In Anwar’s cabinet, stability trumps reform

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
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In Anwar’s cabinet, stability trumps reform Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim (right) sits with his deputies, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (center) and Fadillah Yusof, after the swearing-in ceremony of the country's new cabinet at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur, Dec. 3, 2022.
Hasnoor Hussain/Reuters/Pool

Anwar Ibrahim had a difficult task in building a cabinet reflecting both his electorate’s aspirations for political reform, and the reality of his fractious coalition of coalitions.

The result was a disappointment for many who were looking for a Reformasi government.

If a cabinet is supposed to mirror the people that it represents, Anwar’s cabinet fails miserably.

The 28-member body has five women, seven ethnic Chinese and one ethnic Indian. The mostly elderly, Malay, and male group does not reflect the countrys diversity, or its youth. There are six million voters under the age of 30.

This is not a progressive cabinet to push forward a political reform agenda, but a cabinet designed to accomplish two things, one political, the other economic.

Political stability

The first goal is political stability. There were three different prime ministers in the last four years, thanks to the “Sheraton move” that brought down the country’s first and only non-UMNO government – 2018 election winner Pakatan Harapan. Two subsequent administrations were rocked by infighting among Malay parties vying for the same slice of the electorate.

This cabinet is designed to stave off a Sheraton 2.0 defection by UMNO members.

For many, the appointment of UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as deputy prime minister was stomach-turning.

Zahid Hamidi, who barely won re-election himself, is facing 47 separate charges of money laundering and breach of public trust from his previous tenure as deputy prime minister. Under his leadership, rather than reinventing itself after GE14 in 2018, UMNO retained corrupt, disgraced, and morally compromised leaders.

Overlooking Zahid’s liabilities is the price paid for a unity government. Barisan Nasional accounts for 21 percent of the unity governments seats and was awarded that in the cabinet, with six posts.

Anwar has good reason to do this. In January, UMNO will hold its own party election. Ten of 30 Barisan Nasional MPs voted not to join the unity government. Anwar has a real incentive to keep Zahid Hamidi in a very strong position where he can dole out patronage.

The other deputy prime minister is Fadillah Yusof, whose Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) made the unity government possible. GPS has 23 seats in parliament, and brought with it six seats from Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) and three seats from Warisan.

The support of the Borneo-based parties not only gave Anwar the majority he needed, but a two-thirds majority. East Malaysia is a vote bank and was always going to be the kingmaker in the election. In addition to the deputy prime minister position, GPS got five cabinet seats and GRS one, roughly 22 percent of the cabinet.

This is a win for East Malaysia, which is taken for granted and under-represented within the federal government.

If UMNO was the surprise winner in the cabinet, the big loser was the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which took one for the team, sacrificing seats that it deserved due to its electoral performance as well as the competence and integrity of its leaders.

DAP won 40 seats, only 2 fewer than it did in 2018, and 73 percent of the seats that it contested. It is the largest partner within Pakatan Harapan. It has 28 percent of the governments seats, but only four cabinet posts (14 percent).

DAP was cognizant that if it had cabinet posts commensurate with its electoral strength, UMNO and the Borneo-based parties wouldn’t join the unity government. DAP accepted a lesser position in order to deny a Bersatu-PAS government, which would work to strip away rights for the Chinese community. 

Malaysian King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah (right) hands over a document to Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (left), the newly appointed deputy prime minister and minister of rural and regional development, during a swearing-in ceremony for the country's new cabinet at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur, Dec. 3, 2022. [Hasnoor Hussain/Reuters/Pool]

Economic growth

The second goal of the cabinet is to revive the economy, which was hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The economy contracted 5.6 percent in 2020, before rebounding to 3.1 percent growth in 2021. Despite a great second quarter, the IMF slashed its 2022 growth predictions to 5.1 from 5.6 percent.

And while the economy is growing, that growth is certainly not broadly based. Malaysia benefitted from high oil, palm oil, and other commodity prices in 2022, but other sectors have struggled.

The ringgit saw a 6.7 percent decline in value in 2022, and in September it fell to its lowest level against the U.S. dollar since the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis. Inflation in the run up to the election was between 4 and 4.5 percent, but food was over 7 percent.

The staffing of the cabinet reflects economic recovery as Anwar’s top priority. He evidently believes that trying to buy off UMNO and the Borneo parties is insufficient; he must tie them to economic growth.

The longevity of the government wont be based on simply preventing another Sheraton-style putsch, but on performance-based legitimacy.

To that end, he has surrounded himself with competent economic managers. He kept the Finance Ministry for himself, having held that portfolio from 1991-1998, until his fallout with then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

The team is rounded out with PKR Deputy President Rafizi Ramli as Minister of Economic Affairs; Senator Tengku Zafrul, from UMNO, as Minister of International Trade and Industry; Deputy Prime Minister and GPS head Fadillah Yusof as Plantation Industries and Commodities minister; and Pakatan member and Amanah President Mohamad Sabu as Agriculture and Food Security Minister.

What it means for governance

This is not a cabinet geared towards pushing through a slate of political and social reforms.

Reformasi is on hold. Bersih will not be pleased if and when charges against Zahid are dropped.

But political reform was never the intention.

The goal was to prevent a Sheraton-style coup that thwarted the will of the people, and to revitalize the economy.

Anwar’s government is 25 percent more streamlined than the past two, which should make coordination and policy-making easier.

Malaysia’s “anti-hopping law” makes it illegal for an MP elected under one party’s banner to join another party mid-term. But loopholes exist. And the law does nothing to prevent coalition parties from withdrawing support.

Anwar is confident that his cabinet does much to buy some political stability and will try to prove it in a Dec. 19 vote of confidence. But at the end of the day he still leads a coalition of coalitions, whose members will always act in their immediate political interests.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews. 


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