THE first step in moving forward from the constitutional impasse is to accept the results – let’s face it, if you want a candidate who can face a confidence vote in Parliament, establish that right from the start.

So, it’s not the king’s fault that Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob has been appointed the ninth prime minister. He was following the constitution by appointing a person who commanded a majority of support from MPs. Blame those very lawmakers instead and make a note of who they supported for the 15th general election (GE15).

It is not Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s fault either – his Pakatan Harapan (PH) supported a vote of no confidence, which was fully justified by the previous prime minister’s incompetence and abuse of power. You should not blame him for losing the majority that PH had. Blame instead Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad for not passing the baton as promised.

Blame Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin for taking Bersatu out of PH and Datuk Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali for taking MPs out of PKR. Blame these three traitors as I previously explained.

Anwar has graciously and correctly asked his supporters to accept the results and prepare for GE15 instead. So let’s hope that there’s no longer any more manoeuvring to get Ismail Sabri out, unless he proves to be just as incompetent as his predecessor or just as nefarious in prolonging his term through emergencies and the like.

Let’s remember that Muhyiddin was removed because he was incompetent and DAP’s last-ditch attempt to do a deal with Muhyiddin would have come to nought, because it involved a confidence motion for Muhyiddin even before he did any reforms. It was rather naive, much like the move that made Dr Mahathir interim prime minister. We all know what happened after.

And let’s remember too that Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal’s shabby, terribly opportunistic effort to put himself as candidate for prime minister was a non-starter – eight MPs and he wants to be prime minister? He even lost the Sabah election after getting the state following defections in the 2018 election.

Those two attempts undermined Anwar’s efforts and chances to become prime minister, giving the impression that not all within the PH coalition and its allies were aligned behind Anwar despite the public pronouncements made. But all that is so much muddy water under the bridge.

Back to Ismail Sabri, the accidental prime minister if you will. If he is an astute politician – he has not been tested like this before – he should realise that he is walking a tightrope over raging waters. One wrong move and he will drop into the torrent and be swept away into insignificance. Will he be able to balance himself delicately?

Perhaps some points about him will help us size up Ismail Sabri before we make our call on him.

Ismail Sabri is no political novice

If we think of Ismail Sabri as a political novice, we are making a mistake. He has considerable experience and has been a full minister since 2008, except for the roughly 22-month break between 2018 and 2020 when PH was in power.

The table above sets out his ascendancy to the top. He has looked after some weighty ministries after his entry-level Youth and Sports Ministry stint, moving on to domestic trade and consumer affairs and the powerful rural and regional development portfolio, under which Majlis Amanah Rakyat (Mara) comes.

This is a politically sensitive and important portfolio, giving direct access to the Malay heartland and hence support of the Malay masses, the traditional support base of Umno. Thus, it was not surprising when he stood for the post of Umno vice-president after the party’s debacle in 2018 at the hands of PH. He came out tops, effectively placing him third in the hierarchy after president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and deputy Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan.

So when Muhyiddin named his cabinet in 2020, Ismail Sabri was the most senior minister from Umno, as Zahid had to stand down because of the criminal charges he faces and Mohamad was a state assemblyman and did not have a parliamentary seat.

His fortunes took a rise as he was chosen as deputy prime minister by Muhyiddin, no doubt due to pressure from Umno. He was favoured over Azmin, who joined Bersatu from PKR, and whose fortunes have waned following his role as international trade and industry minister in allowing factories to operate while Covid-19 was raging out of control.

And then, Ismail Sabri became prime minister.

He has several controversies 

When he was agriculture minister, he introduced the “Jihad Against Middlemen” programme to eliminate the role of middlemen in the marketing of agricultural produce through paddy purchasing centres, fishermen’s markets, farmer’s markets, and so on. The aim was noble – to get more income for the producer and lower prices for the consumer.

But at the Rural Development Ministry, his concept of a Bumiputera-only digital mall to sell IT products at major centres in 2015 came under great criticism. It attempted to give space to Bumiputera retailers at lower rentals. It was eventually closed under the PH government for lack of response.

