Wednesday, May 17, 2006

How Powerful Really Is The Malaysian Prime Minister?

To some, this question would seem unnecessary as we all know that the office of Prime Minister is indeed a very powerful one. To those of us on the outside it is an unattainable goal to be PM but one that we also know is almost 'magical' where everything is done at the behest of the top man. There is nothing that is beyond his powers and if he wanted to he could do anything. Anything? Really?

The above is actually a simplistic and perhaps even a naive view on the executive powers of the Prime Minister. For sure his authority is beyond dispute, for legally and morally he is the head of government and the chief executive of the nation. In the government however and in the Cabinet he is the first among equals and the more politically strong the other members are, the 'more equal' the PM becomes vis a vis his cabinet colleagues.

While theoretically he has complete control over cabinet appointments and it is considered his prerogative only, in real life things don't work that way. He has to defer to the demands from the warlords within his party for they are the power brokers who propelled him into office in the first place and they are same ones who will assure that he is not given a hard time from dissenters, opponents and the over-ambitious within the party.

He has to take into very serious account the likes and dislikes of the Malay Rulers, as well as to carefully consider objections from Royalty on any number of issues. When problems crop up between a member of the royalty and the government, especially state governments, as has happened in the past the PM has to tread gingerly to find solutions, very often reining in the urge to use his executive powers. These are powers that he has but is unable or unwilling to use because of the prevailing circumstances. He would probably prefer a discussion over a round of golf or a quiet dinner at the Palace.

In dealings with the component parties of his coalition he has even less say. Although he technically 'chooses' and appoints the leaders of these parties as his ministers it is not him but they who decide who is in and who is out of the cabinet. He merely functions as a rubber-stamp. He cannot interfere in intra-party disputes and more often than not he does not involve himself in who is proposed by them for parliamentary elections, and in the event the president of a component party disallows his deputy to stand in a parliamentary constituency the PM simply watches as any bystander. Only in dire situations where the stability of the coalition is threatened by power struggles within a component party will he intervene with his considerable authority and persuasion as has also happened.

Prime Ministers like all bosses have their own style and temperament. We have the consensus builder like our present PM Pak Lah. Then there are those made of sterner stuff who demand and get their way, while some ensure that any and all competition is eliminated so that they can rest easy and at the other extreme the dictator.

We in Malaysia have been fortunate that thus far we have had moderate, broad-minded and responsible prime ministers. Sometimes they have to make the 'correct' noises to keep all sides happy. All our PMs have been down-to-earth, pragmatic leaders who understand their position in the national scheme of things and despite the immense power they wield know when to use kid gloves and when to bring out the big stick.

In the final analysis , how powerful a Malaysian PM is, entirely depends on his psychological make-up, what his own intentions are and his idea of his place in history.


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