Muhyiddin took 17 minutes to end his 17-month government. With a breaking voice, he told the nation, for the first time, that he has lost majority support in Parliament. He pointed the finger at others who tried to pull him down, recounted only the positive vaccination programme, and made a final reference to his namesake: Abah (“father”).
“Abah” might have started as an internet banter, but it has served as an explanation to the organising concept behind Muhyiddin’s government. By appearing faultless, unchallengeable, and controlling, his government has created permanent damage to our democratic system. This is the 500 days of Abah politics.
A faultless government that can do no wrong
The first thing that Muhyiddin mentioned in his resignation keynote was that he was defying the wishes of “millions of Malaysians” who were “begging for him to stay”; but ultimately his respect for the constitution came first. He implied that it was the 15 troublemaking UMNO “kleptocrats” who have withdrawn support, and the opposition who refused to cross party lines, that resulted in his downfall.
Left without a choice, Muhyiddin thus submitted his resignation letter according to Article 43(4) of the Federal Constitution.
The impression that Muhyiddin gives – a faultless victim – in the latest political charade is misleading. His government was a serial violator of the constitution and its spirit. As recent as a few days ago, he attempted to defy Article 43(4) by refusing to resign – instead he offered reform candies to the opposition – even though he has admitted to losing majority support.
A month ago, his government orchestrated one of the undemocratic political manoeuvres in modern history. Muhyiddin started by ignoring the King’s demand to hold Parliament thrice; then, he severed Parliament’s heart by removing debates and voting; parliamentarians were locked up on the excuse for Covid-19 testing; sessions were postponed indefinitely; riot police even blockadedparliamentarians’ entry to the august house.
At the start of the year, Muhyiddin’s government declared the controversial national emergency, which resulted in a high concentration of unfettered executive power. When the Law Minister Takiyuddin Hassan revoked the emergency ordinances by a sleight of hand, it attracted an unusual royal rebuke that represented the people’s resentment.
17 months ago, that was also how Muhyiddin’s government came into power. The largest and most undemocratic coup – Sheraton Move – defied every constitutional spirit by essentially circumventing the will of the people for a government no one voted for.
To now appear as the protector of the constitution is hypocritical, because Muhyiddin’s government has defied the constitution and its spirit at the beginning (Sheraton Move), middle (Emergency overkill), and the end (royal rebuke, parliamentary blockade, refusal of resignation).
These moves now serve as a precedent that will have a long-term scarring effect on our democracy. The last thing Muhyiddin should do is to appear as a lover of the supreme law.
An unchallengeable government above the clouds
The 7-month parliamentary suspension has also served a second purpose in Abah politics: To make Muhyiddin’s government unchallengeable.
Anyone, including opposition politicians, who wanted to ask, question or criticise the government are essentially stonewalled. Without a forum to hold the government accountable, many blind spots and early warning signs were missed. Interventions into hospitals only came when horrific Klang Valley hospitals video footages were shared on social media; economic aid did not arrive before white flags were raised; the basics of contact tracing, mass testing, and transparency of granular data were not done until they were probed in Parliament.
The government had only set up a data repository a week before Parliament commenced, which was one factor behind Selangor’s sky-high numbers. When the former health minister Dr Dzulkefly shouted that it was “10 months too late”, the health minister nonchalantly replied, “Never mind, at least it’s there.”
This organising concept in Abah politics is also evident in how the government treats politicians and commoners in Covid-19 SOP violations. To commoners, Muhyiddin would assume the role of “Abah” to start using a “cane” (rotan) against SOP violators. Behind this live-TV banter lies a reality where commoners are punished disproportionately, with fines and jail time.
For government politicians, however, they were either fined a fraction of what commoners receive, or they go scot-free. Worse, during any “urgent” party meetings, black Toyota Alphards would roam in and out of houses, across districts, as though Covid-19 has hit a pause during our political turmoil.
This has long-term effects. A stonewalling government that is unaccountable to the people strikes at the heart of our democratic fabric. If a government does not feel obliged to explain its incompetence and unequal treatment, democracy loses its power. Abah politics normalises and exacerbates this culture.
A gaslighting government
Unsurprisingly, Muhyiddin’s keynote did not make any reference to the horrific Covid-19 and economic situation we face today. As he was speaking, daily Covid-19 infection cases and the stock market performances were among the worst in the region.
Instead, Muhyiddin only highlighted the vaccination rates; he even asked everyone to not worry, as things were under control. This is not the first time Muhyiddin had shown an excessive degree of optimism and blind confidence by giving the impression that we are getting better when the reality was the opposite. He ended this part of his speech with a signature comfort line that has long lost its persuasion: “We will get out of this pandemic very soon.”
The tactic of reframing a disaster into something positive to delude himself and everyone around him is called gaslighting. By deploying selective data and incomplete storytelling, we question our sanity and start doubting our reality. By now, we would have known someone close to us who have gotten Covid-19; we would also have heard of some of our favourite restaurants closing down permanently. Our prolonged stress has no endpoint because there is almost no good news that we could read.
Every time Muhyiddin states that things were under control, cases go up exponentially. GDP estimates of 7.5% have also been cut by almost half to 4%. Some economists have even shaved off that revised estimate by putting our GDP growth for 2021 at a depressing 0%.
Our political culture of gaslighting the people has profound long-term implications. Governments are selective in the data they present and tell us a story that captures our ears but takes away our soul.
In his closing, Muhyiddin thanked Malaysians who called him “Abah” because he has long “treated all of [us] as his children.” But what kind of father would lie about how bad the situation is? What kind of father would show us bad qualities of dishonesty, greed, and ignorance? What kind of father would let their children die?
500 days actually felt like 500 years.