(Bloomberg) — After decades in the background of Malaysia’s national politics, the monarchy has moved to center stage to fill a power vacuum this year.
King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad, who ascended the throne last year, stepped into the political fray back in February when a two-year-old government abruptly collapsed. He resolved the impasse by tapping Muhyiddin Yassin to become the next prime minister without a parliamentary vote. Since then Muhyiddin’s majority has regularly been questioned, and the country’s top politicians have sought meetings with the king while vying for power.
For Malaysia, where one coalition ruled for six straight decades until the 2018 election, it’s relatively new for the monarch to play such a prominent role in politics. The nine members of the Conference of Rulers, who rotate power among themselves, have since the country’s independence from British rule mainly performed ceremonial functions like swearing in ministers or pardoning criminal convicts.
But now, with Muhyiddin’s government holding at best a two-vote majority in parliament, the king’s decisions have become crucial in determining whether his administration stays or goes. The monarch has the constitutional power to appoint a prime minister or deny a request to dissolve parliament for an election, which in normal times merely confirms the outcome of a vote or the sitting government’s recommendation.
The lack of a clear mandate for the current prime minister now gives the king more weight, including when he makes statements on policy matters like the budget or the right coronavirus response.
“We have now a royalty becoming more prominent, more assertive in politics,” said Johan Saravanamuttu, an adjunct senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies who has written about Malaysian politics for more than 30 years. “It’s actually making important decisions with respect to politics.”
The king’s influence will be tested in the next few weeks. He’s expressed “full confidence” in Muhyiddin’s ability to lead the country through the crisis and urged lawmakers to vote for the budget his government presents on Nov. 6. If it doesn’t go through, pressure will increase for the prime minister to resign or call an election — adding more risks for investors already concerned about a surge in coronavirus cases.
The monarch “called on the members of the House of Representatives to respect His Majesty’s advice for them to immediately stop all political disputes and instead prioritize the welfare of the people and the well-being of the country so that the 2021 Budget is approved without any interference,” the palace said in an Oct. 28 statement.
The palace didn’t respond to emailed questions on the role of the monarchy in Malaysia prior to publication.
Malaysia’s rotational monarchy is composed of the rulers of nine Malay states. The position of the king is passed among the rulers, with each term lasting five years.
After the country’s independence in 1957, the sultans and the ruling coalition led by the United Malays National Organisation for the most part enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship.
That changed with Mahathir Mohamad’s rise to the premiership in the 1980s. He sought to curtail the monarchy’s influence by ending federal veto powers, removing their legal immunity and scrapping laws barring people from criticizing the king. He also attempted to transfer emergency powers to the executive branch of government.
After Mahathir’s 22-year stint in power ended in 2003, the sultans have “found ways to come back into the limelight,” said Greg Lopez, a lecturer at Murdoch University Executive Education Center in Perth.
“They are a power center, so the politicians know that it’s a mistake to give them power because then they hold you in check,” he said. “So weak politicians, weak leaders go to them.”
Muhyiddin’s government is perhaps the most unstable in Malaysia’s history. The king’s increased prominence was evident during a speech at parliament’s first sitting in May, when he called for unity and urged lawmakers to “display maturity in politics.” It was the first time in the country’s history that a one-day session hosted only the king’s speech, leaving no time for representatives to discuss policies or address the pandemic.
Last month, the king rebuffed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s claims to have “convincing” evidence of a parliamentary majority. He said Anwar didn’t submit lawmakers’ names to back up his claim, and urged the country to unite.
Less than two weeks later, the king also rejected Muhyiddin’s request to declare a state of emergency to tackle the pandemic, which would’ve allowed the prime minister to pass the budget without a vote. That move generated calls for Muhyiddin to resign even from within his own coalition.
Many in Malaysia are welcoming the enhanced role for the king, seeing him as a voice of reason during a time of political instability, economic distress and pandemic-related anxiety. When the king stopped emergency rule, “#daulattuanku” — which roughly means long live the king — was trending on Twitter.
Regardless of their changing political clout through the centuries, Malaysian royalty command fierce loyalty from the ethnic-Malay majority. Similar to Thailand, where protesters are breaking taboos to publicly challenge the royal family, criticizing the Malaysian rulers carries legal risks.
The Edge newspaper reported last month that police arrested a local opposition politician for seditious comments about the monarchy posted on Facebook.
The monarch’s actions this year have been “unprecedented,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “The monarchy assumes a much more constitutionally enhanced position.”
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.
