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Malaysia’s 2023 review: Political shifts, legal verdicts, and global advocacy

The year 2023 saw Malaysia making headlines with legal verdicts, including the acquittal of former PM Muhyiddin Yassin and Deputy PM Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, and the conviction of Muar MP Syed Saddiq for various offenses.

Notably, the country underwent a cabinet reshuffle and played an active role in supporting Palestine in the Israel-Hamas conflict. Additionally, Malaysia abolished the mandatory death penalty, and Malaysian-born actress Michelle Yeoh made history with her Oscar win for Best Actress.

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As 2023 draws to a close, Malaysia has seen numerous prominent political figures emerge in the spotlight, engaging in legal struggles, experiencing losses, and maintaining resolute positions. The year was heavily characterized by political dynamics, highlighted by a number of significant occurrences.

The aftermath of the 15th General Election (GE15) in November 2022 set the stage for political realignments. Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Harmony (PH) coalition and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan National (PN) found themselves without a clear majority.

Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s PH coalition garnered 82 parliamentary seats, while Perikatan National (PN) led by Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin won 73 seats.

Barisan National (BN) suffered its worst electoral outcome in history, securing only 30 seats out of the 177 seats contested. UMNO won 26 out of 120 contested seats, while MCA gained only two out of 44 contested seats. The historic decline of Barisan National (BN) paved the way for an unexpected alliance between PH and BN, forming a Unity Government.

UMNO, a significant component of BN, played a pivotal role in supporting the Unity Government following the King’s order. On Nov 24, Mr Anwar was officially appointed as Malaysia’s 10th Prime Minister, ending the hung parliament impasse.

Political turbulence and legal developments: Malaysia’s shifting landscape in 2023

Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (BERSATU), a part of the Opposition coalition Perikatan Nasional, witnessed notable defections as several of its MPs switched their support to Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, as reported by Malaysian news outlet, Free Malaysia Today (FMT).

They were Datuk Iskandar Dzulkarnain Abdul Khalid (Kuala Kangsar), Zahari Kechik (Jeli), Mohd Azizi Abu Naim (Gua Musang), Datuk Dr Suhaili Abdul Rahman (Labuan), and Datuk Syed Abu Hussin Hafiz Syed Abdul Fasal (Bukit Gantang).

Despite anti-party hopping laws, these MPs retained their seats, contributing to the consolidation of the Unity Government.

On 15 August, the High Court cleared Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, the former President of Bersatu and ex-Malaysian Prime Minister, of all four allegations related to abuse of power in the Jana Wibawa case.

The High Court judge, Datuk Muhammad Jamil Hussin, dismissed the case, stating that all four accusations were flawed and made in bad faith.

He faced four separate charges in March for allegedly abusing his dual roles as the Prime Minister and President of Bersatu, and was accused of soliciting a bribe totalling 232.5 million ringgit ($51.4 million) from Bukhary Equity Sdn Bhd at the Prime Minister’s Department Complex in the Federal Government Administrative Centre, Putrajaya, between 8 and 25 February 2021.

In addition, he faced allegations of accepting RM195 million in funds, believed to be proceeds from illegal activities, occurring between 25 February and 16 July 2021, as well as between 8 February and 8 July of the previous year.

In April of the same year, Mr Muhyiddin had filed a motion seeking acquittal and discharge from all four charges, arguing that the charges lacked specific details on how he had abused his position or the Prime Minister’s Office for gratification.

On 24 November, he announced his plan to resign from the leadership position of his political party, BERSATU.

Mr Muhyiddin is the second former leader charged with crimes after ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak, who received multiple charges after losing a 2018 general election. Najib began a 12-year prison term last year after losing his final appeal in the first of several graft trials.

Conversely, on Sept 4, Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister, was also cleared of all corruption charges related to the misappropriation of funds from charity foundation Yayasan Akal Budi (YAB).

This development occurred after the Malaysian High Court granted the 70-year-old a discharge not amounting to acquittal (DNAA) on 12 criminal breach of trust (CBT) charges, eight counts of bribery, and 27 counts of money laundering involving substantial sums of money belonging to YAB.

A DNAA issued by the court results in the accused being released from the current charges without receiving a formal acquittal.

Although the case is temporarily suspended, the prosecution maintains the flexibility to reintroduce the charges or reopen the case in the future, should new evidence or circumstances emerge.

Additionally, this year also saw the departure of the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA), led by Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman from the government.

On 10 September, Syed Saddiq announced that his party would no longer be associated with the Madani government due to their discontent with various actions, particularly the discharge not amounting to an acquittal secured by Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi in his corruption case.

He emphasised that the government’s decision to drop all 47 corruption charges against Zahid had placed the MUDA party in an untenable position within the ruling coalition.

The move has generated substantial controversy and raised concerns about the integrity of Malaysia’s justice system.

“I will never allow Malaysia to normalise corruption,” he said, adding that MUDA would continue to support all efforts at institutional reform.

Just two months later after that, the Muar MP was found guilty of corruption over the misappropriation of funds belonging to MUDA’s youth wing when he was heading it.

