Malaysia’s PM Shakes Up Cabinet

Hata Wahari and Dennis Wong
Kuala Lumpur and Kuching
160627-MY-Najib-1000.jpg Prime Minister Najib Razak announces a reshuffle of his cabinet at Putrajaya, June 27, 2016.

Updated at 11:26 a.m. ET on 2016-06-28

Malaysia’s prime minister reshuffled his cabinet on Monday, rewarding loyalists who have defended him against corruption allegations with new posts amid speculation that he is consolidating his power for early elections in 2017, observers said.

In a nationally televised announcement from Putrajaya, Najib Razak said he was shaking up his cabinet for the third time in two years through the appointments of a couple of new ministers and four new deputy ministers.

The reshuffle, which included the replacement of the country's second finance minister, would “further strengthen the existing administration to ensure the government’s agenda for economic development, welfare and security will continue to run as well as promised,” Najib said.

But when asked whether his new team would lead the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition into the next general election, the prime minister stopped short of saying whether those polls would take place in 2018. That would be the regular year for the 14th general election, according to the nation’s five-year electoral cycle.

“It depends when the next general election will be held. I don’t know yet,” Najib said.

Najib is unlikely to call snap elections immediately but “any election is likely to be called in the third quarter of next year,” according to political scientist Jeniri Amir.

“He would first need to strengthen his grip on things before he can carry on,” Jeniri, an assistant professor at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, told BenarNews.

“What we see with the cabinet reshuffle today is a clear sign that he is surrounding himself with loyalists with the likes of Noh Omar and Abdul Rahman Dahlan in the cabinet. And this is just the first step,” he added, alluding to two of the big names in Monday’s reshuffle.

Noh Omar, the chairman in Selangor state of Najib’s party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), was appointed minister of Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government, replacing Abdul Rahman, who will now lead the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) in the Prime Minister’s Office.

“Najib is in a powerful position today. I think he is looking at possible snap polls between March  and May 2017 on the back of recent stunning by-election victories,” Mahfuz Omar, an MP with the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), told Agence France-Presse.

He was referring to two Barisan Nasional wins in elections in Selangor and Perak state to fill two vacated parliamentary seats. Those victories on June 18 tightened Najib’s grip on his party, UMNO, following a landslide victory by Barisan last month in the East Malaysia state of Sarawak, according to news reports.

Meanwhile, a source in Najib’s administration told Reuters that the strong results in the recent elections were what Najib had been waiting for to call early elections, and these would likely come in the second half of next year.

Comings and goings

Channel News Asia described both Noh Omar and Abdul Rahman as staunch supporters of Najib, noting that Abdul Rahman had been “vocal in defending Mr. Najib against his critics in the past year,” particularly over the “scandal-plagued” state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

Since July 2015, Najib has faced calls for his resignation amid allegations over the deposit into his private bank accounts of nearly U.S. $700 million in 1MDB-linked money. The PM has refused to step down, maintaining that he never took any of the money for personal gain.

“What’s interesting is the re-entry of Noh Omar in the cabinet. Here I think perhaps it’s a reward to Noh who helped win the by election in Sungai Besar and has tried to strengthen the Selangor Barisan Nasional for the 14th General Election,” Mohd. Azizuddin Mohd. Sani, a professor of political science at Universiti Utara Malaysia, told BenarNews.

Last week, following the latest in a string of electoral wins, UMNO sacked two of Najib’s critics from leadership positions in the party: former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin – who Najib had sacked in July 2015 as part of a second cabinet reshuffle because Yassin had publicly criticized the prime minister over the 1MDB scandal – and former Kedah state Chief Minister Mukhriz Mahathir – the son of Najib foe and former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

The latest reshuffle saw Deputy Finance Minister Johari Ghani promoted to the post of Second Finance Minister, replacing Ahmad Husni. Othman Aziz, an MP representing the Jerlun constituency, was appointed as the new deputy finance minister.

According to Malaysian media reports, Husni was unceremoniously removed from his job as second finance minister, and he resigned after finding out that he had been sacked by reading the news in local papers. In his announcement, Najib said he had accepted Husni's resignation as second finance minister, along with his resignation from his other posts as treasurer of UMNO and Barisan Nasional.

At the EPU, Abdul Rahman is replacing Abdul Wahid Omar, who announced his retirement; Nasrun Mansur was appointed deputy minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities, replacing the late Noriah Kasnon, who was killed in a helicopter crash in Sarawak in May.

Among other appointments, Sum Agong, an MP from Lawas Henry, was named deputy minister of Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism, while S.K. Devamany was named a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s office.

Letter from Anwar

Najib’s announcement of a another reshuffle came two days after jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim called on his party and political allies to rally to overcome the recent stinging defeats at the polls.

“Malaysia has no hope of making a better future for its people or of gaining the respect of the world under the current regime, whose prime minister is in the center of a financial scandal of worldwide reach and implication,” Anwar, the leader of the People’s Justice Party (PKR) who has been imprisoned on a sodomy conviction, said in an open letter from his cell which  published in Saturday’s edition of Free Malaysia Today.

“The [o]pposition must look at this electoral outcome with humility, and take a hard look at our weaknesses. This is no time for excuses or blame,” Anwar said.


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