It’s a Cabinet of uninspiring compromise!

MALAYSIA needs a stable government that can bring about reforms, not compromises. In this respect, Prime Minister (PM) Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s first challenge would be his Cabinet line-up.

However, generally there seems to be a sense of disappointment despite the daily inspiring and hard hitting speeches about reforms he will execute since his appointment on Nov 24.

Anwar said Cabinet appointments shall not be made in exchange for support, and that his Cabinet would drastically reduce its size. Yet, even his first call has reached 28 ministers, closer to the earlier bloated regimes.

Looking at the line-up, it seems like the Pakatan Harapan (PH) chairman has just accepted what was demanded by his unity government partners without any intervention.

On the other hand, he was hard on DAP by giving the party relatively junior ministries. There is not even one DAP Malay minister. Indian ministers has been reduced from four previously to just one. Will this appease Perikatan Nasional’s (PN) racial and religious rhetoric, if that was the intention?

There seems to be a troubling demarcation in ministerial appointments with mainly inexperienced newbies on the PH side – and battle-hardened veterans on the other side.

Will Anwar be able to exert leadership in Cabinet with support from his side when there is contestation on reforms and policies like the scandal-ridden littoral combat ships (LCS)?

One of the reasons cited for the fall of the 22-month PH government were young ministers with no experience as ministers. Now the Cabinet of the ruling coalition is made up of wolves and sheep!

Dr Raman Letchumanan

DPM I juggling with court cases

The key question moving forward as Anwar rolls out his promised reforms is whether his unity government and Cabinet will stick by him, especially those who were in the previous regimes and affected by the reforms.

The most critiqued appointment was that of Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, now named as Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) I. Zahid is facing record-breaking criminal charges.

While helming his dual portfolio as the Rural Development Minister, he will have to attend to his court cases which takes precedence over government business. In court, the prosecutors will be merciless in vilifying an accused to extract a conviction.

At the same time, Zahid will be revered, obeyed without question, and celebrated outside court as the second most powerful man in the country.

This appointment seems premised on the fact that Zahid was instrumental in making Anwar the PM. Wouldn’t a possible court conviction or losing the UMNO presidency at the next party elections break that bond between them, and unwind Anwar’s position.

It’s a high-stake gamble, hence not good for them and the country.

The bane in Tengku Zafrul

Another surprise but widely expected dark horse was Tengku Datuk Seri Zafrul Abdul Aziz. He was the chosen poster boy for UMNO to win big for Putrajaya and wrestle Selangor from PH.

But he lost. For all his financial wizardry, he didn’t realise his goodies packed 2023 budget will be thrown back at his face by the voters.

During his three-year reign as finance minister, he oversaw record debts, spending, borrowing and the largest deficit budgets. Furthermore, many suspected financial scandals leads to his ministry. Now Anwar as Finance Minister would have to take on that burden and unravel all that.

Tengku Zafrul’s earlier appointment as finance minister through a senatorship was based on his expertise as a banker. But why bend over backwards to appoint him As International Trade and Industry Minister for which he has no proven expertise nor experience.

Anwar is reported to have said he took on the finance portfolio because he wanted “to foster confidence in the country’s economy with the local businesses and foreign investors”. But that job primarily comes under the purview of the economy, and international trade and industry minister.

Good appointees

However, I do see some good appointments. Datuk Dr Mohd Na’im Mokhtar is named as a Minister in the PM’s Department in-charge of religious affairs. He is a distinguished scholar, jurist, has an impressive CV (curriculum vitae), and has done stints at Harvard and Oxford. He is best placed to moderate the race and religious rhetoric used by the opposition.

Minister in the PM’s Department in-charge of economy Rafizi Ramli has the job cut out for him, exactly what he was fighting for. He would oversee the Economic Planning Unit (EPU), and the huge development budget for projects and contracts.

Rather than whistle-blowing post-graft, he will have to ensure there is no room for corruption and leakages ex-ante. He has to take very hard decisions to promote free market enterprise and ensure government businesses in the market operate on a truly competitive basis.

Rafizi’s skill in stepping on others’ toes comes in handy but our hope is such that he doesn’t slip when it matters most

Datuk Seri Saifuddin Nasution Ismail who is named minister for the powerful Home Affairs Ministry is the direct opposite of Rafizi in terms of character.

He is calm and measured and in many ways likened to a typical obedient bureaucrat. But that is suited for this role – unlike his hawkish predecessor – and would do well to be firm but not meddle with the work of the enforcement authorities.

Final verdict

If anyone feels I am uninspired, let me say I am being generous here.

It is understandable that Anwar prioritises political stability and his position as PM to carry out the reforms. On that score, reform-minded citizens will have to support the Cabinet given that Rome is not built in a day.

My final piece of advice or caution is not to sacrifice the rakyat for political expediency. Win over the rakyat – it will be a long and bumpy road ahead – but they will be your true friends and come to your defence from the machinations of politicians. – Dec 3, 2022


Dr Raman Letchumanan PhD, is a former Senior Fellow at the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore, a former director at the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment, and a former head of environment/disaster management at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta. Contact: [email protected].

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.

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