similarly, when he was later brought back to Kuala Lumpur, he planted himself into a series of ministries that became progressively vital much later, including youth and sports, agriculture, and trade and industry.
After Pakatan Harapan (PH) came to power in 2018, despite having served as deputy prime minister, Muhyiddin “flexibly” accepted the less prestigious ministerial portfolio of home affairs.
But it should be noted that even after his cabinet dismissal by Najib in 2015, Muhyiddin chose to remain as UMNO’s deputy president for nearly a year, all the time continuing to pledge his loyalty to the party.
His longstanding affinity with and preference for UMNO, the major component party in his present Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, should have been evident then as it is now, despite his later formation of Bersatu.
A MAN WHO ACTED IN THE POLITICAL CRISIS
So when the recent series of political dramas at the highest levels took place in Malaysia with Muhyiddin as one of the main actors, his racialist preference, opportunistic daringness and operational flexibility all came into play.
He readily entered into a coalition with both his previously affiliated UMNO which championed racialist causes as well as the ardently Islamist PA. According to Mahathir, it was also Muhyiddin who was no longer willing to work with the multiracial DAP, a PH component party.
When Mahathir hesitated about working with characters involved in corruption charges who still dominated UMNO’s leadership, Muhyiddin saw a political opening and came out openly against Mahathir’s party leadership in Bersatu.
It was Muhyiddin who pulled the party out of PH against Mahathir’s wish and later contested against Mahathir when Mahathir resigned the premiership, ultimately beating Anwar to succeed Mahathir by cobbling together a new PN across the erstwhile political divide.
As Muhyiddin settles into his “accidental” premiership, he would have to deploy his aforementioned shrewd political skills to survive.
READ: Malaysian PM Muhyiddin says he stepped forward to ‘save the situation’, denies allegations of being traitor
WATCH: Malaysians react to new PM after week of political turmoil
He would need to carefully balance the right-leaning political demands of his predominantly Malay PN major component parties UMNO and PAS against the socioeconomic reality of Malaysia as a multiracial society. Muhyiddin knows he cannot afford to alienate non-Malay constituents as prime minister.
If he survives the vote of no-confidence to be moved by Mahathir’s parliamentary camp, which claims it has a majority on their side, Muhyiddin would also need to work with Mahathir and Anwar to restore and reunite the country after this latest series of political traumas.
And all signs are suggesting that’s the direction he will take.
Muhyiddin, the consummate politician of all seasons that he is, struck an acceptable chord when, in his maiden speech as prime minister, he directed a deferential tone toward Mahathir and proclaimed himself to be a prime minister for all Malaysians.
“I am the prime minister for all Malaysian citizens from Perlis to Sabah,” he said.
“Whether you are Malay, China, India, Sikh, Iban, Kadazan, Dusun, Murut, orang asal or from any races or ethnicities, I am your prime minister.”
Oh Ei Sun is a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.