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Episode 12: A Tale of Two-Term Premiership: Of Constitutional Amendments and Challenges

Updated: Oct 12, 2022

In the November edition of the Law Series, the Consti Team writes on limiting the terms served by a Prime Minister in Malaysia. This Law Series article delves into the constitutional impacts of restricting term limits in Malaysia by analysing its reception in several countries which have adopted such a policy.


The United States’ (“US”) political system prides itself in having a two-term limit for Presidents within their Constitution. On the outset, term limits appear to be the summit of democracy in the land of the free — serving as a check against unruly concentrations of power within the Presidential position.

In Malaysia, such a notion has been garnering discussions ever since Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s administration tabled a Constitutional Amendment Bill to set a two-term limit for the apex executive position in 2018.

On the 26th of August 2020, the government under Perikatan Nasional withdrew the Bill on the basis that new governments would entail new policies. All discussions on a term limit seemed to dissipate as political will was no longer directed towards the policy.

However, a resurgence of discussions surrounding this issue materialized in 2021 as Tan Sri Mahiaddin Yasin promised to limit a prime minister’s tenure to two terms while seeking bipartisan support.

Looking at the resurfacing of debates on two-term premiership, it begs the question: is the policy suitable in Malaysia’s legal and political climate?

This article aims to enlighten the reader on the legal and political merits and criticisms of adopting the policy. Other than that, it will also touch on constitutional realities that are closely interwoven with term limits domestically and internationally.

1.1. What does the amendment by the Pakatan Harapan government look like?

According to the Constitution (Amendment) (No.2) Bill 2019, amendments are to be done to Article 43(2) of the Federal Constitution by substituting paragraph (a) with the following paragraph:[1]

‘a) the Yang di-Pertuan Agong shall first appoint as Perdana Menteri (Prime Minister) to preside over the Cabinet a member of the House of Representatives--

(i) who in his judgment is likely to command the confidence of the majority of the members of that House; and

(ii) who has not at any time held the office of Prime Minister for two terms of Parliament;’

In short, this amendment will add another criterion that must be fulfilled by the Prime Minister to-be before the Yang di-Pertuan Agong were to appoint him, other than commanding the confidence of the majority of Parliament.

1.2. Are Constitutional Amendment Bills different from regular Parliamentary Bills?

As adopting the policy requires the Federal Constitution to be amended, it is important to first segue into Constitutional Amendment Bills, which are distinct from the usual Parliamentary Bills. According to Article 159(3) of the Federal Constitution, Bills amending the Constitution can only be passed if it was supported by two-thirds of both Houses of Parliament during its second and third readings, compared to the simple majority for regular Parliamentary Bills.[2]

Other than that, amendments are also bound to further procedural limits when they touch on specific topics as enumerated in Article 38(4), 159 and 161E, such as:

(i) Amendments to ‘sensitive issues’ listed in Article 159(5) will require the consent of the Conference of Rulers to be passed;[3]

(ii) Amendments to laws affecting the position of Sabah and Sarawak in the Federation will require consent of the Governors of the States, on the advice of the Chief Ministers.


2.1. What are the benefits of executive term limits?

2.1.1. Prevent abuse of power

The third US President, Thomas Jefferson, was of the concern that an indefinite term would corrupt the apex executive; ‘the indulgence and attachments of the people will keep a man in the chair after he becomes a dotard, that re-election through life shall become habitual, and election for life follow that.’[5]

Closer home, the Philippines reintroduced their one-term [JLBY5] limit policy because of the country’s painful experience under former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the country for two decades, equating to three terms.[6] Marcos declared Martial Law, controlling the government through the military to stay in power, as the then Constitution had already limited Presidential occupancy. Whilst the country was in poverty, the Marcos family plundered more or less $10 billion from state coffers.[7] Another plunder incident saw former President Joseph Estrada impeached during his reign.[8] Former President Gloria Arroyo was also jailed for corruption and stealing the equivalent of $10 million, before the Supreme Court dismissed the case due to insufficient evidence.[9]Similarly, in China, Xi Jinping has already amended the Constitution to abolish the two-term limit, leaving him in an indefinite term.[10]

These instances illustrate what may happen in Malaysia if term limits are not introduced. A term limit would serve as an additional check against the executive. If power is held by a premier for a long time, the said premier may turn authoritative and abuse their constitutional responsibilities and powers.

