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New Malaysian PM's tough road ahead

By PRIME SARMIENTO in Hong Kong | China Daily | Updated: 2021-08-23 07:41

Malaysia's new Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob receives a document from King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah at the National Palace on Saturday. MALAYSIA INFORMATION DEPARTMENT/KHIRUL NIZAM ZANIL

Malaysia's new Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob faces a tough road ahead as he has to manage a worsening pandemic and unstable politics that have weighed down the country for the past year, analysts say.

Ismail Sabri, who had been deputy prime minister, was sworn in on Saturday. A live TV broadcast showed him, wearing traditional Malay clothes, taking the oath of office in front of King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah at the national palace.

The king announced the appointment on Friday. Ismail Sabri replaces Muhyiddin Yassin, who resigned last Monday after failing to obtain simple majority support in parliament.

Ismail Sabri, vice-president of the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, received the backing of 114 out of the 220 members of the lower house.

"The king is constitutionally obliged to pick the one who carries the majority votes," said Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, professor of political science at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

Ismail Sabri needs to be "wise enough to be able to gauge public sentiment" and must appoint cabinet members based on competence and merit, he said. The new cabinet needs to rise above the fray to "reduce politicking and obviate the possibility of motions of no confidence that distract attention from handling the pandemic", he said.

James Chin, professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania in Australia, said Ismail Sabri's appointment will end political bickering in Malaysia for now because the new government has the king's support. "Malaysia can't afford another regime change," Chin said. "It's too disruptive."

The new government needs to focus on vaccinating more people as COVID-19 cases continue to rise, he said.

High inoculation rate

Malaysia's vaccination rate is one of the highest in Asia, with more than half its people having received their first dose of vaccine by Thursday.

But the country also has one of the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases in the region, with the entry of the highly transmissible Delta variant infecting more people. Malaysia has had more than 1.48 million cases, with more than 22,000 new infections recorded on Friday, the World Health Organization said.

"Managing the pandemic takes precedence and priority above all else," said Aira Azhari, manager of the Democracy and Governance Unit at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a think tank in Kuala Lumpur.

Aira said she expects the incoming government to implement consistent and effective policies that can help reduce the number of infections. "The new government must make decisions based on facts and science. They must be open to new strategies and ideas from experts and civil society. Transparency must be upheld when making decisions."

The incoming government also needs to protect civil liberties and uphold the rule of law amid the pandemic, Aira said.

Ismail Sabri is a political veteran who served as defense minister in Muhyiddin's cabinet, besides being his deputy. The UMNO he serves is one of Malaysia's biggest political parties and a major force behind Perikatan Nasional, the ruling coalition that supported Muhyiddin.

With Ismail Sabri's appointment, analysts say political bickering may be finally put to rest so that the government can focus on the pandemic and find ways to revive an economy dragged down by lockdown measures and border closures.

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