KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia’s new prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, appealed Monday to the divided nation for a chance to prove his mettle amid doubts over his legitimacy, and vowed to form a corruption-free Cabinet despite aligning with a former scandal-plagued party.
In his first address to the nation since being sworn in on Sunday, Muhyiddin said he wasn’t a traitor and blamed former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad for causing last week’s political turmoil with his resignation.
He gave no explanation of why he led his Bersatu party out of the governing Alliance of Hope, depriving it of a majority and causing its collapse less than two years after its historic victory in 2018 that ousted a corruption-tainted coalition that had ruled for 61 years.
Bersatu joined hands with the same coalition that it ousted, along with several smaller parties, to form a Malay-majority government.
“I know some people are angry with me. As expected, some parties labeled me as a traitor. Listen carefully. I am not a traitor,” Muhyiddin said in a late-night televised speech. “My conscience is clear that I am here to save the country from prolonged political turmoil.”
Muhyiddin said his weekend appointment by the king was by the book because he has the support of a majority of lawmakers. That has been disputed by Mahathir, who said he had majority backing to serve as prime minister for a third time and called for an urgent vote in Parliament.
Mahathir, 94, has said he felt betrayed by long-time ally Muhyiddin, who he said had been plotting a coup for a long time with the United Malays National Organization, where several officials including former Prime Minister Najib Razak are on trial on graft charges.
Many Malaysians are angered by what they see as a betrayal of their vote for a change in 2018 elections, with small protest rallies held over the weekend to “reject the traitors” and the hashtag #NotMyPM trending on Twitter.
Muhyiddin, 72, promised to pick individuals who are clean, have integrity and are of high caliber for his Cabinet despite UMNO’s return to power. Muhyiddin, a nationalistic politician who once famously quipped he was Malay first and Malaysian second, also vowed to be a prime minister for all ethnic groups.
His government also includes a hard-line Islamic party, sparking fears of greater Islamization and more pro-Malay policies. Ethnic Malays account for 60% of Malaysia’s 32 million people, with large Chinese and Indian minorities.
“I offer my body and soul to the country,” Muhyiddin said. “Give me a chance to leverage my 40 years of political and government experience to steer Malaysia to glory.”
Muhyiddin and Mahathir were former members of UMNO who formed Bersatu in 2016 amid anger over a massive corruption scandal involving the 1MDB state investment fund.
Muhyiddin served in various ministries during Mahathir’s first stint as prime minister for 22 years until 2003. He was appointed deputy prime minister when Najib took power in 2009 but was sacked in 2015 after he criticized Najib’s handling of the 1MDB scandal.
Bersatu teamed up with the Alliance of Hope with a pact that Mahathir would eventually hand over power to former rival Anwar Ibrahim. Muhyiddin was the home minister under the short-lived alliance but only took up the post months later following treatment for pancreatic cancer.