2.1.2 Boot out corruption

As mentioned, Tun Dr. Mahathir's introduction of a two-term limit was to root out corruption and damper the powers of the premiers.[11] An example would be current Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia’s then Presidential term limit could not stop Putin’s creativity in staying in power. Putin became President in 2000, limited to just two consecutive four-year terms, but at the end of his tenure, close ally Dmitry Medvedev became President, with Putin then being Prime Minister until the following election. His role as Prime Minister was not as figurehead, but was a bid in maintaining control. Putin reclaimed the Presidency in 2012, to which a term was increased to six years. After his re-election in 2018, he signed a law allowing him an additional two more six-year terms, giving him, what critics say, presidency for life.

Elections were deemed fraudulent with Golos, a Russian vote-monitoring group, saying it received 5,000 complaints of employers demanding their staff to vote for Putin. Political rivals were also silenced, as seen when Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with an [JLBY13] infamous Russian nerve agent slipped in his tea. Navalny survived but was subsequently jailed. His organisation, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, was also suspended by a court and termed as extremist, akin to terrorist group Al-Qaeda.[12] These are proof of corrupt practices, that could potentially be avoided if the initial Russian term limit was respected. A new leader would have been sworn in for Russia and consequently, the legislation of term limits would not have been tampered with, vote buying would not have occurred, nor would suppressing the opposition.

2.1.3 Leaders feel pressured to leave a positive legacy

In many senses, a shorter tenure will pressure leaders to deliver more results and leave office with a more positive legacy. Political transitions could become a much-needed norm within politics as a limited term would push presidents away. For instance, former US President Barrack Obama shoveled out regulations nearly one-third faster in his final year than during the previous three to stop future Presidents from overturning good policies.[13]

2.2. What are the disadvantages of term limits?

2.2.1. Lower voter turnout

Term limits will undoubtedly remove popular leaders from being elected again, leading to a potentially lower voter turnout in the following election as citizens may have doubts about the new candidate's competency.

Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity as the Democratic candidate in the 2016 US Presidential Election is an example. Although former President Barack Obama obtained 350,000 Michigan votes in 2012, Hillary Clinton lost to Trump by roughly 10,000 in that state, winning 30,000 voters less than the previous administration.[14]

Saying these states turned because of President Trump’s policies alone may not be necessarily true. Wisconsin saw less Democratic voters but the same number of Republican voters as in 2012. What was a 200,000-victory margin before turned out to be a mere 30,000 defeat for Clinton. As Omri Ben-Shahar, a University of Chicago law professor, aptly claims in his Forbes article, ‘It is remarkable and surprising that the elections were decided by Democrats’ distaste for Clinton and not Trump’s ability to reach expand the Republican vote.’[15]

2.2.2. Undemocratic

From the standpoint of civil rights, imposing a two-term limit would be restricting the peoples’ choice and thus would be undemocratic. As Abraham Lincoln put it, democracy is “the government of, by and for the people”, meaning a citizen must have the opportunity to elect an individual to represent them for their interests.

Robert Livingston, former Chancellor of New York, further supports this in the New York Convention 1788, ‘the people are the best judges who ought to represent them.’ He continues on, criticising a mandatory form of representative rotation, saying it would be against peoples’ natural right to tell them who they can and cannot elect. This can all be boiled down to a rhetorical question: ‘If the citizens are in continuous favour of a particular leader, should they not be allowed to choose him regardless of how many times he or she assumes that position?’ [16]

2.2.3. Requires as much experience

The most common argument for not needing a limit is that apex executive positions require as much experience as possible. Though all jobs require a good pedigree of experience, nevertheless, being the main decision maker of a country should top that list.

In the US, most of America's greatest legislative achievements such as Social Security, Medicare, Civil Rights, Rural Electrification, amongst others, came from members of Congress who were in their years of seniority.[17] One of the United States’ Constitution framers, James Maddison, explained in the Federalist Paper No. 53 that frequent re-elections will allow long standing members to become thorough ‘masters of the public business’. New members of Congress are more likely to fall into political snares that will only reveal itself to experience.

Fast forward to roughly a century and a half in the future, and we see some truth in Madison’s statement. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the only President with three terms under his belt, was applauded for guiding the country through the Great Depression,[18] a feat only experience can bring.

2.2.4. Inability to fulfill long-term plans

Inability of premiers to fulfill any long-term plans is another imperfection of this policy. Usually, elected premiers who desire to leave a mark require more long-term schemes to the extent of going beyond their own term limits. Ergo, when a new premier is sworn in, they may disrupt the previous administration’s plan directly or, if they were less interventionist, choose to commit to more immediate projects or interests.

