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What the Cabinet Says about Malaysia’s New Government

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
2020-03-09
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Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin unveils his new cabinet, during a news conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Putrajaya, March 9, 2020.
Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin unveils his new cabinet, during a news conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Putrajaya, March 9, 2020.
AP

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin came to power after a week of elite political machinations that saw key defections (including his own) from the governing Pakatan Harapan coalition.

Although it was uncertain whether Muhyiddin even commanded the 112 seats necessary to form a majority coalition, the King believed he did and appointed him prime minister.

But – fearful that he would face a vote of no confidence, possibly returning power to Pakatan Harapan (PH) – Muhyiddin delayed the convening of parliament by two months. While not illegal, it certainly violates the spirit of the law and raises questions as to whether he does indeed command a majority.

Yet, on March 9, Muhyiddin announced his cabinet, which was quickly endorsed by the King.

The cabinet line-up tells us several important things about the new government.

First, Muhyiddin may now command a slim parliamentary majority. The suspicion surrounding the delayed seating of parliament was that the prime minister needed time to buy off a handful of MPs.

The cabinet lineup suggests that he did just that. Four PH members who appeared on former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed’s list of pledged supporters, released on March 2, are in the cabinet. Muhyiddin apparently found their price.

Second, the cabinet is very large. In addition to the prime minister, it has 31 ministers and 36 deputies.  By comparison the PH cabinet had just 27 ministers.

The ministerships and deputy positions are held by nine different political parties in the National Alliance coalition. Two ministers are non-party affiliated figures.  Bersatu holds 11 ministerships and 13 deputy positions followed by UMNO with nine and eight, respectively.

The bloated nature of the cabinet serves as a reminder of the patronage-based politics of Malaysia. Every partner in this coalition, including minor ones such as the Malaysian Indian Congress and the Malaysian Chinese Association, received ministerships or at least deputy ministerships.

Borneo-based parties win

The real winners of this cabinet are the four Borneo-based parties which are so critical to any governing coalition. Together they hold 16.1 percent of the ministerships and 16.6 percent of the deputy ministerships.

Third, and just to reiterate the point that the National Alliance is built on the idea of Malay supremacy, 26 of the ministers are Muslims; only five are non-Muslims. This is a far cry from the multi-racial PH cabinet. This will elicit further concerns amongst the country’s minorities.

Fourth, the cabinet selection does seem to indicate that there is an attempt to keep PAS contained. PAS holds 18 of the necessary 112 seats (16 percent). Yet, they received only three of the 31 ministries (9.7 percent) and five of 36 deputy positions (14 percent).

While PAS now holds the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Law), critically important for advancement of sharia law, its members did not receive the religion and education portfolios that are key to advancing their Islamist agenda. The Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Religion) went to the un-affiliated Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri, with a PAS member, Ahmad Marzuk Shaary, as deputy. Instead PAS holds the Environment and Agro Entrepreneur-Commodities ministries, which are less important to its social agenda.

PAS should be expected to push back and use its 18 seats to push forward its Islamist agenda. But the National Alliance seems to be a significant shift away from the privileged position that it had in the UMNO-PAS alliance.

Fifth, it is important to see who is not in the cabinet. In particular, the absence of UMNO president Zahid Hamidi and deputy president Mat Hassan is telling.  Zahid Hamidi is under investigation on 87 counts by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. With a government that is barely legitimate in the eyes of the people, Muhyiddin cannot be seen as embracing the most corrupt politicians in the country.

Nonetheless, Zahid is certainly acting like he is going to have the charges dropped, while disgraced former Prime Minister Najib has spoken about the changed environment that shapes the corruption trials of himself and his wife.

‘Senior ministers’

Sixth, no deputy prime minister was named.  Instead, there were four “senior ministers,” – one from each major party in the coalition, but with no definition of what the title means.

Not having a deputy PM does suggest that there is not a lot of confidence that this coalition is going to hold together for long, or that an orderly transition is in play, despite a prime minister who is recovering from a recent case of pancreatic cancer.

The former loyalist of Anwar Ibrahim, Azmin Ali, was rewarded for his defection from PKR to Bersatu, with the Minister of International Trade and Industries. And while Azmin’s defection should be read as his viewing a more immediate path to the prime ministership, it is still not certain.

Even if Muhyiddin’s government commands a slim majority, it is important to remember that this is not a stable coalition. Bersatu, UMNO and PAS are all vying for the same slice of the electorate, the Malays who comprise 60 percent of the population. There will be a lot of backstabbing. And while no one wants to bring down the government and create an opening for PH to return to power, there will be a lot of competition between the parties that Muhyiddin is completely beholden to.

Muhyiddin was wise to put the economy in the hands of a trusted technocrat, or else his government would be short lived. But be clear, this government will be protecting the rights, privileges, quotas and subsidies that benefit the Malay, despite their costs and inefficiencies.

The government announced today is the result of political games by the elites. This is not what the people voted for in 2018. They have every reason to be angry at their elites. Malaysians voted for a post-racial progressive government, free of corruption. Instead, they got Malay chauvinism and a return of the parties and politicians mired in corruption. This is a Malay government, not a Malaysian one.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews.

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