Straits Herald March 2, 2020

Muhyiddin Yassin, who is set to become Malaysia’s next prime minister, is a low-profile political insider and former stalwart of the establishment Muslim party that led the country for decades.

As Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim engaged in a power struggle following the collapse of their two-year-old coalition, the unassuming 72-year-old emerged as an unexpected compromise candidate.

He managed to outmanoeuvre them both by forming an alliance of parties dominated by the country’s ethnic Malay Muslim majority. Even a last-minute change of tack by Mahathir and Anwar to join forces to stop him failed, and he garnered enough backing from MPs.

He will be sworn in Sunday.

Muhyiddin is considered a Malay nationalist — he once described himself as a “Malay first”, rather than Malaysian first — sparking controversy in a multi-ethnic country where race and religion are deeply sensitive.

While this status may help him win some votes, he was not elected — rather, the king appointed him following the past week’s political upheaval — and could struggle to win legitimacy.

“He’s a capable administrator,” Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia expert from the University of Nottingham, told AFP. 

But she added that, ultimately, he was a “man with no mandate”.

Muhyiddin was interior minister until the ruling coalition fell apart amid vicious infighting, an important position that oversees the powerful police among other things.

From southern Johor state, in 1971 he joined the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the lynchpin of a coalition that ruled Malaysia for six decades until its defeat two years ago. 

He was chief minister of Johor, a Malay heartland, and later served in senior posts in central government including as sports minister and education minister before being named deputy prime minister in 2009 when Najib Razak was premier.

Sacked over 1MDB

But he later fell out with Najib after criticising him over the handling of the multi-billion-dollar scandal linked to state fund 1MDB, and was sacked in 2015. 

Najib was accused of looting huge sums from 1MDB, allegations that contributed to his coalition’s 2018 poll defeat, and is currently on trial.

Muhyiddin later joined the Bersatu party, a political vehicle set up by Mahathir, and helped to oust Najib and UMNO from power.

The latest twist in the topsy-turvy world of Malaysian politics has seen him join hands with UMNO once again to win power — and the man who sacked him remains a lawmaker, despite being on trial.

He was diagnosed with early-stage pancreatic cancer in 2018, and has undergone an operation.

Welsh described him as “very religious, more quiet and less charismatic” than some other Malaysian politicians.

Still some worry that his controversial comments about race could exacerbate already tense relations between the country’s different ethnic and religious groups.

About 60 percent of Malaysia’s population are Muslim but the country is also home to substantial ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian minorities, who do not typically follow Islam.

His coalition is likely banking on his status as a Malay nationalist to win votes with the country’s majority group. 

The previous administration was accused of failing to protect the privileges of the Malays — which range from better access to government jobs and discounts on property — and of being too influenced by ethnic Chinese politicians.