He was sentenced to seven years in prison and fined RM10 million (approximately US$2.13 million), in addition to receiving two strokes for the offences of abetment of breach of trust, misuse of assets, and money laundering (AMLA).

During the trial, High Court Judge Datuk Azhar Abdul Hamid ruled that the defence failed to introduce sufficient doubt regarding the charges against Syed Saddiq, who holds the position of president of the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) party.

The judge found the 30-year-old Syed Saddiq guilty of four charges, encompassing criminal breach of trust, fund misappropriation, and money laundering, as the defence was unable to undermine the prosecution’s case.

Syed Saddiq, later found guilty of corruption, stepped down as MUDA president.

PM Anwar unveils cabinet reshuffle

In the midst of these events, Mr Anwar’s reshuffling of the cabinet, aimed at regaining public trust amid concerns about the economy, added yet another layer to Malaysia’s political landscape.

In Dec, he announced a reshuffled and expanded Cabinet, increasing its size from 28 to 31 members.

The reshuffle also saw changes in various ministries, with a focus on addressing the nation’s evolving needs and challenges.

Among the new faces are former Employees Provident Fund CEO Datuk Seri Amir Hamzah Azizan as Finance Minister II and the return of Titiwangsa MP Datuk Seri Johari Abdul Ghani (as the Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister), Damansara MP Gobind Singh Deo (Digital) and Kuala Selangor MP Datuk Seri Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad (Health).

Dr Zaliha Mustafa was moved from the Health Ministry to take charge of Federal Territories affairs, while Datuk Armizan Ali, the acting Domestic Trade and Cost of Living Minister, took over the ministry.

The new line-up also saw the departure of Batu Gajah MP V. Sivakumar from the Human Resources Ministry, which is now helmed by Steven Sim, formerly a deputy finance minister.

Israel-Hamas conflict and PM Anwar’s outward support for Palestine

While domestic politics unfolded, Malaysia actively participated in international affairs, particularly concerning the Gaza conflict. Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim voiced strong support for Palestine, both domestically and internationally.

Malaysia, under Mr Anwar’s leadership, consistently advocated for an immediate ceasefire and humanitarian aid delivery to Gaza. His effort sees him visiting Saudi Arabia to discuss about the matter.

The Prime Minister, during his visit to Saudi Arabia, said he wants the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) members to consistently and assertively urge for an immediate ceasefire and prompt delivery of humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza.

He visited Riyadh on 12 November and addressed the 8th Extraordinary Islamic Summit of the OIC, where he discussed the ongoing Israeli aggression in Palestine.

Moreover, on 24 October, Mr Anwar delivered a resolute message of support for Palestine during a fiery speech at the “Himpunan Malaysia Bersama Palestin” rally held at the Axiata Arena Stadium.

The rally, hosted by the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (Abim) and Global Peace Malaysia (GPM), saw more than 40 groups, including both Muslims and non-Muslims organisations.

Over 16,000 participants showed up wearing white shirts and holding placards saying “Israel Cuak (Israel is scared)” in show of solidarity with Palestine.

He disclosed in his speech that he had faced criticism from certain quarters, leading to heightened security measures due to threats against him.

Malaysia abolishes mandatory death penalty

In a notable move for human rights, Malaysia’s Parliament unanimously voted on 3 April to abolish the mandatory death penalty.

The amendments reduced the number of offences punishable by death, replacing capital punishment with alternatives such as whipping and imprisonment. Life imprisonment sentences, defined by Malaysian law as a fixed term of 30 years, will be retained.

Despite a temporary moratorium on executions since 2018, Malaysia faced political pressures before fully committing to abolishing the death penalty.

Malaysia’s move comes even as some Southeast Asian neighbours have stepped up the use of capital punishment, with Singapore last year executing 11 people for drug offences and military-ruled Myanmar carrying out its first death sentences in decades against four anti-junta activists.

Malaysia’s decision to abolish capital punishment is driven by Deputy Law Minister Ramkarpal Singh’s belief that it is an irreversible sentence and has proven to be an ineffective deterrent.

Michelle Yeoh makes history with Oscar win for Best Actress at 2023 Academy Awards

Additionally, on a global stage, Malaysia-born actress Michelle Yeoh made history by winning the Oscar for Best Actress at the 2023 Academy Awards.

Yeoh, upon winning her role in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” dedicated her award to individuals of Southeast Asian descent and emphasized the significance of dreams and possibilities.

She expressed, “For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this a beacon of hope and possibility. This is proof that dream big and dreams do come true. And ladies don’t let anybody tell you you are ever past your prime.”

With gratitude, she dedicated the award to her mother and all mothers worldwide, acknowledging them as true superheroes and emphasizing that without them, none of the attendees would be present that night.

This marked Yeoh’s initial Oscar nomination and her victory became a landmark moment for Malaysia and the broader Southeast Asian film industry.

She achieved the distinction of being the second Asian woman to secure a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture (Musical/Comedy) in the same year.

Yeoh is also the first openly Asian woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar.

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