For instance, the change from a Democratic government to a Republican one saw Trump reverse a multitude of Obama’s policies including renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), leaving the Paris Climate Accord and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and countless others.[19]

Domestic examples include the replacement of the Sales Tax and Services Tax (SST) with the Goods and Service Tax (GST), after only three [JLBY21] years of implementation. Rembau Member of Parliament, YB Khairy Jamaluddin felt the abolition originated from the mere game of politics,[20] rather than an actual concern as the implementation was rushed - confusing consumers and businesses.[21]

Because of this, premiers would instead focus on ‘easier’ short term goals for identifiable and marketable results. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri’s allocation of 100 days to his newly-appointed Ministers to show initial achievements and garner support from the public at the early stages is one illustration of so. Though he mentions the need for long term goals as well,[22] this displays how premiers will make use of short-term goals as an indicator for success when their time is limited.

2.3 Alternatives to Lifetime Term Limits

Besides introducing a lifetime two-term [JLBY25] limit, alternatives include a consecutive term limit. Therefore, if the limit is set at two terms, a Premier would only be ineligible to run a third time in the upcoming election, not eternally. Unlike most lifetime term limits such as the Presidential limits in the US and Philippines, the consecutive limit is practised in the Philippines Congress, namely two consecutive six-year terms and three consecutive three-year terms for Senators[23] and House members[24] respectively. The Local Mayors in the Phoenix, US allow Mayors to serve two consecutive terms but no limit on the total number of terms.[25]

Another suggestion would also be a term limit within a period of time, much like in some gubernatorial elections in the US. For example, the Governor in Montana can only serve eight years in a 16-year limit.[26] Once it reaches 16 years, the now-former Governor can run again. A longer limit could be put in place, considering one term in Malaysia is a good five years. This works similarly to the consecutive term limit, in the sense that premiers would not be able to contest for the country’s top spot once the term limit is reached, but only temporarily.

What could also be done prior to a Prime Minister’s two-term policy would be implementation at lower levels of office first. During Pakatan Harapan’s rule, Tun Dr. Mahathir wanted to restrict the terms of not only the Executive Head of the Federal Government but also the Executive Head of the State, being the Chief Minister.[27] As mentioned, this is done in the US with the local offices of Mayors and Governors, and can be somewhat of a sample study to identify areas of improvement along with its pros and cons.


3.1. Reception of term limits

The well-known two-term limit for the United States President is legislated in the form of the 22nd Amendment in the United States Constitution. The Philippines implements a limit too but only for one term, being six years for said term.[28]In Europe, where presidential systems are abundant, many countries impose two-term presidential limits through their respective Constitutions.

For instance, Turkey imposes a similar model to the US, as seen in Article 101 of the Turkish Constitution.[29] This is to be contrasted with two-term consecutive limits which are adopted in France[30] and Ukraine.[31] Unlike life-long limits barring a former President indefinitely, every former President who has run for two terms has to wait for another term until they can be re-elected as President once again.

Even though the two-term limit has been perceived as a safeguard against abuse of power, there have been calls to remove the two-term restriction upon the mandate in certain countries. Azerbaijan and Belarus have removed the two-term limit on the presidential mandate after a referendum showed an overwhelming support to abolish the two-term limitation.[32] Such limits have also been challenged on the basis of constitutionality in several countries within South America. In Bolivia, the Movement for Socialism, the ruling party at the time, challenged the constitutionality of the limit on more than two consecutive terms after a rejection of amending the Constitution to allow presidents to run for more than two terms.[33]

The Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal ruled that the limit was unconstitutional. This was on the basis that Article 23(2) of the American Convention of Human Rights (“CADH”) exclusively confers an exhaustive list of restrictions upon the right to run for elections, which do not include term limits. Therefore, since the Bolivian Constitution allows international human rights treaties to supersede even the Constitution itself, the CADH would have preferential application in limiting the presidential mandate.[34]

On the other end, the Honduran Constitution of 1982 once held a very rigid provision in restricting presidential term limits. Under Article 239 of the Constitution, presidents were limited to one four-year term. The second paragraph of the Article, dubbed the ‘poison pill clause’ further added a protective layer, by stating that any figure who attempted to amend the prohibition would be removed from office and rendered ineligible for ten years.[35]

The Supreme Court ruled the entirety of Article 239 as inapplicable on the grounds that the clauses that prohibited presidential re-election were in conflict with free speech and thought, particularly in regard to the ‘poison pill clause’. The court further held that the prohibition on re-election could be accepted in principle if it was socially necessary. However, the ban no longer fulfilled that criterion as the country’s democracy had been stabilised since 1982. [36]

In international blocs like the European Union, the Venice Commission has taken a positive stance to limit the mandates of presidents throughout Europe. The commission criticised the removal of Belarus’s limitation on term limits by stating that ‘democratic countries with presidential systems of government… generally either prohibit the immediate re-election of an incumbent President or at least limit it to one further term, as in the case in the Constitution presently in force in Belarus.’ [37]

3.2. Is it really undemocratic?

As we have seen in a few examples of countries that have ruled against term limits on reason to protect rights and liberties, it begs the question: is it really undemocratic? The Venice Commission manages to delve into this matter.