Here's a cheat sheet for Thanksgiving's inevitable politics talk – CNN
Secret recordings reveal political directives, tension over Alberta's pandemic response – CBC.ca
On the morning of June 4, a team of Alberta civil servants gathered — as it had nearly every day since the COVID-19 pandemic began — to co-ordinate the province’s response to the crisis.
A few minutes into the meeting in a boardroom in downtown Edmonton, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw weighed in.
The cabinet committee, to which she and the group reported, was pressuring her to broadly expand serology testing, which is used to detect the presence of COVID-19 antibodies in the blood.
The problem was that the tests had limited large-scale clinical value and Hinshaw believed it would overestimate the virus’s presence in the population.
“Honestly, after the battle that we had about molecular testing, I don’t have a lot of fight left in me,” Hinshaw said during that meeting. The province had introduced rapid molecular testing kits at the start of the pandemic to help testing in rural and remote communities. The recordings reveal some tensions about that decision.
“I think we need to draw on our experience from the molecular testing battle that we ultimately lost, after a bloody and excruciating campaign, and think about, how do we limit the worst possible implications of this without wearing ourselves down?,” Hinshaw said.
A few weeks later, Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Hinshaw announced the province would pour $10 million into targeted serology testing, the first in Canada to do so.
The level of political direction — and, at times, interference — in Alberta’s pandemic response is revealed in 20 audio recordings of the daily planning meetings of the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) obtained by CBC News, as well as in meeting minutes and interviews with staff directly involved in pandemic planning.
Taken together, they reveal how Premier Jason Kenney, Shandro and other cabinet ministers often micromanaged the actions of already overwhelmed civil servants; sometimes overruled their expert advice; and pushed an early relaunch strategy that seemed more focused on the economy and avoiding the appearance of curtailing Albertans’ freedoms than enforcing compliance to safeguard public health.
“What is there suggests to me that the pandemic response is in tatters,” said Ubaka Ogbogu, an associate law professor at the University of Alberta who specializes in public health law and policy.
“The story tells me that the chief medical officer of health doesn’t have control of the pandemic response [and] tells me that decisions are being made by persons who shouldn’t be making decisions,” said Ogbogu, who was given access by CBC News to transcripts of specific incidents from the recordings.
“It tells me that the atmosphere in which decisions are being made is combative, it is not collaborative and that they are not working towards a common goal — they are working at cross-purposes.”
Ogbogu has been a staunch critic of the UCP government. In July, he publicly resigned from the Health Quality Council of Alberta, citing the potential for political interference in its work due to amendments to the Health Statutes Amendment Act.
Shandro did not respond to an interview request.
In a brief emailed statement that did not address specific issues raised by CBC News, a spokesperson for Kenney said it is the job of elected officials to make these sorts of decisions and he said there was no political interference.
Hinshaw also did not respond to an interview request.
But at the daily pandemic briefing Wednesday, as the province announced its 500th death, Hinshaw reiterated her belief that her job is to provide “a range of policy options to government officials outlining what I believe is the recommended approach and the strengths and weaknesses of any alternatives.
“The final decisions are made by the cabinet,” she said, adding that she has “always felt respected and listened to and that my recommendations have been respectfully considered by policy makers while making their decisions.”
Secret recordings reveal tension
The recordings provide a rare window into the relationship between the non-partisan civil servants working for the Emergency Operation Centre and political officials.
The EOC team, comprised of civil servants from Alberta Health and some seconded from other ministries, has been responsible for planning logistics and producing guidelines and recommendations for every aspect of Alberta’s pandemic response.
The recordings also provide context for the recent public debate about the extent of Hinshaw’s authority to act independent of government.
Even if Hinshaw had the authority to make unilateral decisions, the recordings confirm what she has repeatedly stated publicly: she believes her role is to advise, provide recommendations and implement decisions made by the politicians.
At the group’s meeting on June 8, the day before Kenney publicly announced Alberta’s move to Stage 2 of its economic relaunch plan, Hinshaw relayed the direction she was receiving from the Emergency Management Cabinet Committee (EMCC). That committee included Kenney, Shandro and nine other cabinet ministers.
“What the EMCC has been moving towards, I feel, is to say, ‘We need to be leading Albertans where they want to go, not forcing them where they don’t want to go,'” Hinshaw told the group.
Hinshaw said she didn’t know if the approach would work, but they were being asked to move away from punitive measures to simply telling people how to stay safe.
More of a “permissive model?” someone asked. Hinshaw agreed.
“I feel like we are starting to lose social licence for the restrictive model, and I think we are being asked to then move into the permissive model,” she said. “And worst-case scenario, we will need to come back and [be] restrictive.”
