Ismail’s ascent made him the first premier to come from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) since the party was ousted from power after the 2018 election under Najib Razak, whose lengthy stint in office was tainted by the 1MDB financial scandal. UMNO, which had ruled Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957, was defeated in those polls by a reformist alliance led by veteran Mahathir Mohamad. Mahathir’s coalition collapsed within two years after losing support.

All of that thrust Muhyiddin, of the Bersatu party, into the premiership. He was appointed in the same way as the latest incumbent, Ismail, after cobbling together a coalition with the UMNO last March, just as COVID-19 was taking-off. The pandemic came to dominate his administration, with the economy contracting by 5.6% in 2020 amid repeat lockdowns. Political divides worsened, and infighting led him to suffer the same fate as Mahathir. Ismail now inherits these same problems.

 Ismail: Muhyiddin 2.0?

The new government was met with initial skepticism from the opposition Pakatan Harapan bloc led by Mahathir’s one-time protégé, Anwar Ibrahim, president of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). Ismail faced accusations that he had revived the resigned Muhyiddin alliance, in which he served as deputy prime minister up until August, albeit with the UMNO now in a more dominant role over Bersatu. His cabinet contains few new faces, with Zafrul Abdul Aziz retained as finance minister, and familiar duo Hishammuddin Hussein and Saifuddin Abdullah assigned to head the defence and foreign ministries.

In a televised address after taking office, however, Ismail indicated he would do things differently, vowing to “stem the grab for political power” and end the “political crisis” that had “caused unrest” in the country. While he has defended his cabinet picks as being dictated by a need for stability and experience, Ismail has promised ‘‘a new approach that is more open’’ to regain public trust. And at least for now, Muhyiddin has lent support to his former deputy and kept Bersatu in the coalition.

 COVID-19 and the economy

Tackling the health impacts of COVID-19, with the Delta variant having ravaged Malaysia, has been Ismail’s first priority. Despite a 7-month state of emergency imposed in January and a full lockdown since June, the end of Muhyiddin’s tenure saw daily cases reach 20,000 by mid-August and the total death toll surpass 15,000 as hospitals were placed under strain. The situation has since stabilized as cases have fallen to fewer than 10,000 per day and the vaccination program has gathered speed. As of 4 October, 64% of Malaysia’s 32.5 million-strong populace have received two doses of a vaccine.

Turning the economy around will be a harder task. Small and medium-sized enterprises, crucial to the economy of the thriving Klang Valley region around Kuala Lumpur, have been hit hard. Around 770,000 people, roughly 5% of Malaysia’s working-age population, are unemployed, while exports fell sharply at the height of the pandemic. A US$127 billion stimulus package under the Muhyiddin government softened the blow, but could not stop the central bank from cutting its projection for GDP growth in 2021 to 3–4%, down from the 6–7.5% anticipated before the Delta variant arrived.

Since taking office, Ibrahim has unveiled his five-year economic plan for Malaysia, which hopes to achieve average annual economic growth of 4.5–5.5% over the next five years. From 2021 to 2025, US$93.5 billion has been earmarked for infrastructure projects such as highways and rail networks, while the government plans to build more affordable housing and improve broadband connectivity. It is hoped the plan will help businesses rebound and attract investment once the pandemic is over.

 Ending political infighting

That vision can only become a reality if Malaysia has stable governance. Fraught coalition politics have upended the plans of two prime ministers, and in his speech at the opening of parliament in mid-September, the king called for politicians to place the national interest above their own desire for power. Public anger has swelled as political infighting on all sides has dominated Kuala Lumpur news cycles while Malaysians have battled the twin crises of the virus and economic catastrophe.

Ismail has moved to try to end the messy status-quo. On 13 September, the new leader inked a co-operation agreement with the four parties that sit in Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan opposition bloc. It remains to be seen how closely the opposing blocs will work together, but Ismail has vowed to table a bill to prevent elected parliamentarians from switching parties. This aims to stem the tide of defections that have been partly responsible for the collapse of Malaysia’s last two governments.

The early weeks of the Ismail-led coalition offer perhaps the last chance for compromise and a shift in political culture before the next election. That is scheduled for July 2023 but could be held earlier, in 2022, in the event of a third prime ministerial resignation. In light of the turmoil since the last poll, voters may hope their opportunity to choose Malaysia’s next leader comes sooner rather than later.