One of the biggest criticisms against term limits is that it takes away the political right of voters as it would disallow voters from re-electing candidates of their choice. Should democracy make way for voters who wish to re-elect candidates as many times as they want?

Paragraph (b) of Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”) states every person should enjoy the right to vote and be voted at ‘genuine periodic elections’.[38] The Venice Commission argues that, in order to preserve ‘genuine periodic elections’, term limits against re-election must be in place especially in presidential systems where power is so distortedly [GU32] concentrated in the hands of the executive. A lack of term limits would offend ‘genuine periodic elections’ as the executive may use the absence of limits to evade accountability and hold elections at unduly long intervals.[39]

Therefore, the Commission was of the view that term limits are not against the right to vote enumerated within the ICCPR. Instead, if modifying term limits is necessary, a constitutional amendment is required to modify term limits whilst fully respecting constitutional and legal procedures. This is because the powers of the representatives are conferred by the people through every constitution.[40]


4.1. Concentration of power is different between parliamentary systems and presidential systems

It is important to note that term limits are usually applied in republics, where presidential systems rule. In parliamentary systems, it is less common. For instance, in the United Kingdom, term limits are not applied against the Head of State or even the Head of Government albeit being hailed as an established Western democracy.

The mandate of the Prime Ministers may be withdrawn by Parliament at any time through the vote of no-confidence. This is provided for within our own Federal Constitution, in reference of Article 43(4), where it states that ‘if the Prime Minister ceases to command the confidence of the majority of the members of the House of Representatives, then… the Prime Minister shall tender the resignation of the Cabinet.’[41]

In essence, a Prime Minister needs to maintain the confidence of the Dewan Rakyat throughout his entire tenure. Members of Parliament are able to withdraw the mandate of the Prime Minister at any time. Votes of no-confidence have pressured Prime Ministers to resign such as what happened to Tan Sri Mahiaddin Yasin.[42]

In contrast to presidential systems like the US, there is a higher threshold to reach. A president would not need to maintain the confidence of the legislative throughout his tenure. The only way to effectively remove a president is by rigid and difficult impeachment procedures.[43] In the US, only three presidents have been impeached — and all three of them were acquitted.[44]

Ergo, the danger of abuse of power in a presidential system is higher than a parliamentary system as the president has more power over the legislative. Term limits in presidential systems act as important mechanism to safeguard against ‘winner-take-all’ politics.

4.2. Term limits are not alien to our Head of State

According to Article 32(3) of the Federal Constitution, our Head of State, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, can only hold the position for five years.[45] Albeit this rotation between Sultans is due to the recognition of a constitutional monarchy throughout the entire Malaysia, the core argument supporting it is similar. No one wants a single person (or in this case, a state) ruling the country perpetually.


To conclude, the merits of a term limit are certainly existent in some countries as evident in the United States and Philippines among others. However, its suitability must be taken note. There may be a lack of capable persons to fill the position once this policy is imposed. A role of a Prime Minister, as aforementioned, requires as much experience as possible. Term limits may also interfere with democracy due to the inability to elect a desired leader and reduce electoral voter participation.

A democratic country like Malaysia, which practises constitutional monarchy, may not find term limits to be best suited. A vote of no-confidence may already work well to remove corrupt and abusive leaders, if not removed via elections. Perhaps, the government may consider less radical alternatives before implementing two-term limits on a larger scale, such as consecutive term limits. A lower level implementation will aid in displaying the pros and cons of such an implementation, at a smaller financial cost. A term limit policy for the Prime Minister may not be an appropriate execution.


[1] Constitutional Amendment Bill (No 2) 2019.

[2] Federal Constitution, Article 159(3).

[3] Federal Constitution, Article 159(5).

[4] Federal Constitution, Article 161E.

[5] Peabody, B. G., & Gant, S. E. (1999). The Twice and Future President: Constitutional Interstices and the Twenty-Second Amendment. Minnesota Law Review, 909. Retrieved from <>. Site accessed on 2 October 2021.

[6] Palatino, M. (2021, July 7). Why are Former Philippine Presidents Running for Lower-Level Posts? The Diplomat. Retrieved from < >. Site accessed on 9 October 2021.

