Malaysia’s Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob faces the prospect of having to weather more than one storm, as he continues mulling calls for a general election even as his administration braces for devastating floods that the year-end monsoon season is likely to bring.
Ismail Sabri, who was named the nation’s ninth leader just over a year ago, is in the precarious position of being the first prime minister who is not the head of a political party – leaving him vulnerable to pressure from the upper echelons of his Umno party, who have been clamouring for early polls.
Following its shock loss in 2018, the party says it is confident it has regained support to return to power.
Top party leaders are also facing corruption charges that critics say could go away if Umno is once again at the helm.
Party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has since March made it clear that an election should be called this year rather than in 2023, when the parliamentary term expires, even though Ismail Sabri has stressed that his priorities are to stem surging inflation and help the Covid-hit economy recover.
The prime minister last month told party leaders that polls “will not be held in 2023”, but stopped short at committing to a specific time.
“Any decision will be made by Umno’s ‘top five’…that meeting might be ahead of the date of the budget,” Ismail Sabri told reporters on Tuesday. The budget is set to be introduced on October 7.
But all the plans may come to naught if nature has any say in it.
Due to Malaysia’s location between Indonesia and the Philippines which acts as a natural buffer, the country has been able to avoid extreme weather conditions.
But climate change is increasingly wreaking havoc on Malaysians’ lives as storms become stronger and more frequent.
The meteorological service has already forecast flash floods from October to December, made worse by the ongoing La Niña weather phenomenon which causes heavy rains over maritime Southeast Asia.
“From mid-November, there is a possibility of massive floods happening, especially towards the end of the month,” the department’s director Muhammad Helmi Abdullah told local newspaper Berita Harian.
Under such circumstances, many have questioned the wisdom of holding a national election, especially given that many Malaysians live outside their voting constituencies and would need to travel back to their hometowns to vote.
As James Chin, an expert on Malaysia affairs from Tasmania University, put it: “If schools are underwater, how can people vote?”
Malaysia traditionally uses schools across the country as voting stations, with teachers serving as polling officials.
But during natural disasters these buildings also function as de facto relief centres for flood victims, opening up a quandary for the government.
While it would not be the first election held during a monsoon season – the 1990 and 1999 elections took place in October and November, respectively – the increasing ferocity of storms and flooding over the years, as well as declining infrastructure, has brought increased risks to locals.
In December, some 600,000 people in Shah Alam, the capital city of Malaysia’s most populous state of Selangor, spent three days submerged up to waist-deep in water after rivers and drainage systems became overwhelmed by a month’s worth of rain over two days.
Kuala Lumpur, just 30km to the east, was spared the worst, but also saw its massive concrete-lined rivers bursting its banks, an unprecedented sight to many in the Malaysian capital, whose last great flood took place in 1971.
The government was quick to declare the incident a “once-in-a-century” disaster, but public anger remains to this day over the lack of warnings from officials, the inefficient disaster and evacuation response, and the lack of aid for affected residents.
Many people are still picking up the pieces of their lives, including having to shoulder an even greater financial burden following months of Covid-19 lockdowns and other restrictions.
Optometrist Deayana Kama, 31, recounted how she had to fork out 10,000 ringgit (S$3,000) to fix her Proton Persona – her first car that she bought for 50,000 ringgit – which became submerged while she was helping a colleague rescue things from the shop.
With three more years left on her car loan, her finances are in ruins.
Other Malaysians have reported yet bigger bills of up to 60,000 ringgit to overhaul their sunken vehicles.
Then there is the trauma of having gone through such a disaster.
Lawyer Asyraq Rashid told This Week in Asia how he heard desperate cries for help from people trapped in basement car parks, unable to escape as the exits were locked, all while water from the river nearby gushed into the subterranean space.
This and many other experiences now bring a sense of anxiety to people who would otherwise welcome the occasional rain as a way to cool down in Malaysia’s tropical heat.
“I am awakened by rain in the middle of the night and would monitor the water level outside. It is a nightmare whenever it rains,” said Ajit Singh, who lives in Hulu Langat, an area east of Kuala Lumpur that was badly hit in December.
While Ismail Sabri recently announced 8 million ringgit in funding for disaster operations in 160 vulnerable areas, and an additional 4.8 million ringgit to procure 320 boats for relief missions, critics say these measures are ineffective.
Nurul Ashikin Mabahwi, an expert in flood risk management at Japan’s Shibaura Institute of Technology, said there was no science behind the government’s flood planning.
“There have been cases where relief centres ended up being flooded. All because the response is for the sake of responding, without any scientific calculations,” she said.
Malaysia deals with floods in phases of preparing, responding, and recovery, instead of using structural measures to mitigate the problem, including proper drainage, she said.
“This is why floods continue to be a yearly occurrence here.”
Tapping into public resentment and the government’s shortcomings, the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s deputy leader Rafizi Ramli warned Ismail Sabri that Umno’s hope for victory in the next election could be washed out if he took the gamble of calling a snap election during the monsoon season.
Rafizi reflected on the American public’s resentment in 2005 over the George W Bush administration’s weak response during Hurricane Katrina, which he claimed contributed to the Republican Party’s defeat in the 2008 US election to Democrat Barack Obama.
“If you dare to call for elections during the flooding season, do it,” Rafizi challenged the government at a political rally on Monday.
“God willing, we will throw you lot in prison after we win.”
The Pakatan Harapan opposition coalition also voiced its support for states under its administration to declare a climate disaster as a proactive measure ahead of the floods.
“Any move to call for election in flood season is utterly irresponsible,” it said.
Responding to Rafizi, Umno supreme council member Puad Zarkashi dismissed what he saw as excuses by Pakatan Harapan, which he believes is unprepared to contest an election at short notice.
“Just admit that Pakatan Harapan is not ready. Their poor record in previous by-elections and state elections in Melaka and Johor still haunts them,” Puad said.