(Bloomberg) -- When Malaysia’s King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah asked the two men vying to be the next prime minister if they would agree to form a unity government after neither had majority, one of them completely rejected the idea. 

The politicians before him -- opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and ex-premier Muhyiddin Yassin -- were scrambling to draw support from parties and coalitions in the past four days after an inconclusive vote. Earlier on in the post-election race Muhyiddin’s coalition proclaimed he had the sworn declarations of enough lawmakers ready to back him but the palace publicly insisted no one had required backing. 

Muhyiddin who leads the pro-Malay, Islamist Perikatan Nasional coalition, related Wednesday’s royal audience to his supporters and reporters with visible frustration.   

“I was asked to sign a document that asked if we agreed,” Muhyiddin said. “I signed, but wrote down ‘disagree’.” He showed reporters a plastic binder of documents signed by 115 out of 222 lawmakers that he said was proof of his majority support. 

The supporters flanking him applauded what they thought was resistance against the king’s growing influence in determining Malaysia’s leaders as governments over the past four years struggled to keep a parliamentary majority. By law, the king can choose a leader whom he believes commands the confidence of the majority lawmakers.

In contrast, Anwar took a more conciliatory tone when he related the discussion with the king to the reporters camped outside the palace. “His Majesty expressed his desire to form a strong government that is more inclusive in terms of race, religion, or region,” he said.

“I expressed my utmost gratitude to His Majesty and said we will do our best and digest and devise and would wait for the final decision,” Anwar added.

It was the right move. Within the next twelve hours, multiple key political coalitions said they backed a unity government. This includes key bloc Barisan Nasional, who said they would join such an administration as long as it wasn’t led by Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional.

Muhyiddin’s public anger against the king, who is revered and regarded as the defender of the Islamic faith, sent shock waves through Malaysian society. While there are no lese majeste laws, those deemed to be found insulting the monarchy can be charged under sedition laws. 


Realizing its error, Muhyiddin’s alliance said the next day it would consider the king’s suggestion to form a unity government. By then, it was too late, and Anwar’s reformist, multiethnic Pakatan Harapan had already positioned themselves as pioneers to unite Malaysia’s bickering coalitions under one government: by saying they were sorry.

Leaders of the Democratic Action Party, the party in Anwar’s alliance, flew to Sarawak Thursday to apologize in person to the Borneo state’s premier for any past offensive remarks. Bad blood between the DAP and the Sarawak ruling coalition GPS ran deep. DAP leader Lim Guan Eng, during his time as finance minister in 2019, had said Sarawak would go bankrupt if it continued to be ruled by GPS. 

“I hope today’s meeting will open a new chapter to build understanding and cooperation for a more advanced and progressive Malaysia,” said DAP Secretary-General Anthony Loke. GPS accepted the apology and said it would join Anwar’s government, bolstering the numbers.

Leaders from former ruling bloc Barisan Nasional were also impressed with Anwar’s approach. Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki, a leader of BN linchpin UMNO, described Pakatan Harapan’s leadership as “more gentlemanly and civilized” in how it courted the 30 Barisan Nasional lawmakers through open meetings. “

“On the other hand, PN was still at it with its old ways, doing quiet dealings and stealing away 10 MPs with signed declarations to support Muhyiddin as PM,” he said in a Facebook post in reference to Muhyiddin’s group.

Powerful Elites

Malaysia’s political elites elites played a crucial role in the outcome. Malaysia’s once-peripheral king has re-emerged as major political force, having ended two protracted political impasses since 2020 by appointing Muhyiddin, and then Ismail Sabri Yaakob, as premier based on the number of lawmakers backing them.

The monarch’s role, assigned to the heads of nine royal families every five years, has been largely ceremonial though it remains influential as the royalty are seen as defenders of the Islamic faith. That was set to put them on a collision course against Parti Se-Islam Malaysia, the largest party in Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Malaysia.

“The Islamist PAS’ meteoric rise and its potential dominance over a Perikatan Nasional-led government scared off a lot of powerful elites who would still like to see a secular Malaysia, albeit one still with Malays firmly in charge,” said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Before making his decision on Thursday, the king held a three-hour long meeting with the heads of the royal families. Moments after the meeting drew to a close, the palace released his decree that Anwar commanded the majority and would be the next prime minister. 

A jubilant Anwar gave his first press conference as premier the same day, saying his unity government comprising multiple blocs enjoyed “a truly convincing majority” and that he would test his strength in parliament next month. “What we need to do is to make sure national unity goes beyond just a coalition,” he said.

A day after, Muhyiddin offered his congratulations to Anwar in a tersely-worded statement. “Perikatan Nasional will play a check and balance role in Malaysia’s parliament,” he said. “PN will continue to fight for the well-being of the people and the prosperity of the country.”

--With assistance from Anuradha Raghu.

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.