Updated at 4:10 p.m. ET on 2020-03-09
Malaysia’s new prime minister on Monday announced a cabinet with a sharply reduced number of ethnic minorities, while an Islamic scholar was named the country’s religion minister and a party that advocates for Sharia law was put in charge of legal affairs.
The new cabinet also included nine politicians from the corruption-tainted United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party, and no deputy prime minister, for the first time in the nation’s 63-year history.
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said he was making the government more efficient by appointing “senior ministers” to head the portfolios of international trade and industry, defense, works, and education.
“With the appointment of these senior ministers, there is no need during this time for a deputy prime minister,” he said in a speech at the Prime Minister’s Office in Putrajaya.
“I want to form a cabinet that can truly provide the best service to the people – a cabinet that delivers,” Muhyiddin said.
The announcement came eight days after Muhyiddin’s sudden ascent to the country’s top office, after he and others quit then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s political alliance and joined forces with UMNO and the Islamist Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).
In a scathing review of the line-up, Liew Chin Tong, deputy defense minister under the Pakatan government, said Muhyiddin had orchestrated the cabinet to keep control of the purse strings by placing technocrats in key finance positions, and had relegated powerful figures to more junior posts than they held previously.
“The prime minister is fearful of his own team members, some of whom were his plotters that brought down the Pakatan Harapan government recently,” Liew said.
Liew questioned Muhyiddin’s decision to govern without a deputy prime minister (DPM).
“This is a disservice to the nation. The need to appoint a DPM is to ensure that in any unforeseen circumstances there is a designated replacement until the parliament confirms a successor that commands the majority,” he said.
PAS – which has campaigned for stricter sharia law in the multi-ethnic country – was rewarded with three cabinet posts. The appointments marked the first time the party has held a cabinet seat since 1977.
Muhyiddin increased the number of cabinet posts by four to 31, but only five of them are occupied by members of ethnic minorities, compared to 11 under Mahathir.
King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah approved the cabinet earlier Monday, and it was to be sworn in on Tuesday.
Among the most recognizable names in Muhyiddin’s cabinet is Foreign Affairs Minister Hishamuddin Hussein, who served as defense minister in the government of Najib Razak until Mahathir’s coalition scored a stunning election upset in May 2018.
New names include prominent banker Zafrul Aziz from CIMB Group Holdings as finance minister – a post reserved in past governments for the prime minister or his deputy. Najib carried the portfolio as prime minister. Mahathir appointed Penang MP Lim Guan Eng his finance chief.
Muhyiddin also named Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri, a popular mufti or Islamic jurist, to the post of minister in charge of religious affairs.
“With a humbled heart I ask for the kindness of all you my friends to continuously pray to God that he might grant me strength to carry this trust and responsibility with all my might,” Zulkifli said on his Instagram page after the announcement.
PAS members who will hold minister positions include Takiyuddin Hassan, the party’s secretary general, who will serve as Minister at the Prime Minister Department handling the law and parliament portfolio.
The others are Mohd Khairuddin Aman Razali, minister of plantation industries and commodities, and PAS Vice President Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man as environment minister.
James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, said Muhyiddin had appointed technocrats to some top positions.
“The other thing that stands out is that many of them served in the last UMNO government before it fell in 2018,” he told BenarNews.
Chin said other big winners included Azmin Ali and lawmakers like him who broke from Mahathir’s coalition to align with UMNO, the party that ran the government for more than six decades prior to the 2018 election.
“PAS got the law portfolio, so it can follow up with RUU355 (Hudud law) as expected,” he said, referring to a law proposed in 2016 seeking to give more clout to Islamic courts. Hudud, the Islamic penal code, sets punishments that include hand amputation for theft and stoning for illicit sexual relations.
Chin said UMNO had thwarted previous PAS attempts to change the justice system, but that could change going forward.
“Yes, with PAS now, they are desperate enough to win over the Muslim electorate,” he said.
Meanwhile, PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang, who is not part of the cabinet, said his party was willing to listen to others.
“PAS vows to uphold this responsibility diligently and is ready to listen to positive comments from all parties, especially the academics, professionals and community leaders who are capable of aiding in the development of this beloved nation,” Hadi said in a statement.
Amnesty International (AI) urged the government to implement reforms promised during the Mahathir government such as repeal of harsh security laws and establishment of a commission on police conduct.
It also called on Muhyiddin’s government to drop investigations of demonstrators who hit the streets in recent weeks to protest what they saw as a change of government without an election.
“We remain concerned by the recent investigations of activists by the police in response to peaceful demonstrations. To show that the new government is serious about protecting human rights, these investigations should be ended immediately, and the rights to freedom of expression and assembly respected,” Preethi Bhardwaj, AI Malaysia interim executive director, said in a statement.
Political analyst Sivamurugan Pandian of the University of Science, Malaysia, said the new cabinet appeared to be sound and should be supported by the public.
“With the variety of backgrounds, experiences and the inclusion of technocrats as well as religious leaders, this cabinet should be given a chance to stabilize the governmental structure.
“What’s essential is to harmonize the leadership with the public and for them to deliver results that are beneficial without taking too much time,” he said.
Nisha David in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.