Veteran politician from country’s longest-ruling party UMNO risks starting his term with damaged credibility over mishandling of the pandemic.
Malaysia’s Ismail Sabri Yaakob was sworn in as the country’s ninth prime minister on Saturday, capping a week of political turmoil that forced his predecessor to resign amid a continuing health emergency because of the raging COVID-19 pandemic.
Ismail Sabri is a veteran politician from the country’s longest-ruling party United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), but analysts say he is a stop-gap leader with little chance of ending long-running turbulence.
The 61-year-old was named prime minister on Friday after the collapse of Muhyiddin Yassin’s administration this week. He is Malaysia’s third new leader in less than four years.
Ismail Sabri is from UMNO, the main party in a coalition that governed Malaysia for decades after independence from Britain.
Relatively low profile for most of his career, he rose to greater prominence during Muhyiddin’s 17-month administration.
As defence minister, he gave daily briefings on the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and was promoted to deputy prime minister in the administration’s final days.
His links between different factions may give the new government marginally stronger backing in parliament than during the chaotic Muhyiddin era, analysts say.
Bridge between different camps
Ismail Sabri is “a bridge between the different camps in [Muhyiddin’s party] and UMNO – the man in the right place”, said Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia expert from the University of Nottingham.
But his government is effectively an expanded version of the one that just fell apart – Muhyiddin and his allies are supporting him – and he has not been elected by the public.
The king picked the prime minister based on who commands the most support in parliament rather than going for an election for fear it could worsen the dire virus outbreak.
In KL, barricades & police presence despite #Lawan rally cancelled days ago https://t.co/VIpUmkZQM6 88 locations were cordoned off; @MyRapidKL also closed public transport stations. Lists of activists banned from entering were plastered near Dataran Merdeka. 📸: Firdaus Latif pic.twitter.com/Yt8cD1Dw10 — Zurairi A.R. (@zurairi) August 21, 2021
He is likely to face constant attacks from the opposition, and risks starting his term with damaged credibility as he was a key figure in overseeing the last administration’s widely criticised pandemic response.
“He was a leader … in the COVID mismanagement,” said Welsh. “The policies were seen to not be very effective.”
UMNO was ejected from power by voters in 2018 amid corruption allegations, but managed to regain a foothold in power as part of Muhyiddin’s government. And by regaining the leadership without an election, the party risks stoking public anger, analysts warned.
From the eastern state of Pahang, Ismail Sabri worked as a lawyer before entering politics, and he has held cabinet posts including as agriculture minister and rural development minister.
A member of the country’s ethnic Malay Muslim majority, he courted controversy on occasion with remarks criticised for fanning racial tensions.
In 2019, while in opposition, he reportedly called on Muslims to wage “jihad” against the then-ruling coalition – which was ethnically diverse – and accused it of being anti-Islam.
Race and religion are sensitive in Malaysia. About 60 percent of Malaysia’s 32 million population is Malay but it is also home to substantial ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.
Ultimately, Ismail Sabri may only end up being a short-term leader.
“Under ordinary circumstances, he would not have been given a chance,” said James Chin, a Malaysia analyst from the University of Tasmania.
“Unless he grows into the job, he will only be there until the next general election.”
In an interview with state news agency Bernama published on Saturday, Nashriq Ismail Sabri, son of the new prime minister, appealed to the public to give his father a chance “to prove his capability in steering the nation”.
“It is not an easy task to take on but we are confident that he will try his best to rehabilitate our country,” Nashriq Ismail was quoted as saying.