Soaring COVID-19 rates in Alberta
As a second wave of COVID-19 pummels the province, an increasing number of public-health experts say Alberta long ago reached that worst-case scenario.
The province has passed the grim milestone of more than 1,500 new cases reported in a day. To date, 500 people have died. Intensive care units across Alberta are overwhelmed, with COVID-19 patients spilling into other units as beds grow scarce.
On Tuesday, after weeks of pleading from doctors, academics and members of the public for a province-wide lockdown, Kenney declared another state of public health emergency.
However, he pointedly refused to impose a lockdown, saying his government wouldn’t bow to “ideological pressure” that he said would cripple the economy. Instead, he announced targeted restrictions, including a ban on indoor social gatherings.
WATCH | Premier Jason Kenney announces new pandemic restrictions:
Kenney repeated many of the comments he made on Nov. 6.
Even as Alberta’s case count grew so high that the province could not sustain its contact tracing system, Kenney rejected calls for more stringent measures and downplayed the deaths related to COVID-19.
“What you describe as a lockdown, first of all, constitutes a massive invasion of the exercise of people’s fundamental rights and a massive impact on not only their personal liberties but their ability to put food on the table to sustain themselves financially,” Kenney said.
Kenney said it was projected, back in April, that COVID-19 would be the 11th-most common cause of death in the province.
“And so currently, this represents a tiny proportion of the deaths in our province.”
High evidence threshold for restrictions
A source with direct knowledge of the daily planning meetings said the premier wants evidence-based thresholds for mandatory restrictions that are effectively impossible to meet, especially in an ever-changing pandemic.
As of Wednesday, no thresholds have been designated publicly.
The source said Kenney’s attitude was that he wasn’t going to close down anything that affected the economy unless he was provided with specific evidence about how it would curtail the spread of COVID-19.
“This is like nothing we have ever seen before. So [it is] very, very difficult to get specific evidence to implement specific restrictions,” said the source who, like the others interviewed by CBC News, spoke on condition of confidentiality for fear of losing their job.
Another planning meeting source said “there is kind of an understanding that we put our best public health advice forward and that Kenney is really more concerned about the economy and he doesn’t want it shut down again.”
CBC News also interviewed a source close to Hinshaw who said she has indicated that, eight months into the pandemic, politicians are still often demanding a level of evidence that is effectively impossible to provide before they will act on restrictive recommendations.
The source said Hinshaw suggested politicians “have tended to basically go with the minimal acceptable recommendation from public health, because I actually think if they went below — if they pushed too far — that she probably would step down.”
Ogbogu said it is clear politicians, who are not experts in pandemic response, are not focusing on what matters most to public health.
“The focus needs to be on the disease, on how you stop it,” he said. “Not the economy. Nothing is more important.”
‘I may have gotten in trouble with the minister’s office’: Hinshaw
The government has often used Hinshaw as a shield to deflect criticism of its pandemic strategy, suggesting she is directing the response. The government has at times appeared to recast any criticism of the strategy as a personal attack on her.
At her public COVID-19 updates, Hinshaw has refused to stray from government talking points or offer anything more than a hint of where her opinions may diverge.
Behind the scenes, however, there were clearly times when Hinshaw disagreed with the political direction — although it was also evident the politicians had the final say.
In April, for instance, the government introduced asymptomatic testing in some parts of the province, and later expanded it.
Hinshaw told a May 22 meeting she had unintentionally started a conversation with Kenney in which she expressed concern about the value of large-scale asymptomatic testing as opposed to strategic testing.
Kenney in turn asked for a slide presentation that would detail the pros and cons of each approach.
“I didn’t intend to have that conversation, so I may have gotten in trouble with the [health] minister’s office today about that,” Hinshaw said at that meeting.
The presentation, she said, would include “how expensive it is to test people when we don’t actually get a lot of value, to go forward with a testing strategy that we can stand behind. So we will see if the minister’s office will allow us to put that [presentation] forward,” Hinshaw said.
The premier, she said, had asked for the presentation for June 2.
But she cautioned the team, “Not to get all of our hopes up or anything.”
A week later, Hinshaw publicly announced the province had opened up asymptomatic testing to any Albertan who wanted it. At a news conference, she said that given the impending Stage 2 relaunch, it was an “opportune time” to expand testing.
‘They don’t want us to enforce anything’
The recordings suggest a desire by Health Minister Shandro to exert control over enforcement of public health orders.
Alberta Health Services (AHS), the province’s health authority, is responsible for enforcing public health orders. It is supposed to operate at arm’s length from government.
