KUALA LUMPUR – As the dust settles after a tumultuous political transition, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s new coalition government has taken shape against a backdrop of rising economic uncertainties.
Muhyiddin announced his Cabinet appointments on March 9 after pledging to unveil a “clean” line-up that would rise above ethnic and socio-economic divisions.
Among those returning to power are politicians with the United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO), the former ruling party that expelled Muhyiddin in 2016 after he spoke out against top-level corruption. UMNO was trounced at the May 2018 polls, leading to the rise of the now-ousted Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition.
Malaysia’s new premier had served as deputy to disgraced ex-leader Najib Razak, who now faces trial on numerous corruption charges related to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.
Though many who served in Najib’s discredited administration have risen again under Muhyiddin, those selected to join his Cabinet were reportedly required to pass criminal and graft screenings.
Party leaders involved in corruption and criminal cases, such as UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, were not brought into the Cabinet.
As expected, the new Cabinet is overwhelmingly dominated by ethnic Malay Muslims. A drop in ethnic minority representation was seen as inevitable given that the new Perikatan Nasional (PN) government is comprised of the country’s three largest parties opened exclusively to the Malay Muslim majority.
Muhyiddin, who once controversially claimed to be “a Malay first” in multi-ethnic Malaysia, now presides over one of the least diverse Cabinets in the country’s recent history, with only one minister from the Chinese and Indian communities respectively. Combined, Chinese and Indians represent about 30% of the population.
“The main message being sent to the electorate is that the new government will prioritize Malay concerns,” said Prashant Waikar, a research analyst with the Malaysia Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore.
“The fact that the Cabinet is overwhelmingly Malay will assuage Malays who may have felt that Pakatan Harapan undermined Malay interests,” he said in reference to the country’s previous multi-ethnic ruling coalition led by Muhyiddin’s immediate predecessor, elder statesmen Mahathir Mohamad, who resigned last month.
Muhyiddin’s Cabinet has been expanded to 70 positions, up from 55 under PH, with several ministries including finance, education, home affairs, health, agriculture, rural development, and farming given two deputy ministers.
That has already given rise to perceptions of a “bloated” administration built expressly to widely divide the political spoils of government.
“The large number of positions shows the precarity of the governing coalition,” said Waikar. “Perikatan Nasional is also unstable. Muhyiddin therefore had to keep as many people as possible content, as quickly as possible. Negotiations for positions can take a long time. The easier option was to pick as many as possible instead.
“The new government will have to work extremely hard to reach out to non-Malays and convince them of Perikatan Nasional’s merits. This is probably going to be difficult given that the new coalition is a motley of parties and personalities with a turbulent history of competition between each other,” he told Asia Times.
For the first time in Malaysian administrative history, Muhyiddin did not appoint a deputy prime minister, a move that some analysts see as aiming to contain the aspirations of an heir apparent and safeguard against political rifts of the sort that caused the PH coalition’s demise.
Instead, four “senior ministers” were named as representatives of blocs that have pledged support for Muhyiddin’s fragile coalition including UMNO, his own Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), and a faction of defectors from Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the PH government’s then-largest component party.
Significantly, former PKR deputy president Mohamad Azmin Ali was among the four named senior ministers. The 55-year-old was instrumental to PN’s rise, having masterminded the defections of 10 lawmakers, including himself, to Muhyiddin’s PPBM, without which the new “backdoor” coalition would not have had the numbers to form a government.
Some analysts, however, regard his new role as a demotion. Notoriously ambitious, Azmin was PH’s economic affairs minister, considered to be among the most powerful portfolios with its control over the approval and distribution of state contracts, through which domestic political consolidation and influence is often exercised.
Muhyiddin chose to dissolve the Economic Affairs Ministry and bring the portfolio under the Prime Minister’s Department, where it will be under the purview of Mustapa Mohamed, a former UMNO minister who headed the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) during Najib’s tenure.
Azmin has effectively switched places after being appointed to lead MITI, which gives him control over only 865 million ringgit (US$204 million) in outward-oriented developmental expenditure compared to the 2.7 billion ringgit ($643 million) in domestic-designated project expenditure he oversaw as economic affairs minister.
Najib’s cousin, Hishammuddin Hussein, a former UMNO defence minister and home minister, will lead the Foreign Ministry, a relatively less powerful portfolio compared to his past appointments. Along with Azmin, he is regarded as one of the key conspirators of the so-called “Sheraton Move” that brought down the PH government.
Muhyiddin appointed a political outsider, CIMB group executive chief officer Tengku Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz, a respected banker with over two decades of experience in the financial industry and family ties to the new premier, to head the Finance Ministry.
“The private sector regards Zafrul quite highly, so placing him as finance minister is a signal to revive investor confidence in Malaysia,” said Waikar. “Placing a non-partisan technocrat like Zafrul in one of the most powerful ministries allows Muhyiddin to project a degree of neutrality to his partners.”
The appointment of Federal Territories mufti Zulkifli Mohamad as religious affairs minister, a figure who is seen as relatively progressive and more moderate than leaders from Islamist party Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), one of PN’s key component parties, caught many observers by surprise.
PAS, which has long sought to implement harsher sharia criminal laws and turn multi-religious Malaysia into an Islamic state, is viewed with suspicion by many in the country. Its president, Abdul Hadi Awang, was not appointed to the Cabinet, though his deputy will lead the environment ministry.
“The absence of PAS in most senior positions is curious,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “PAS did not get a lot of seats in this Cabinet despite its comparatively large number of MPs in the coalition.”
It is unclear whether those sacrifices will lead to concessions in service to its hardline religious agenda, he said.
Oh believes that the exclusion of Hadi, who in the past has argued that only Malay Muslims should be Cabinet ministers and policymakers, aims to “reassure the international and business communities that such a fringe figure is not included in Cabinet, despite him being the head of one of the major component parties.”
Appointing either a PAS or UMNO leader as religious affairs minister would have potentially created issues for the government and done little to assuage fears that non-Muslims have about PAS, Waikar believes. “Zulkifli is not as conservative as religious leaders in PAS and UMNO. His appointment was the most neutral option possible,” he added.
Meanwhile, Federal Court judge Idrus Harun was appointed as Attorney General, replacing PH-appointee Tommy Thomas, who resigned after the coalition’s collapse. Idrus’ appointment was welcomed by the Malaysian Bar, which noted his breadth of legal experience, including as a former solicitor general.
Lawyer Gopal Sri Ram, who is leading the high-profile criminal corruption prosecution against Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor, among others, has reportedly been given Idrus’ early go-ahead to continue handling the landmark cases.
Other prominent UMNO leaders also face graft charges, and many had questioned whether criminal proceedings would continue under Muhyiddin’s government given the fact that UMNO, with 39 representatives, is the largest component party in his PN coalition.
“Idrus was in the Attorney General’s Office for decades before he joined the judiciary and has been involved in major cases as a deputy public prosecutor. He is seen as someone who has integrity and is the sort of person who would be expected to pursue these trials given his past track record,” said political scientist Chandra Muzaffar.
Continuing the prosecutions of top UMNO leaders, says Muzaffar, will be “a major test of Muhyiddin’s commitment to integrity and honesty in administration.” If the premier yields to pressure and “the political machinations of certain groups within his coalition,” his credibility would be gravely affected, said the academic.
“If he wants to build up his credibility, Muhyiddin will have to be seen as walking the straight and narrow path on this issue in particular.”