A lame duck line-up for Malaysia
By Chin Huat Wong
KUALA LUMPUR - Ten days after winning 60% of parliamentary seats with only 47% of the popular vote, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak announced a bloated cabinet line-up to ensure his political survival amid allegations of widespread electoral fraud and a weak popular mandate.
Installed last week as the country's first minority prime minister since 1969, Najib referred to his new team as a "unity cabinet" and vowed to "bring about national reconciliation, secure Malaysia's economic future, and build a stronger, more harmonious society".
The new line-up, however, is more apparently designed to please
stalwarts in his ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party, which will hold its pivotal intra-party meeting by the end of the year, as well as to reward minor party allies in the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition for their electoral support.
Malaysia's UMNO-dominated cabinets have long been criticized for being bloated for a population of only 28 million people. Najib's entire administration consists of 32 ministers and 26 deputy ministers with six appointed senators. This means every two in five of BN's 133 parliamentarians will have a position on the front bench.
While the number of actual government ministries is set to be reduced from 25 to 24, with the ministries in charge of schools and universities merged, the number of ministerial positions in the new line-up has been increased to 35 from 31.
The most bloated ministry will be the Prime Minister's Department (PMD), with a eight ministers (up from six) and two deputy ministers. The PMD has been steadily built up since the rule of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and now serves like a mini-cabinet.
Historically, the PMD has taken up many roles of the ministries in the cabinet and has made executive dominance into a sort of personalized control of government. Following another tradition of Mahathir's authoritarian tenure, Najib holds the position of first finance minister, with a second finance minister in assistance.
This goes against the Westminster convention to have a senior minister in charge of the government's purse to check on the premier's spending. Similarly, the Ministry of Education and Higher Learning also has a second minister to assist the First Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who happens to be Najib's ambitious deputy and possible challenger for party leader at UMNO's meeting later this year.
UMNO takes up 21 out of 35 ministerial positions and the near lame duck premier has clearly put his own political survival ahead of competence and reform. All three deputy presidents of UMNO, the next in rank after Najib and Muhyiddin, have been retained in the cabinet with important portfolios.
Najib's cousin, Hishamuddin Hussein, was much criticized as home minister in the last cabinet for his perceived failure in combating crime, his disastrous dealing with the Sulu rebel incursion of Sabah, and crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, including those who rallied for electoral reform. In the new cabinet, he has been moved to the defense ministry and appointed as acting transport minister.
Another vice president, Ahmad Zahidi Hamidi, whose tenure as defense minister was marked by big-ticket arm purchases, takes over Hishammuddin's powerful portfolio of home affairs.
UMNO stalwarts in the states of Perlis, Terengganu and Kedah have been brought into the cabinet to pacify their respective factions. Even a crony businessman, who was once sacked from the party for allegedly paying six million ringgit (US$2 million) to be party boss in his constituency, has been made a deputy minister.
To be sure, Najib has brought some new blood politicians into the cabinet, including UMNO youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin and his ally from Sabah, Abdul Rahman Dahlan. They were both appointed despite objections from Mahathir's influential camp.
Four years ago, Mahathir and Muhyiddin enthroned Najib by forcing out then premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Mahathir's immediate successor and Khairy's father-in-law, after BN's unprecedented electoral setback in 2008.
Najib, however, performed even worse than Abdullah in leading BN in the election concluded on May 5, not only by losing seven additional parliamentary seats but for the first time for a prime minister since 1969 losing the popular vote count. Rumors are already rife that Mahathir and Muhyiddin may join forces to try to oust Najib.
Najib has also continued with the appointment of non-politicians into his cabinet through the appointment of senators. Besides retaining business entrepreneur Idris Jala, who was tasked in the previous government with streamlining the bureaucracy, Najib also brings in Abdul Wahid Omar, a banker, and Paul Low, the president of Amnesty International's Malaysia chapter.
It is questionable, of course, how much difference such non-politicians can bring. For instance, Idris once crusaded against government subsidies for fuel and other necessities, but Najib soon followed up with generous populist hand-outs designed to sway votes.
Low's contribution to the anti-graft battle is even more questionable. Two months ago, when Sarawak's powerful Chief Minister Taib Mahmud was implicated in massive corruption with revealing evidence captured on hidden camera, Low came out to defend Najib's inaction on Taib on the grounds of political reality. Despite the corruption allegations, Taib's BN-affiliated party swept to victory at the polls.
Saifuddin Abdullah, seen by some as the most reform-minded UMNO politician, was nevertheless voted down amid the anti-BN wave in the recent elections. He has since expressed his concern that there are not enough politicians in Najib's new cabinet who share a commitment to reform, and that the BN may neglect growing aspirations for good governance among the electorate.
The most pressing reform need is of the jilted electoral process. The opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition has organized five gigantic rallies to protest the election result in provincial towns across the country that have attracted multi-ethnic, young crowds in numbers ranging from 30,000 to 120,000.
While Najib spoke to the need for national reconciliation immediately after the hotly contested election, there is no sign in his cabinet line-up or other promised measures that he is prepared to face the problem in a meaningful way.
Meanwhile, a known hardliner has succeeded his retired boss to become the new Inspector-General of Police (IGP), prompting concerns that the opposition rallies may face harsh crackdowns. If so, it may aggravate further the country's boiling political divisions.
On the margins, Najib's new line-up has responded to certain changes in Malaysian politics and society. For the second consecutive election, the North Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak have been rewarded with more front-bench positions for their enduring support for BN.
Despite making up only one-sixth of the electorate and accounting for only a quarter of parliament's seats, every two out of five ministers in the cabinet are now from Sabah and Sarawak. Whether the appointments will help to develop the two states, the country's richest in natural resources but poorest by living standards, is yet to be seen.
P Waythamoorthy, a leader of the minority Indian rights movement Hindraf, has been made a senator and deputy minister after pledging his support for BN in the elections. As the first Indian frontbencher coming from outside UMNO's long-term ally the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), Waythamoorthy's appointment indicates UMNO's acknowledgement of the need to reach beyond its traditional BN structure.
The most interesting development, however, is the question of Chinese representation in the federal executive. Suffering its worst ever electoral performance, the BN-loyal Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) has kept its promise not to join the federal cabinet.
The four ministerial portfolios held previously by UMNO's erstwhile Chinese ally will go instead to UMNO and MIC, which take up three (one in custody for MCA) and one positions respectively. The communal representatives of the ethnic Chinese, who make up a quarter of the national population, will be winnowed down to minister Paul Low and deputy minister Mary Yap from Sabah.
In the past, for the country's second-largest ethnic group virtually to stay out of the federal executive would have alarmed both the ethnic majority Malays, who may perceive it as a challenge to their political dominance, and the Chinese themselves, who fear marginalization.
An opinion poll conducted by the independent pollster Merdeka Centre before the general elections, however, revealed that 80% of Chinese respondents felt that their communal interests could be served and protected by non-Chinese politicians. Tan Yew Sing, president of the influential Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, perhaps characterized best the change in mindset: "We only need Malaysian-minded ministers who cater to the needs of all."
Chin Huat Wong is a fellow at the Penang Institute, a think tank linked to the Penang State Government. He earned his PhD from the University of Essex on a thesis focused on Malaysia's electoral and party systems. He is also a steering committee member of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections 2.0, also known as Bersih 2.0.
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