On June 9, the same day Kenney announced the Stage 2 economic relaunch, Hinshaw told the EOC meeting Shandro’s office wanted to be informed how AHS would consult with “us” before taking any action on COVID-19 public orders.
Alberta Health lawyers, working with the EOC, were responsible for writing the Stage 2 relaunch order that would outline restrictions on businesses and the public.
Hinshaw said she needed to verify with Shandro’s office, but she thought “they don’t want us to enforce anything. [They] just want us to educate, and no enforcement.”
But the group’s chief legal advisor was adamant.
“Under no circumstance will AHS check with the political minister’s office before undertaking an enforcement action under the Public Health Act,” he said
Hinshaw said Shandro’s office wanted AHS to check with her first, so she could report back to his office.
The legal advisor challenged that, saying AHS was supposed to check with Hinshaw and a colleague “with respect to prosecutions, not enforcement generally.
“So what is going on?” he asked.
Shandro’s office was “mad that AHS has enforced things like no shaving in barber shops,” Hinshaw responded.
Hinshaw said all local medical officers of health and environmental health officers were already expected to tell her and the team about any impending orders or prosecutions.
But a week later, a senior health official told the meeting AHS was “struggling about what they should be doing” regarding enforcement.
The official said AHS had been told: “Don’t turn a blind eye but don’t issue any orders.
“And then come to us, and if push comes to shove, I think it will be up to the ministry to figure out if we are going to do something.”
In mid-September, CBC News reported that AHS had received more than 29,000 complaints about COVID-19 public health order violations since the beginning of April.
A total of 62 enforcement orders, including closure orders, were issued in that period. As recently as last week, AHS has said that “every effort” is made to work with the public before issuing an enforcement order.
In private conversations as recently as this month, Hinshaw has characterized her interactions with Kenney and cabinet as difficult, said a source close to her.
“I would say that she has used the phrase ‘uphill battle,'” they said.
The source said Hinshaw has been understanding of the reasons for the difficulty, “which I think we both see as being rooted in a completely different weighting of the risks of the disease and the risks of, for example, public-health restrictions.”
Hinshaw, however, “did allude to some of the meetings as being very distressing.”
But the source said Hinshaw worries about what could happen if she leaves her role.
“She sees her position, optimally, as trying to do the best she can from inside. And that if she wasn’t there, there would be a risk that things would be worse in terms of who else might end up taking that position and what their viewpoint was on the best direction.”
Ogbogu, the health law expert, said that while Hinshaw may be well-meaning, her willingness to allow politicians to subvert her authority is ultimately undermining the fight against COVID-19.
If the government is not following scientific advice, if it is not interested in measures that will effectively control a pandemic that is killing Albertans, then Hinshaw “owes us the responsibility of coming out and saying, ‘They are not letting me do my job,'” Ogbogu said.
“And if that comes at a risk of her job, that is the nature of public service.”
At the planning meeting on June 4, a civil servant told the team there was concern the province wasn’t giving businesses much time to adjust to shifting COVID-19 guidance.
“I’ve been advocating everywhere I can to move it up, and they moved it back,” Hinshaw replied.
“So you can see I have a lot of influence,” she said sarcastically. “But I will keep trying.”
If you have information about this story, or for another story, please contact us in confidence at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Thanksgiving Myth Debunked: People Aren’t Fighting About Politics – The New York Times
With millions of Americans choosing not to visit loved ones this Thanksgiving out of caution over the coronavirus, a lot of small rituals will get passed over in the process.
No shared turkey dinners, no football-watching parties in the TV room, no wondering aloud what stuffing is actually made of. And none of those famous, knock-down-drag-out fights with your relatives over politics. Right?
Sort of. Those storied fights might never have been such a big part of the tradition to begin with. Like many aspects of the story that this holiday commemorates, brutal family infighting over politics is more myth than reality.
“I’m Italian, so my family fights about anything and everything,” said Matthew Dean, 34, a construction project manager living in Pittsburgh. “They can agree with each other and still be arguing.”
Mr. Dean is a Republican who supports President Trump, while other members of his family, including his father, dislike the president. He said they’re usually able to disagree without being too disagreeable.
“From an outsider’s perspective, it would be arguing, but it never ruined any family time together,” Mr. Dean said, describing the raucous scene at past Thanksgiving dinners. “I think we have a greater sense of the bonds that hold us together as family and friends. And we don’t allow the politics to get above that.”
Two years ago, a survey by The Associated Press and NORC, an independent research group at the University of Chicago, found that just 9 percent of American parents with adolescent or young-adult children reported having had a holiday gathering ruined by family disagreements over politics. Online, it was a different story: The same parents were twice as likely to say that they had unfriended or blocked a family member for political reasons.
