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Muhyiddin emerges as top contender for Malaysia PM

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Malaysia’s Muhyiddin Yassin is a low-profile political insider but after clinching an alliance with an Islamist party he has emerged as a top contender to become the country’s next prime minister.

FRONTRUNNER. File photo taken on March 9, 2020 of Malaysia’s then-prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin. AFP

Muhyiddin was Malaysia’s shortest-serving leader when he resigned last year from his first stint as premier, but it is now possible for him to get the numbers needed to win Saturday’s election, which had no outright winner.

He heads the Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance) coalition, which did not win a majority in Saturday’s election but is now in talks to form the next government.

Those talks will be helped by Muhyiddin’s alliance with the Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, which backs a hardline interpretation of Islamic law.

Following the collapse of a reformist alliance that had swept to power at landmark polls in 2018, Muhyiddin became prime minister for the first time in March 2020, outmaneuvering his more charismatic rivals Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim.

But the 75-year-old former interior minister quit the top office in August 2021 after only 17 months on the job as bitter infighting engulfed his coalition, and public anger swelled over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

His appointment by Malaysia’s king, rather than through the ballot box, led to accusations that he lacked legitimacy, while his parliamentary backing remained razor-thin and he struggled to tame competing factions in his coalition.

Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia expert from the University of Nottingham, said his term had been consumed by simply trying to survive.

Muhyiddin’s close links to Najib Razak, a political heavyweight now serving a 12-year jail term for corruption, helped his rise to power.

In 1971 he joined the same party as Najib – the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

He climbed through the ranks to become chief minister of the southern Johor state, a heartland of the country’s ethnic Malay Muslim majority, and later served in senior posts in central government.

But he fell out with Najib in 2015 when he was sacked after criticizing the multi-billion-dollar scandal linked to state fund 1MDB.

Najib was accused of looting huge sums from 1MDB, allegations that contributed to his coalition’s 2018 poll defeat, and led to him being jailed.

Muhyiddin later joined a party set up by Mahathir Mohamad, the 97-year-old elder statesman of Malaysian politics, and helped to oust Najib and UMNO from power.

In a volte-face typical of Malaysia’s turbulent politics, he joined hands with UMNO again last year to win enough support to become premier.

But when he refused to intervene in corruption cases against some of the party’s MPs, several pulled support, leaving him without a parliamentary majority.

In Saturday’s vote, Muhyiddin won by more than 10,000 votes over his nearest rival in his district of Pagoh.

“Muhyiddin remains popular, and this was evident as he was the poster boy for Perikatan Nasional during the election,” Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, deputy managing director of the BowerGroupAsia consulting firm.

“His narrative as someone who is against corruption, especially after he was pressured by UMNO leaders aligned with (party president) Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Najib to step down as PM, really struck a chord during the election campaign.”


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