Sunday, March 23, 2008

Malaysia: New Cabinet and Beyond

The big Cabinet shake-up announced by Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi this week may not be enough to stave off a leadership challenge when the United Malaysia National Organization (UMNO), the dominant party in the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition which has ruled Malaysia for some 51 years, meets for its annual conventional later this year.

Still smarting from a bloody nose delivered by the electorate in the March 8 general elections, which saw the BN coalition suffering its worst poll setback to date, Badawi has surprised many with some of his new ministerial appointments, which could come back to haunt him and some members of his last Cabinet. The prime minister is officially in denial, instead talking about his huge new electoral mandate.

At a stroke, the Cabinet is leaner and meaner — cut back from 90 in the last government to 69 in this government. Gone are the parliamentary secretaries and third-ranking officials in each ministry.

Gone is the “Old Guard” associated more with Badawi’s predecessor, Dr. Mahathir Mohammed. They include Rafidah Aziz, the enigmatic trade & industry minister, who has been in the job for 21 years and who is also head of Wanita UMNO, the women’s wing of UMNO; Samy Vellu, the works minister and leader of the Malaysian Indian Congress, one of the BN coalition parties; Zainuddin Mydin, the information minister who lost his seat; Shahrizat Abdul Jalil and Tengku Adnan Bin Tengku Mansor, the tourism minister, and Jamaluddin Jarjis, the science & technology minister — both of whom have put in lack-luster performances as ministers.

In come fresh new younger faces more attuned to the centrist faction within both UMNO and the BN. And perhaps, most importantly, there is no room for this controversial son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin, who has been elected for the first time as a member of the Dewan Rakyat (the Malaysian parliament). Khairy’s real or perceived influence on his father-in-law especially in policy-making and his sudden elevation to the deputy-head of UMNO Youth has assumed legendary proportions amongst the political mischief-makers and gossip columnists in Malaysia. He has antagonized many in UMNO and the electorate in general.

This, stress UMNO sources, was partly the reason why the BN lost its two-thirds majority and was returned with a simple majority of 140 seats compared with the Opposition’s 82 seats.

But two important oversights may indicate that Badawi’s reformist instincts are not as liberal or democratic or consensual as he might suggest. At a time when racial tensions amongst certain sections of the country’s minority Chinese and Indians seems to have resurfaced, Badawi actually relinquished the Internal Security portfolio, which was traditionally held by the incumbent prime minister.

Instead he has merged the key Internal Security Ministry with the Home Ministry and moved his erstwhile foreign minister, Syed Hamid Albar, to head this new super ministry. Either the prime minister sees any threat of racial tension and potential political instability as very minimal, or he thinks that reform in this area is crucial and should be under the purview of a dedicated senior minister.

This indirectly ties in with Sen. Zaid Ibrahim, a new minister in the prime minister’s department, a no-nonsense independent and well-respected lawyer who in the past has openly attacked Malaysia’s judiciary and abuse of human rights and deficiencies in social policy. Ibrahim’s mandate is to reform the Malaysian judiciary and perhaps the very electoral system that denied him a chance and the right to stand in the March 8 elections. He gets into the Cabinet through being appointed a senator in the upper house, which is a rather curious route to the heart of government for a seemingly radical Malay political maverick and now the de facto law minister.

The Malaysian judiciary has been under attack on several fronts in recent years for toeing the government line too closely and for being institutionally biased in favor of Muslims in court cases involving Muslims and other faith groups in the country. One of his first tasks would be to sort out the VK Lingam video scandal, apparently showing a lawyer talking on the phone with a judge brokering top judicial appointments and the mentioning of Tengku Adnan Bin Tengku Mansor, the erstwhile tourism minister.

The expectations of the legal fraternity in Malaysia, judging by the positive comments to Ibrahim’s elevation to the Cabinet, have been raised to dizzy heights. But, whether the minister can deliver the reforms, only time will tell.

The dichotomy of Badawi’s new “’reforming” Cabinet is further underlined by the appointment of rural and regional development minister, Muhammed Muhammed Taib who, as a Selangor state politician, was caught trying to smuggle $4 million out of Australia a few years ago.

Badawi refuses to relinquish his Finance Ministry portfolio, leaving Malaysia the only country in the world with the ridiculous ministerial appointment of second finance minister or finance minister II, as the current incumbent Nor Mohammed Yakcop prefers to be called. This on top of two deputy finance ministers to assist both Badawi and Nor. The erstwhile deputy finance minister, Adek Awang Hussin, a former deputy governor of Bank Negara (the central bank) and director general of the Labuan Offshore Financial Authority, is another casualty of the Cabinet.

This practice was first instituted by Mahathir in the aftermath of the losses suffered by Bank Negara in the currency markets during Anwar Ibrahim’s tenure as finance minister in the 1990s and further reinforced during the Asian financial crisis to hit the region in 1998. If Badawi is so keen to jettison any semblance to Mahathir’s rule, then this is the portfolio that he should also have relinquished to a dedicated minister.

Nor, now emboldened as an elected member of Parliament and the archetypal technocrat, is reportedly not happy with the present set-up, but may be abiding his time should there be a leadership change at the UMNO convention — a suggestion which the prime minister has dismissed.

The other “failure” is the empowerment of more women within the Cabinet ranks. The number of women ministers has shrunk and Badawi has gone back on his promise that the BN should have a target of 30 percent women members of Parliament. This target is institutionalized in the BN’s Gender Empowerment Policy. The target has now been revised downward to 20 percent.

Perhaps the telling appointment in Abdullah Badawi’s Cabinet is Muhyiddin Yasin, who started his ministerial career as sports and youth minister and who has replaced Rafidah Aziz as Minister for International Trade and Industry. Yasin, who hails from Johor in the south, is an ally of both Badawi and Syed Mokhtar, the tycoon and playmaker who owns huge chunks of Johor including the international airport there, which is the only privately owned international airport in Malaysia.

If change is the intention of Prime Minister Badawi, then it seems to be change tempered with some boldness, some confusion, some dichotomy and some contradictions. (Arab News, Saudi Arabia)



Blogger kittykat46 said...

Don't raise your hopes too high regarding Zaid Ibrahim. He may have been a prominent critic on the outside, but he surrenderd a great deal of autonomy by agreeing to join the team.
Already, his first stated legal priority is to enact an anti-hopping law against Katak MPs. Sounds reasonable ? but he's merely acting for his political masters.

10:28 AM GMT+8  
Anonymous SM said...

Give the man (Datul Zaid Ibrahim) a chance. He critizied the UMNO Leadership when none else did it & he paid by getting dropped from the line-up for the 12th GE.
Yes, it seems that the "Anti-Katak" Law is probably as a result of UMNO "getting scared" that they will get kicked out.
It won't be long for us to see if he is really trying to do something right or just another "pawn". Let's give him a chance.
However, what little credit Pak Lah had for appointing Zaid has been offset by bring back Muhammad Hj Muhammad Taib. Clean Cabinet? Ya rite!

1:35 PM GMT+8  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When Joe Pairin demanded the "Anti-Katak" Law in the 80's, he was laughed off by umno. So why implement it now and not then?

2:33 PM GMT+8  
Anonymous SM said...

As usual, they can do it but u don't do it.
They can have Demonstrations but hwen u (HINDRAF) do it, it's not our culture & your leaders get thrown under the ISA!
In this case, they will be in the losing end.

5:29 PM GMT+8  

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