Malaysia’s New ‘Backdoor Government’ Might Work
PM Muhyiddin cobbles together a pragmatic lineup, some crooks, some technocrats into an UMNO clone
By: John Berthelsen and Murray Hunter
The March 9 announcement of Malaysia’s cabinet and ministry list by newly minted Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin might well have washed away 20 months of putative reformist Pakatan Harapan rule as if it had never happened. The list resembles a classic United Malays National Organization-dominated Barisan Nasional cabinet, making the previous government a forgotten blip.
How long this new cabinet might last is uncertain. They have a very short window with an economy in a slump, the Covid-19 virus threatening, decades of racial and religious unease to defuse, oil prices at US$30 levels when the budget is based on oil at US$60. The ousted former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad insists he has the numbers to pull down the Malay-dominant coalition.
One astute political analyst who declined to be named forecast that the new government wouldn’t last more than a couple of months. But, he said, “Honestly, after seeing the internecine politics of Mahathir and the Pakatan government, what can the ordinary Malaysian hope for? We thought that (former Prime Minister Najib and Rosmah Mansor, his grasping wife) were the worst ever; and in fact, they were. But the PH guys remained the gang that could not shoot straight.”
The 72-year-old Muhyiddin took the unorthodox step of naming four senior ministers – the most senior of them Mohamed Azmin Ali, criticized as a turncoat who led 11 MPs out of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, headed by Mahathir for Anwar Ibrahim, which wrecked the governing coalition. That was in lieu of naming a deputy prime minister, an experiment that would give him four “strong” deputies overseeing his cabinet instead of one. There are expected to be issues as this is a new experiment. But Muhyiddin is in remission from pancreatic cancer, a particularly virulent form of the disease, and in the event of something happening to Muhyiddin such as a recurrence, all the different parties will have to work out who commands the most support and back that person as premier.
“The list paves the way back to an UMNO government in the next general election (due in 2023), with Azmin trying to the play leading role,” said a Kuala Lumpur-based political analyst. “It’s interesting that almost all of Azmin's PKR defectors (to Muhyiddin’s Bersatu Party) got cabinet jobs, even though Bersatu is the smallest party in the new coalition. There is also almost no Chinese representation at all. It's Malays uber alles.”
But, said a Malay businessman who asked not to be named, the cabinet lineup has bypassed most of the major crooks from the end of the 70-year reign of the Barisan Nasional, and “although most of them are Bumiputras, that is because this is the limited number of people whom Muhyiddin could pick on. Most of the non-Malay MPs are in the DAP and PKR and sitting on the outside.”
One bell that didn’t ring was the decision not to appoint Abdul Hadi Awang, the polarizing head of Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, the rural-based Islamic fundamentalist party, to a cabinet position. Hadi for years has been maneuvering to amass enough power to force through a federal amendment allowing for the imposition of harsh seventh-century shariah law, which has sent up red flags to the country’s non-Muslim population. He did name Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man, a PAS deputy president, and Khairuddin Aman Razali, also a PAS official, to head the primary industries ministry. In all, he brought aboard 3 PAS members as ministers, and five as deputy ministers in keeping with his agreement in establishing the coalition.
“The new cabinet indubitably reflects the Prime Minister’s concern with balancing the conflicting ambitions of the component parties of his new ruling coalition,” another source said. “The test lies in whether this will translate into concerted policies that can improve the economic situation of the country, achieve necessary reforms in education and elsewhere, provide political stability, and convince voters that the government is a nationally-oriented one and not one that has a thorough Malay-first agenda; remains to be seen. The odds, however, are against it.”
The decision not to name a deputy prime minister has been met with criticism that the post is being kept open for either the disgraced former Prime Minister, Najib Razak, who is currently facing charges over the collapse of the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd, or former UMNO vice president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who faces 47 counts of criminal misdoing, if or when they beat the criminal charges facing them now through the court system. Ten former UMNO officials are currently in the dock, charged with various offenses from money laundering to bribery to corruption. However, according to the common wisdom in Kuala Lumpur, they are unlikely to return to power.
One course described Najib as “toast.” The new attorney general, Idrus Harun, a well-respected former federal judge, has given the prosecutors the go-ahead on high-profile criminal cases involving alleged corruption. Indeed, if any of them are freed to rejoin the government it is likely to generate additional anger from a public that has named the defecting MPs who brought down the government as “frogs” for jumping parties.
Muhyiddin’s naming Hishammuddin Hussein, Najib Razak’s cousin and one of the leaders who fomented the political crisis, as foreign minister, has contributed to that public anger. The biggest job faced by Hishammuddin, who botched the investigation of the mysterious disappearance of the MH370 passenger jet, is likely to be convincing a suspicious United States to continue repatriating funds back to Malaysia from the 1MDB scandal.
To accommodate all those Muhyiddin had to either reward to keep their loyalty, the cabinet has been expanded to 31 ministers and 38 deputy ministers, giving almost 70 MPs a chance to use their positions for personal aggrandizement. The big winners are the East Malaysian MPs who joined the government. Because of the outsize influence given to them by gerrymandering, The four parties together hold 16.1 percent of the ministerships and 16.6 percent of the deputy ministerships.
Muhyiddin generated controversy by naming a banker, Zafrul Abdul Aziz, as finance minister. While naming a technocrat to arguably the country’s most important ministry defuses charges of political influence, Zafrul is the former chief executive of CIMB Holdings, an investment bank brought to prominence by Nazir Razak, the brother of Najib Razak, through lucrative government deals. Zulkifli Mohamad al-Bakri, minister of religious affairs in the prime minister’s office, is a former mufti. Muhyiddin also created a new senior ministry on Sabah and Sarawak Affairs to focus on implementing a 1963 agreement on natural resources which has aggravated East Malaysian politicians for decades. Five ministers from East Malaysia were appointed and 7 deputy ministers for their support of his government.
Among others regarded as relatively competent are Mustapha Mohamad, named to head the economic affairs portfolio, Radzi Jinin in education, who is given high marks, Khairy Jamaluddin in science and technology – former PM Ahmad Abdullah Badawi’s son-in-law, Noraini Ahmad in higher education, Wee Ka Siong in transport, and Adham Baba in the health ministry. Nancy Shukri is a very experienced Sarawakian who was given the tourism portfolio at a time when the coronavirus is hamstringing the sector.
Barring political catastrophe, the balance of the cabinet should be enough to garner enough support to win the next election, due in three years. The coming inter-party dynamics will be important to watch over the next few months. Retrograde as it is, the cabinet should appeal to the Malay heartlands and be a considerable adversary for Pakatan Harapan at the next election.