Malaysia's new Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob was sworn in Saturday, bringing back the rule of the country's longest-governing political party, but he faces a tall task in uniting a polarized society and reviving a slumping economy amid a worsening pandemic.
Ismail was the deputy prime minister under the government of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who resigned Monday after less than 18 months in office as infighting in his coalition cost him majority support.
Ismail obtained the backing of 114 lawmakers for a slender majority that brought Muhyiddin's alliance back to power. It also returned the premiership to Ismail's United Malays National Organization, which had led Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957 but was ousted in 2018 elections amid a multibillion-dollar financial scandal.
“Malaysia has a new PM, with essentially the old politics and players. It's back to the past: UMNO is now in PM seat, returning to power to though elite bargains despite being booted out for corruption in 2018,” said Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asian expert with Malaysia's Nottingham University.
Ismail, 61, faces a distrustful public, amid popular anger over the previous government's inconsistent policies and perceived failure in tackling the pandemic. Malaysia has one of the world’s highest infection rates and deaths per capita, despite a seven-month state of emergency and a lockdown since June.
Daily new infections have more than doubled since June to hit a record 23,564 on Friday, bringing the country’s total to over 1.5 million cases. Deaths have surged to above 13,000. The central bank has cut its estimated growth forecast this year to between 3% and 4% due to the lockdown.
“He is the ‘lucky’ PM at an ‘unlucky’ time without strong legitimacy and standing domestically and internationally. He comes in as the least popular PM at the worst time in history for Malaysia,” Welsh said.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has urged supporters to accept the outcome after losing out to Ismail. He said his three-party alliance, which ousted UMNO in 2018 polls, will work harder to win back the people's mandate in the next general election.
Anwar was due to succeed then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad before their reformist alliance collapsed in February 2020, sparked by the withdrawal of Muhyiddin’s party. Muhyiddin then formed a new government with UMNO and several other parties.
Ismail was named defense minister when Muhyiddin took power in March 2020, and became the government’s public face through daily briefings on security issues related to the pandemic.
He was promoted to deputy prime minister in July as Muhyiddin sought to appease UMNO, which was unhappy at playing second fiddle to Muhyiddin’s smaller party. In the end, 15 UMNO lawmakers pulled support for Muhyiddin, causing his government to collapse.
Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, a political science professor at Malaysia’s University of Science, said Ismail's key challenge is to bring about national unity in a highly polarized society.
“You can imagine the feelings of close to half of Malaysia’s population who voted against UMNO in the 2018 elections, only to see an UMNO PM returning to helm the country just three years later,” he said. Ismail has to be more conciliatory by bringing some opposition members into substantive policy-making roles, he said.
All eyes will be on Ismail as he assembles his Cabinet. Previously Muhyiddin's Cabinet had been slammed as bloated as he sought to reward allies with government posts.
Welsh said the test would be whether Ismail can step away from mistakes made by Muhyiddin's government and address serious governance issues.
“The economy is in bad shape, weakened by the former government's mismanagement. He will have to put in a competent team and move beyond narrow racialized paradigms he has been known for,” Welsh added.
Ismail is currently one of three vice presidents in UMNO, where several of its leaders are facing criminal charges.
A law graduate, Ismail held several ministerial posts in UMNO governments. In 2015 as trade minister, Ismail courted controversy when he urged Malay consumers to boycott profiteering Chinese businesses. He was also slammed for supporting the vaping industry, which is dominated by Malays, despite health warnings from the Health Ministry.
In 2018 polls, Ismail waved the racial card, warning that every vote for the opposition was akin to eliminating special privileges given to Malays under a decades-old affirmative action program.