Perhaps his most well-known controversy was when he used Facebook to urge Malays to boycott Chinese businesses to bring down prices. It faced a barrage of criticism, including from MCA’s Datuk Seri Wee Ka Siong and Dr Mahathir.

He is of the ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ mode

Like most Umno top leaders, he is of the “Ketuanan Melayu” or Malay supremacy mode, which strongly believes in the indefinite continuation of Malay and Bumiputera special privileges and their domination in the political sphere to ensure continued economic survival.

According to Wikipedia, on April 13, 2018 ahead of GE14, Ismail Sabri again provoked controversy when he said every vote for DAP is akin to empowering PH to eliminate the purported “special rights” of Malays and the “uniqueness of Islam” as was reported by the Malay language-newspaper Utusan Malaysia.

In one video making the rounds on social media, Ismail Sabri, addressing his supporters when PH was in power, says inaccurate things about how PH is bent on taking away the rights and privileges of Malays.

But he has not been alone in terms of this. Every major Umno leader since Dr Mahathir’s ascendancy to the top has used this tried and tested means to gain and sustain power. Umno, MCA, and MIC, were formed purely to pursue and protect the rights of the races first and foremost.

Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob propelled himself to the top in part thanks to Umno leaders Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (right) and Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan (left) being out of contention, one way or another. – Umno Online pic, August 24, 2021
Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob propelled himself to the top in part thanks to Umno leaders Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (right) and Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan (left) being out of contention, one way or another. – Umno Online pic, August 24, 2021

No major financial scandals

A silver lining is that there is no major financial scandal linked to Ismail Sabri. This has not been the case with most other major Umno leaders and gives him a relatively clean image compared to alternatives.

It remains to be seen if he can keep his hands clean as the prime minister’s position attracts the attention of many prepared to make financial and other contributions in return for the usual awards of contracts and other favours.

He is projecting a moderate image

It is good to note that he is projecting a more moderate image, but this is what most politicians do once they have attained the highest position possible in politics. He now talks about a Malaysian family and has offered posts to the opposition in the National Recovery Council.

Keeping in mind those five points, some questions arise:

Will he be better than Muhyiddin? There’s a good chance – for one, he does not have the baggage Muhyiddin had. He has a parliamentary majority and therefore does not need to keep the House from meeting. He has a chance to be more inclusive and take his proposals to Parliament for debate before implementation.

Will he appoint opposition ministers? He has already said he won’t, but will encourage their participation in the National Recovery Plan, which is better than nothing. This is probably because that reduces the number of positions for Umno, Bersatu, and other allies, which is politically difficult. So for all the talk of a unity government, we have to be satisfied with what is essentially a Perikatan Nasional government, whether Umno wants to now call it by a different name or not.

Will he appoint ministers from the “court cluster”? That’s a move that may well bring him down as Bersatu, still controlled by Muhyiddin, has threatened to pull support if that is the case, which will bring down the government. It will also be a hugely unpopular move with the rakyat. Not likely.

Will he do better for control of Covid-19? That looks likely because with a parliamentary majority, the politics of Covid-19 can be taken out of the equation. He does not have to make figures look bad to extend his stay. He does not have to open up earlier to get broad support from the public. Science will be more likely the determining factor. Ismail Sabri has assured that expert opinion will be sought with respect to this.

Would Ismail Sabri be better for the economy? Most certainly yes. With Parliament in session, he can get approvals to increase debt ceilings so as to channel funds to the needy. Also, while Muhyiddin’s moves tended to favour businesses more, Ismail Sabri speaks of helping those badly affected. We could finally see more money being directed to the poor.

Overall, we are more likely to underestimate rather than overestimate Ismail Sabri. He may well surprise us on the upside and be a significant improvement over Muhyiddin and a good interim prime minister till GE15.

The main thing is not to make a gaffe – that should not be too difficult for a smooth political operative who has come this far. And if he does the right things, we Malaysians must support him.

Otherwise, there is still the option of a no-confidence motion. For the first time in over six decades, Malaysians have a choice and Ismail Sabri ignores that at his own peril. He is not likely to. – The Vibes, August 24, 2021

P Gunasegaram is glad for the return of parliamentary democracy. He is chief executive of research and advocacy group Sekhar Institute and editorial consultant of The Vibes