Malaysia’s first transfer of power in six decades was hailed as a milestone for transparency, free speech and racial tolerance in the multiethnic Southeast Asian country. But the new coalition collapsed amid an all-too-familiar mix of political intrigue and horse trading. Elements of the old regime were brought into a new government that also proved short-lived, leading to a third prime minister in just 18 months and the return of the United Malays National Organisation to the country’s top post. The turmoil stems in part from an entrenched system of affirmative-action policies that critics say fosters cronyism and identity-based politics, while a worsening coronavirus pandemic has hampered plans for fresh elections.

1. How did this start?

Two veteran politicians, Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim, won a surprising election victory in 2018 that ousted then-Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was enmeshed in a massive money-laundering scandal linked to the state investment firm 1MDB. Mahathir, 96, became prime minister again (he had held the post from 1981 to 2003), with the understanding that he would hand over to Anwar at some point. Delays in setting a date and policy disputes led to tensions that boiled over in 2020. Mahathir stepped down and sought to strengthen his hand by forming a unity government outside party politics. But the king pre-empted his efforts by naming Mahathir’s erstwhile right-hand man, Muhyiddin Yassin, as prime minister, the eighth since Malaysia’s independence from the U.K. in 1957. Muhyiddin’s brief time in power was beset by political instability due to the razor-thin majority he managed to cobble together with Najib’s party. Muhyiddin resigned on Aug. 15, less than two weeks after UMNO, the largest party in the ruling coalition, retracted its support. This led the king to embark on a fresh search for a successor to avoid an election.

2. There’s a king?

Malaysia is a parliamentary democracy along the lines of the U.K., except instead of one constitutional monarch the title rotates every five years among the rulers of nine Malay states. The king, known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, usually stays on the sidelines performing ceremonial duties, but is involved in major appointments like that of prime minister. He also is the one who declared the national state of emergency on Jan. 12, 2021 “as a proactive measure” to help contain a surge in Covid-19 cases. The decree, which also suspended parliament, was the first since deadly ethnic rioting in 1969.

3. What’s the latest maneuvering?

Malaysia’s king appointed Ismail Sabri Yaakob as prime minister to succeed Muhyiddin after verifying that he had the support of the majority of lawmakers. Ismail Sabri, a longtime UMNO member, counts UMNO and the former ruling Perikatan Nasional coalition among his supporters -- but the backing from PN is conditional and Ismail Sabri faces a tough road ahead to stay in the job: The palace said he must face a confidence vote in parliament, and that he has the backing of 114 of the 220 members of parliament. Even if he wins that vote, he must call another national election by July 2023. 

4. Who is Ismail Sabri Yaakob?

Ismail Sabri, 61, has been a member of parliament with UMNO since 2004 and was deputy prime minister in Muhyiddin’s administration. As part of the senior cabinet, Ismail Sabri was a leading figure in the nation’s fight against the outbreak, appearing almost daily in televised press briefings to update the public on containment measures. Still, confirmed virus cases crossed the 1 million mark late July and fatalities have surpassed a record 13,000 amid a flip-flop in policies related to Covid-19 and movement restrictions. Ismail Sabri initially controlled the defense portfolio until being appointed deputy prime minister by Muhyiddin in early July to ease tensions with UMNO. A lawyer before he joined politics, Ismail Sabri has in the past overseen domestic-focused portfolios, including the ministries of rural development and agriculture.

5. What does ‘Malay first’ mean?

Some 56% of the country’s 31 million people are ethnic Malay (defined in the constitution as Muslim), and another 13% belong to other indigenous groups, according to 2019 estimates from the Department of Statistics Malaysia. Collectively they are known as bumiputera, or “sons of the soil.” There are also large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities who are Christian, Buddhist and Hindu. Government policies give preferential treatment to bumiputera, traditionally seen as disenfranchised, in such areas as public-sector jobs, housing and higher education. Critics say the preferences have fostered cronyism and a dependence on state handouts and have prompted many educated minorities to look for work overseas, draining the economy of talent. But they are something of a “third rail” in Malaysia’s polarized politics. Mahathir’s appointment of Lim Guan Eng as finance minister, the first ethnic Chinese to hold the post in over four decades, sowed suspicion among Malay nationalists that their benefits would be eroded, costing the coalition support.

6. How did Muhyiddin do?

Despite being backed by UMNO, his administration saw progress in resolving the 1MDB scandal, including a conviction for Najib, which caused some discontent within UNMO. It and other parties in his government supported a more conservative agenda favoring Malays, including measures to promote a stricter version of Islam. Muhyiddin had pledged to be prime minister for all races and to strengthen government integrity. The emergency decree gave Muhyiddin some breathing room, while the pandemic worsened and the new infection rate soared. The government in June unveiled its fourth stimulus package, but some people have taken to hanging white flags outside their homes in a sign of their desperation.

7. What about the economy?

With most of the country still under a virus-induced lockdown, Malaysia has lowered its 2021 growth forecast twice, to 3%-4%. The economy was already sputtering before the pandemic, then went into a tailspin as trade and tourism suffered. Curbs on movement dampened consumption and investment, pushing gross domestic product for 2020 to a 5.6% contraction, its worst showing since 1998. Muhyiddin’s government expected to see most states reopen “under new norms” in October. In the meantime, Malaysia has unveiled four aid packages this year worth billions of dollars to support people and businesses. That’s on top of the government’s 322.5 billion ringgit ($76 billion) budget for 2021, the country’s biggest ever. Even before the pandemic, surveys found rising living costs and a lack of jobs had replaced corruption and abuse of power as voters’ top concerns.

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