The contenders to become Malaysia’s next prime minister
FILE PHOTO: Members of Malaysia’s parliament attend a session of the lower house of parliament, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia July 26, 2021. (Malaysia Information Department/Nazri Rapaai/Handout via Reuters)
The race to become Malaysia’s next prime minister has started after Muhyiddin Yassin stepped down on Monday, with 220 members of parliament seeking to find someone who can form a stable government after more than a year of discord.
Muhyiddin never managed to fully consolidate power after he emerged in March 2020 with an unwieldy coalition following long-time leader Mahathir Mohamad’s resignation, which marked the end of a reform-minded coalition that won a surprise victory in the last election three years ago. Whoever takes power now will have less than a year before the next national vote must take place.
All of the contenders have at one point been part of the United Malays National Organisation, which governed Malaysia for decades until voters booted it from power in 2018 following a massive corruption scandal. Five of the seven contenders remain in UMNO, although the party has been riven by divisions among competing factions.
Malaysia’s next leader will need to curb a surge in coronavirus cases and push ahead with a vaccination drive in order to support a flagging economy. Here’s a look at the top contenders who may have a shot at convincing the king they command a majority:
Ismail Sabri Yaakob, 61
The former deputy prime minister in Muhyiddin’s administration was among senior officials who spearheaded Malaysia’s battle against the pandemic since last year. As UMNO vice president, Ismail Sabri Yaakob initially controlled the defence portfolio and was pushing for snap polls until he was appointed deputy premier by Muhyiddin in early July in a bid to shore up support from the party. Ismail Sabri, in the past, has overseen domestic-focused portfolios, including the ministries of rural development and agriculture.
Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, 84
Malaysia’s longest-serving MP is a descendant of the royal family in the east coast state of Kelantan, and served as finance minister and trade minister in the 1970s and 1980s. Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah was the first UMNO lawmaker to openly break away from the Muhyiddin administration last year, and the only MP from the party to request that he be seated away from the ruling bloc during last month’s special parliament session.
Najib Razak, 68
The former prime minister, who was implicated in the world’s largest corruption scandal involving state fund 1MDB, is now Malaysia’s most popular politician on social media with more than 4 million followers on Facebook and Twitter. Since losing office in 2018 amid outrage over the 1MDB scandal, Najib Razak has undergone a makeover to repair his image. His deft social media jabs on successive governments — be it the one under Muhyiddin or Mahathir Mohamad — have won him a wider audience. Even so, Najib is appealing against his conviction in the 1MDB case and has faltered in his bid to halt a bankruptcy order.
Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, 68
UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi orchestrated the collapse of the Muhyiddin administration by ordering his party to withdraw its support for the former premier. In doing so, he alienated several UMNO ministers in Muhyiddin’s cabinet. Ahmad Zahid has shifted alliances over the years in UMNO, and for a while was seen as an outcast for supporting Anwar Ibrahim during a power struggle in the 1990s. He returned to UMNO’s fold, eventually serving as deputy prime minister and home minister during Najib’s era, and took over the UMNO presidency in 2018. The lawmaker faces a slew of corruption charges in court, and has pleaded not guilty.
Hishammuddin Hussein, 60
Hishammuddin Hussein was the foreign minister in Muhyiddin’s former cabinet and most recently made headlines for summoning China’s ambassador to protest flights by air force planes over the South China Sea that he says breached Malaysian airspace and sovereignty. He also become a senior minister overseeing security in July as Muhyiddin sought to shore up support from UMNO. As the eldest son of Malaysia’s third prime minister, Hishammudin remains popular in UMNO and was the country’s public face in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in 2014.
Anwar Ibrahim, 74
The opposition leader has so far failed to show he can command a majority despite making repeated bids for the top job. Once a rising star in UMNO and a former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim was seen as Mahathir’s successor in the 1990s before he was fired in the wake of the Asian financial crisis and jailed for committing sodomy and abuse of power — charges which he denied. He was convicted in 2014 on a subsequent sodomy charge and jailed again in 2015 when his appeal was denied. Anwar’s party joined forces with Mahathir to wrest power from UMNO in 2018 polls to form the government, leading to opposition leader’s pardon and release from jail. However, the alliance and the government unravelled last year when Mahathir repeatedly delayed his promise to step aside for Anwar to become prime minister.
Mahathir Mohamad, 96
Malaysia’s senior statesman, Mahathir Mohamad, has said he isn’t interested in becoming prime minister for a third time. Instead, he has proposed leading a council staffed with lawmakers from across the political spectrum that can rule the country until a new government can be appointed. Although Mahathir now leads a party of just five MPs (including himself and his son) in the opposition bench, he remains influential by virtue of his experience and time in power — first in UMNO and then in his own parties.
During his first 22 years in office, Mahathir had an affinity for ambitious projects such as the world’s tallest office building at the time and Southeast Asia’s largest airport. In 2018, he led an election campaign that unseated the UMNO-led coalition for the first time in decades, and helped bring dozens of criminal charges against Najib and Ahmad Zahid.