By Lya Rahman

RENOWNED American author and humourist Mark Twain (1835-1910) equates size and efficiency with a brainy observation: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”

With the second biggest Cabinet line-up of 69 ministers and deputies in the country’s history – which makes our ancestral neighbour Indonesia dwarf in comparison (46 ministers and deputies) – success in combating the raging Covid-19 pandemic will surely raise the confidence level in Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s
leadership by several bars, to say the least.

For now, resolving the agenda of a global proportion has proven a challenging task for Muhyiddin and his Perikatan Nasional comrades (as would be for the Italian, South Korean, the UK, the US and Chinese governments).

Compliance to the semi-lockdown a.k.a Movement Control Order (MCO) has been dismal, suggesting that strict enforcement vis-à-vis military is necessary – or even an extension of the MCO exercise period – as the country now has the fourth highest number of Covid-19 cases in Asia behind China, Iran and South Korea.

This follows the latest jump in the number of new cases in Malaysia, with 123 new cases reported on March 22, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 1,309 (with 10 reported deaths).

Economists have warned of a global recession kicking in if the Covid-19 pandemic lasts beyond June, with retrenchments being inevitable in sectors that have been hit the hardest, notably tourism, leisure, airline, cruise and other travel-related industries.

Year-to-date (March 20), the local bourse has sunk to its lowest in a decade, falling 18% in tandem with global stock market carnage emanating from concerns over economic destruction from the Covid-19 outbreak, oil price crash and not forgetting, the recent political turmoil which culminated in the ousting of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government.

The month of February alone saw a foreign net outflow of RM1.97 bil, bringing the year-to-date figure (as of Feb 28) to RM2.11 billion, according to MIDF Amanah Investment Bank Bhd Research.

Last year, foreign investors disposed of RM11.14 bil of local equities from Malaysia as compared to RM11.69 bil in 2018.

Making size work

Needless to say, the size of Muhyiddin’s Cabinet is not a yardstick to better governance for it increases decision-making complexity (overlapping functions) besides incurring a larger salary and pensions bill (wastage and leakage).

A case in point is how the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change under the previous PH government is “broken up to three parts” – the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry, the Energy and Natural Resources Ministry and the Environmental Ministry.

One also wonders why the newly-appointed Health Minister is not the one issuing media statements on the prevailing Covid-19 outbreak in the country instead of the fatigued-looking Health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah (recall that former Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad did a commendable job in the fight against the pandemic previously).

But amid a power struggle within his loose Perikatan Nasional coalition, size turns out to be an ideal strategy to ensure Muhyiddin’s political survival. Presumably to quell tension and unhappiness of sorts from the four major component parties in his government, namely Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, Umno, PAS and Gabungan Parti Sarawak, Muhyiddin has refrained from appointing a deputy.

Instead, he pursued a balancing act by appointing four senior ministers to propagate the need for power-sharing within the coalition while ensuring adequate representation from each coalition party.

This, however, raises a big question mark about the likely successor in case something happens to Muhyiddin. Another risk of being too accommodative is that it encourages party-hopping and coalition-switching which, at the end of the day, culminated in the appointment of unknown career politicians without much experience in non-political areas of life (i.e. relevant expertise in the given portfolio, managing a ministry or administering civil servants).

The new PM has pledged a “clean” Cabinet on the basis that his ministers and deputy ministers have been vetted by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and the police.

However, there are still faces which are perceived as having questionable integrity in his list of appointees, hence sparking the issue of trust deficit.

Filling up national coffers

While it is heartening to note that the Cabinet line-up has included some technocrats, the key question remains if these technocrats are chosen because of their capabilities? Or are they selected on the basis of relationships?

A case in point is that of Finance Minister Tengku Datuk Seri Zafrul Abdul Aziz – the first time a “certified banker” is leading Malaysia’s treasury. It has to be borne in mind that a steep learning curve awaits the former CEO of CIMB Group Holdings to navigate the Malaysian economy out of the woods.

The recent crash of Brent crude prices to the sub US$30 per barrel level may necessitate the government to relook at its Budget 2020 given the latter was based on oil price assumption of US$50 per barrel.

Henceforth, not only the need to recalibrate Budget 2020 may arise, the Finance Ministry needs to ensure that government spending, procurement contracts and large projects are not disrupted as this will further dampen the already soft domestic demand, opines Sunway University Business School Economics Professor Dr Yeah Kim Leng.

The onus is on Tengku Zafrul with his knowledge of managing debt and dealing with the credit rating agencies to lift the benchmark FBM KLCI which has been languishing as one of the worst performers in the Asia-Pacific region.

It is inevitable that Tengku Zafrul will have to work hand-in-glove with Senior Minister Datuk Seri Azmin Ali who spearheads the International Trade and Industry Ministry and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of Economy, Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed, to find the right remedy to heal the various woes plaguing the Malaysian economy.

Amid the widespread on-going transmission of Covid-19 in the country, Muhyiddin and his comrades must swiftly implement the RM20 bil stimulus package – a quantum deemed insufficient – to cushion the bruised and battered economy.

A coalition of associations representing entrepreneurs and business owners has recently urged Putrajaya to roll out a second stimulus package aimed at small-medium entrepreneurs, self-employed entrepreneurs and those who have been laid off following the implementation of the partial lockdown.

On this note, the Economic Action Council which was recently mooted by the new PM has been tasked to recalibrate the economic stimulus packages to properly address the Covid-19 crisis.

The desired results should be practical solutions to ensure businesses remain solvent while bankruptcy, unemployment and spiraling household debts are kept at bay.

Reforms

Reform and governance-wise, my hope is that Muhyiddin will assuage concerns among head honchos of government-linked companies (GLCs) and government-linked investment companies GLICs while allowing them to render their services with conviction.

The news on the termination of the services of Mara chairman Hasnita Hashim and several professionals who make up the statutory body’s council on grounds that they were “political appointees of Pakatan Harapan” only confirms one of our biggest fears.

I cannot help but repeatedly stress the importance of having the best professionals to head our various GLCs and GLICs to avoid business disruption of sorts whenever there is a change of government or prime minister.

On a similar note, the recent stepping down of former Petronas president and CEO Tan Sri Mohd Hassan Marican from Khazanah Nasional Bhd as a member of the board of directors is a sheer waste of talent.

Likewise, all eyes will now be on newly appointed Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission Chief Commissioner Datuk Seri Azam Baki and Attorney-General Tan Sri Idrus Harun to assert their responsibilities without any interference.

Elsewhere, I find it difficult to fathom how to coordinate a proper or wholesome reform that can propel Malaysia as an inclusive, modern and progressive nation when youth, women and the minorities are “grossly” under-represented in the current Cabinet set-up.

A majority of the Cabinet members seem to have an average age in the late 50s (Muhyiddin himself is 72) while only five out of 31 ministers announced last Monday are women.

One really wonders how our current Youth and Sports Minister who is in his late 40s is able to reach out to his target audience or to effectively execute his duty, considering youths are generally perceived to be people aged between 15 and 30. — March 24, 2020

The views expressed in the article represent the views of the writer and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Institutional Investors Council of Malaysia (IICM). Lya Rahman is the adviser to the IICM and was the former general manager of the Minority Shareholders Watch Group. She can be reached at [email protected]

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