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Tough task ahead for Malaysia's new PM Ismail Sabri amid crises

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By Reuters
Tough task ahead for Malaysia's new PM Ismail Sabri amid crises
Tough task ahead for Malaysia's new PM Ismail Sabri amid crises   -   Copyright  Thomson Reuters 2021

By A. Ananthalakshmi and Rozanna Latiff

KUALALUMPUR – Malaysia’s new prime minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, will have to draw on his experience of more than a decade in governance as he takes the reins of a country beset by political turmoil, raging COVID-19 infections and a pandemic-battered economy.

The 61-year-old was appointed by the Southeast Asian nation’s constitutional monarch on Friday to succeed Muhyiddin Yassin who stepped down https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/malaysian-pm-expected-resign-after-months-political-turmoil-2021-08-16 on Aug. 16 after losing his parliamentary majority.

Ismail Sabri received the support of 114 lawmakers, for a slim majority among parliament’s total of 222.

But his backing comes from the same alliance as Muhyiddin’s, which was beset with infighting, raising the prospect of an unstable coalition, analysts say.

In the announcement, the king expressed hope that “the political crisis can end immediately and that all the members of parliament can put aside their political agendas to unite and work together to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic for the sake of the people and country”.

Ismail Sabri’s appointment is a triumphant return to the prime minister’s role for his party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which governed for more than 60 years before being toppled in a 2018 election over graft accusations.

A senior member of UMNO, Ismail Sabri was Muhyiddin’s deputy, the minister in charge of defence and security, and one of the key people behind Malaysia’s response to the pandemic, which has killed 13,480 and infected more than 1.5 million.

He has been at the receiving end of growing public anger over the handling of the pandemic as infections spread at a record pace despite multiple extended lockdowns.

Rights groups have also criticised the security agencies under Ismail Sabri’s watch, as they jailed and deported thousands of undocumented migrants and refugees in efforts described as intended to halt the spread of the virus.

Ismail Sabri was promoted to the deputy premier post last month in a bid by Muhyiddin to appease UMNO, which was unhappy playing only a supporting role in his coalition government.

Muhyiddin formed a coalition with UMNO and other parties defeated in the 2018 poll after prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s ruling alliance collapsed due to infighting last year.

But UMNO pulled its backing for Muhyiddin last month, citing the premier’s failure to manage the pandemic. Ismail Sabri, however, went against his party’s call and stood by Muhyiddin, who eventually stepped down on Monday.

Ismail Sabri may face an unstable coalition in view of his slim majority and divisions within UMNO, said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with Singapore’s Institute of International Affairs.

“There are still many who don’t like him (in UMNO) because they think that he betrayed the party and that by betraying the party, he clinched the top job,” Oh said.

Coalition partners may also give him trouble.

Muhyiddin threw his support behind Ismail Sabri, but said his alliance’s backing was conditional on the new prime minister ensuring that his cabinet members were free from graft charges.

Several UMNO politicians face corruption charges, including president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and former premier Najib Razak, who was convicted last year over a multi-billion dollar scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

Both men deny wrongdoing. Both remain highly influential and were among the UMNO lawmakers who withdrew support for Muhyiddin.

POPULAR, BUTCONTROVERSIALFIGURE

A lawyer by training, Ismail Sabri has been a member of parliament since 2004 and a cabinet minister under two other prime ministers before Muhyiddin, with portfolios such as rural and regional development, agriculture and domestic trade.

The father of four is popular with grassroots Malaysians, mainly ethnic Malays, who form the majority of a multi-ethnic population that includes ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian minorities.

But he has come under fire in the past for controversial comments about Malaysia’s minority groups.

In a 2015 Facebook post, Ismail Sabri urged Malays to boycott businesses run by ethnic Chinese, media said.

He later deleted the post and clarified that the comments were targeted at Chinese businesses that refused to cut the prices of goods, despite a drop in oil prices at the time.

He was also questioned by the police over the posts.

In 2018, Ismail Sabri again sparked outrage after accusing the opposition Democratic Action Party, whose members are mainly ethnic Chinese, of aiming to eliminate the special rights of Malays and the uniqueness of Islam, according to media.