Malaysia's king names Ismail Sabri Yaakob as new prime minister

Appointment puts long-ruling Umno party back in charge after losing 2018 election

Umno party member Ismail Sabri Yaakob attends a session of Malaysia's parliament in November 2020 when he was defence minister. AFP / Malaysia Department of Information
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Malaysia’s longest-governing political party reclaimed the premiership it lost in a shock 2018 election defeat, after the king on Friday named its candidate, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, as the country’s new leader.

Mr Ismail, 61, was the deputy prime minister under the government of Muhyiddin Yassin, who resigned Monday after less than 18 months in office as infighting in his coalition cost him majority support.

Mr Ismail’s appointment essentially restores Mr Muhyiddin’s alliance. It also brings back the rule of the United Malays National Organisation, which had led Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957 but was ousted in 2018 elections over a multibillion-dollar financial scandal.

King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah said Mr Ismail secured a slender majority with the backing of 114 members of parliament. He will be sworn in as Malaysia’s ninth prime minister on Saturday.

The announcement came after the monarch met state Malay rulers who advised him on the appointment. The king’s role is largely ceremonial in Malaysia, but he appoints the person he believes has majority support in Parliament as prime minister.

Sultan Abdullah said he hoped Mr Ismail’s appointment would bring an end to the country’s political turmoil. He urged MPs to set aside their political differences and unite to tackle the country’s worsening pandemic.

“Ismail’s appointment was not unexpected. With this, Umno is now back in the driver’s seat,” said James Chin, an Asia expert at Australia’s University of Tasmania.

Mr Ismail’s 114 votes exceed the 111 needed for a simple majority but is close to the backing Mr Muhyiddin had and was unable to keep. Mr Ismail is from Umno, the larger party in the alliance, leaving him on firmer ground, but he still needs Mr Muhyiddin’s party for enough support to lead.

Angry Malaysians launched an online petition to protest against Mr Ismail’s candidacy, with more than 340,000 signatures collected so far. Many believe his appointment will restore the status quo, with its perceived failed response to a worsening pandemic.

Malaysia has one of the world’s highest infection rates and deaths per capita, despite a seven-month state of emergency and a lockdown since June. Daily new infections have more than doubled since June to hit a record of 23,564 on Friday, bringing the country’s total to more than 1.5 million cases. Deaths have surged to above 13,000.

A lawyer before he joined politics, Mr Ismail held several ministerial posts in previous Umno governments. As trade minister, he courted controversy in 2015 when he urged ethnic Malay consumers to boycott profiteering Chinese businesses. He was also slammed for supporting the vaping industry, which is dominated by Malays, despite warnings from the health ministry.

In 2018 polls, Mr Ismail waved the racial card, saying every vote for the opposition was akin to eliminating special privileges given to Malays under a decades-old affirmative action programme.

He was named defence minister when Mr Muhyiddin took power in March last year and became the government’s public face through daily briefings on security issues related to the pandemic. He was promoted to deputy prime minister in July as Mr Muhyiddin wooed support from Umno, which was unhappy at playing second fiddle to a smaller party.

Mr Ismail defeated opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, whose three-party alliance is the biggest opposition bloc with 88 votes. Even if all opposition parties support him, he still falls short with 105 votes.

Updated: August 20, 2021, 11:21 AM