[7] Inquirer.Net. (2016, Nov 19). Marcos: Rise and fall of a dictator. Inquirer.Net. Retrieved from <>. Site accessed on 1 October 2021.

[8] Fuller, M. (2000, Nov 14). The Impeachment of Estrada : Day of Political Tumult in Manila. The New York Times. Retrieved from <>. Site accessed on 9 October 2021.

[9] The Straits Times. (2016, July 16). Ex-Philippine president Arroyo freed from jail: Police. The Straits Times. Retrieved from <>. Site accessed on 8 October 2021.

[10] McDonnell, S. (2018, Mar 11). China’s Xi allowed to remain ’president for life’ as term limits removed. BBC News. Retrieved from <>. Site accessed on 29 Sep 2021.

[11] See footnote 2 above.

[12] Williams, d. (2021, Oct 21). No opposition allowed in Putin’s ‘democratic’ Russia. Asia Times. Retrieved from <>. Site accessed on 1 October 2021.

[13] Noah, T. (2016, May 18). Obama rushes out rules to guarantee legacy. Politico. Retrieved from <>. Site accessed on 2 October 2021.

[14] Ben-Shahar, O. (2016, Nov 11). The Non-Voters Who Decided The Election: Trump Won Because Of Lower Democratic Turnout. Forbes. Retrieved from <>. Site accessed on 1 October 2021.

[15] See footnote 18 above.

[16] Gearhart, M. (2016, Oct 1). Congressional Term Limits: A Backwards Solution. Medium. Retrieved from <>. Site accessed on 1 October 2021.

[17] Carrol, S. R. (1995, July) Term Limits Getting Past The Rhetoric. Illinois Municipal Review. Retrieved from <>. Site accessed on 8 October 2021.

[18] Leuchtenburg, W.E., & Franklin, D. (2009). Roosevelt: Life in Brief. UVA Miller Center. Retrieved from <h>. Site accessed on 9 October 2021.

[19] Swanson, A. & Cochrane, E. (2020, Jan 29). Trump Signs Trade Deal With Canada and Mexico. The New York Times.<>. Site accessed on 9 October 2021.

[20] (2018, July 17). Khairy: Don't scrap GST because of politics. Malay Mail. Retrieved from <>. Site accessed on 9 October 2021.

[21] Stanley-Smith, J. (2018, Sept 5) Malaysia’s rush to introduce SST leaves taxpayers playing catch-up. International Tax Review. Retrieved from <>. Site accessed on 1 October 2021.

[22] (2021, Aug 27). Ismail gives ministers 100 days to prove their performance. Daily Express. Retrieved from <>. Site accessed on 9 October 2021.

[23] Philippines Constitution (Philippines) art VI, s 4.

[24] Philippines Constitution (Philippines) art VI, s 7.

[25] US Term Limits. Nine of the Ten Largest U.S. Cities have Term Limits. US Term Limits. Retrieved from <>. Site accessed on 1 October 2021.

[26] Montana Constitution (Montana, United States) art IV, s 8.

[27] Ramasamy, M. (2018, Oct 18). Constitutional amendment needed to limit PM, MBs and CMs tenure to two terms. New Straits Times. Retrieved from <>. Site accessed on 9 October 2021.

[28] Philippines Constitution (Philippines) art VII, S.4.

[29] Turkey Constitution (Turkey) art 101; See also art 116.

[30] France Constitution (France) art 6.

[31] Constitution of Ukraine (Ukraine) art 103(3).

[32] European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission), Report On Term-Limits Part I – Presidents, 20 March 2018, CDL-AD(2018)010. Retrieved from <>. Site accessed on 25 Sep 2021.

[33] See footnote 34 above.

[34] Ruling of the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal, TCP-0084/2017, 14 December 2017. Retrieved from <>. Site accessed on 27 Sep 2021.

[35] Honduran Constitution, Article 239.

[36] See footnote 34 above.

[37] See footnote 34 above.

[38] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 25(b)

[39] See footnote 16 above.

[40] See footnote 16 above.

[41] Federal Constitution, Article 43(4).

[42] Yen, N. L., (2021, Aug 16). Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and cabinet resign, palace confirms. CNBC. Retrieved from <>. Site accessed on 27 Sep 2021.

[43] Savage, C. (2019, Sep 24). How the Impeachment Process Works. The New York Times. Retrieved from <>. Site accessed on 28 Sep 2021.

[44] Mascaro, L., Tucker, E., & Jalonick, M. C. (2021, Feb 14). AP News. Trump acquitted, denounced in historic impeachment trial. Retrieved from <>. Site accessed on 29 Sep 2021.

[45] Federal Constitution, Article 32(3).

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