“The vast majority of Americans have no interest in discussing politics,” Samara Klar, a professor of political science at the University of Arizona, said in an interview. “Politics is important when it arises, but for most people it’s not something that they are excited to bring up at dinner.”
For most Americans, politics isn’t anywhere near their favorite conversation topic. Dr. Klar said that while studies have shown that American parents would generally prefer to see their children marry someone of the same political persuasion, her own research went a level further — and found that the even stronger desire was for their children to marry someone who simply won’t force them to discuss politics all that much.
“They just don’t want somebody who talks about politics all the time,” she said. “Partisan identity will always fall dead last,” she added. “Behind their gender, family role, their nationality, their race.”
As a result, if coming together at the holidays means dealing with an outspoken relative of a different political stripe, the most common response may simply be flight — not fight.
A study of Thanksgiving diners in 2016 matched up anonymized smartphone-location data with precinct-level voting information, and found that when relatives visited each other from areas with opposite political leanings, their meals together tended to be measurably shorter.
This tracks with a separate study from 2016, “Political Chameleons: An Exploration of Conformity in Political Discussions,” finding that people would often prefer to avoid talking politics over openly disagreeing about them.
“If you have somebody who’s really vocal politically, they’re going to dominate the discussion,” said Yanna Krupnikov, a Stony Brook University political scientist who has collaborated with Dr. Klar. “You’re not necessarily going to have people fight with them — you’re more likely to have people agree politely and just leave a little early.”
Over the past few decades, as polarization has grown, families have in fact become more politically homogeneous.
Kent Tedin, a professor of political science at the University of Houston, cited research he has done in recent years picking up on data compiled since the 1960s by Kent Jennings at the University of Michigan. It found that married, heterosexual couples are now far more likely to be politically aligned than they were 50 years ago — or even a couple decades ago.
Dr. Klar said that her research has indicated that this trend is driven in part by the fact that, since the feminist movement’s second wave in the mid-20th century, women have grown more directly engaged in politics — and have become more likely to put a priority on finding a husband with whom they agree politically.
The same thing goes for parents and their children. On matters of partisanship and political views — including a measurement that academics call the “racial resentment scale” — young people are far more likely to hold similar views to their parents than they were in the mid-1970s, or even in the 1990s.
As a result, Dr. Tedin said, at the Thanksgiving table, “if there is a disagreement, almost anybody in the nuclear family — mom, dad and the kids — is going to be on one side, and the cousins are going to be on the other side.”
But mostly, they’re likely to tiptoe around one another. “Polarized politics increases avoidance within families,” he said. “You might think polarized politics means they’re going to be fighting at Thanksgiving, but no — it’s the reverse. Polarized politics increases the pressure to avoid conflict at the holiday.”
The inclination to avoid conflict doesn’t necessarily mean that disagreement is inevitable if the conversation does turn to politics. Matthew Levendusky, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies political polarization, said that when those kinds of conflicts do come up, they aren’t necessarily likely to become hostile. And whether hard or easy, Dr. Levendusky added, those conversations are fundamental to the functioning of a democracy — especially in a time when social media and cable news often play up each party’s most extreme elements.
In 2016, Dr. Levendusky published a study showing that people tended to vastly overestimate the differences between the two parties. “We asked people where their position was, and where they thought the average Republican and Democratic positions were,” he said. “Basically, they thought the parties were twice as far apart as they are in reality, on a wide variety of issues.”
Now he is at work on a book about how people with differing perspectives might overcome their political animus. Simply talking to one another, he said, is essential to bridging the divide — and it’s often not as painful as people expect it to be. That’s because most Americans are not deeply ideological, so political disagreements are not terribly high-stakes for them. In completing the research for the book, he and his collaborators convened roughly 500 study participants from across the political spectrum, and invited them to talk about politics.
Dr. Levendusky found that participants were pleasantly surprised by the experience: “A number of people came up to me afterward and said, ‘I wasn’t sure I was going to like this, but I found all these people who thought like me, even if we weren’t on the same political side.’”
Still, for many families, the primary goal this holiday is to find anything other than politics to talk about.
Antonette Iverson, 27, said that her extended family in Detroit would be celebrating Thanksgiving remotely this year, saying grace over a Zoom call and then retreating to separate holiday meals. She doesn’t expect anyone would want to talk much about politics even if they were getting together, she said, adding that her family is mostly of a like mind about the presidential election anyway.
“I don’t think there needs to be a discussion,” she said. “We’re all pretty exhausted with the situation.”
Kathleen Gray contributed reporting.
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