By Joseph Sipalan
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia’s new prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, extended an olive branch on Wednesday to the leader he recently replaced, veteran politician Mahathir Mohamad, calling on him to endorse the new government after weeks of political tension.
Mahathir, 94, sparked turmoil with his surprise resignation last month, shortly after his coalition partners were seen in talks with his opponents.
Muhyiddin, a former minister in Mahathir’s cabinet, was later sworn in as prime minister on March 1, joining hands with the old ruling UMNO party – which lost a general election for the first time ever in 2018 – and the Islamist party PAS to form a new coalition.
In an interview published on Wednesday, Mahathir conceded that he no longer commanded a majority in parliament and would not win a vote of no confidence in the new prime minister, after some supporters abandoned him to join the new premier’s camp.
In response, Muhyiddin said he had written to Mahathir to request a meeting and apologize to Malaysia’s most prominent political figure, who ruled for 22 years between 1981 and 2003, before coming out of retirement to contest and win the 2018 election.
“We have formed this government and I want Tun to endorse this government, that it is a government for the people,” Muhyiddin, referring to Mahathir by his title, told a news conference.
Mahathir was not immediately available for comment.
Muhyiddin also dismissed speculation about an early general election.
“I don’t want that,” he said. “People will not only curse, they will say this is not the right time. We are here to serve.”
Muhyiddin’s appointment comes as Malaysia deals with a downward-spiralling economy, as well as the impact of the coronavirus epidemic on trade and a crash in global oil prices.
Malaysia has reported 129 cases of coronavirus, which poses a risk to its export markets. The oil price crash will hit earnings from exports of liquefied natural gas.
Muhyiddin earlier announced the formation of an economic action council, made up of senior ministers, the central bank governor and various experts, to tackle the economic risks and review the government’s finances.
Muhyiddin said a planned 20 billion ringgit ($4.73 billion) stimulus package that the former government announced last month would be reviewed to see if it should be increased.
“The cabinet is cognizant that the situation facing the country is not good,” he said. “This is an immediate step to show the country we are not waiting on the sidelines.”
The government would “consider all options”, Muhyiddin said when asked whether he planned to reintroduce a goods and services tax.
The unpopular 6% consumption tax was removed by Mahathir’s administration in 2018, ending a significant source of government revenue.
Malaysia also aims to end a dispute with India that led to India cutting its purchases of Malaysian palm oil exports, the new commodities minister, Mohd Khairuddin Aman Razali, told reporters.
India, for years the biggest buyer of Malaysian palm oil, put curbs on its imports of the edible oil from Malaysia in January in retaliation for Mahathir’s criticism of India’s policy on the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir and a new citizenship law seen as discriminatory towards Muslims.
(Writing by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Robert Birsel)