Appointment of Malaysia DPM Ahmad Zahid in important roles a ‘matter of great concern’: Analyst
Barisan Nasional chairman Ahmad Zahid Hamidi faces 47 charges that include corruption. His role as UMNO chief may also be contested at upcoming party polls.
SINGAPORE: The appointment of Barisan Nasional (BN) chairman Ahmad Zahid Hamidi in important roles amid accusations of corruption has “raised a lot of eyebrows and is a matter of great concern”, an analyst said on Monday (Dec 5).
Mr Ahmad Zahid is the deputy prime minister and minister of rural and regional development. The Malaysian Cabinet was sworn in on Saturday.
Given that Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim needs the BN’s support - with its 30 MPs - to form the government, his “hands are tied”, noted Ms Aira Azhari, senior manager of research (democracy and governance unit) at the independent think tank Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.
"At the same time, you know, a lot of civil society activists, members of the opposition as well, were hoping that some other mechanism or some other compromise could have been reached,” she said.
Mr Ahmad Zahid faces 47 charges – 12 for criminal breach of trust (CBT), eight for corruption and 27 for money laundering – involving tens of millions of ringgit belonging to charity foundation Yayasan Akalbudi (YAB).
He is the foundation’s trustee and sole signatory for cheques. The hearing for the YAB trial is ongoing.
“We all need to keep the government accountable, hoping that none of the abuses of power of the past will happen,” Ms Aira told CNA’s Asia First.
There may be a “difficult, long and winding road” ahead, Ms Aira added, given the upcoming polls of BN component party UMNO, where Mr Ahmad Zahid’s position as president could be contested.
“He might have challenges to that position, especially now that UMNO is split many, many different ways. So, what happens if firstly, yes, he is found guilty and secondly, what if he loses the party election?” she asked.
The party’s upcoming annual assembly held from Dec 21 to 24 could also change the situation, she said.
“During that assembly … unhappy delegates can pressure the division chiefs who can then, in turn, put pressure on the party president, Zahid Hamidi … maybe pressuring him to pull out of the coalition,” she said.
“There are a lot of variables there.”
She added that Mr Anwar needs to balance these factors and try to keep his government together.
UMNO knows that it is critical for Mr Anwar to have them in the fold because they bring the branding of the Malay, Muslim party, even though they have been losing support among the Malay community, political analyst Ariel Tan told CNA938’s Asia First.
Mr Anwar should be able to get their support if he continues to keep them happy, going into the vote of confidence challenge when Parliament sits on Dec 19, Ms Tan said.
CALLS FOR OLIVE BRANCH WITH PN
Ms Tan, who is coordinator of the Malaysia Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, noted that there have been calls for a reconciliatory gesture between the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) and its rival Perikatan Nasional (PN).
For instance, the PN coalition could be given a bigger role in parliamentary committees, she said.
Another option is appointing an opposition leader, ensuring that the opposition has fair funding and representation at both the federal and state levels. Mr Anwar could also consider an agreement with the opposition, the way former prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob signed one with PH, Ms Tan said.
“I think the one motivation for the opposition to play nice would be that the electorate is tired of the political instability. On the other hand, it is tempting for PN to try to undermine Pakatan Harapan the same way they did before and try to get back into power,” she said.
“Power is tempting and very seductive, because with power, you get resources, you get prominence, and that will help them in the next election so they can't wait too long to get back into power.”
ROLE AS FINANCE MINISTER
Another matter of concern is Mr Anwar assuming the finance minister portfolio, Ms Aira said. She cited what happened with former prime minister Najib Razak, who was also simultaneously finance minister and was jailed 12 years earlier this year for graft and money laundering.
“I don't know if this prime minister will change his decision, but I do hope that this kind of abuse of power does not happen again, because Malaysia cannot afford another 1MDB (scandal), she said.
Mr Anwar will hold a special meeting on Monday, where he is expected to lay down new rules.
“These new rules, we don't know what they are. I'm hoping that it will hopefully be more than just lip service and there will be some concrete action that the Prime Minister wants his cabinet to take,” Ms Aira said.
She pointed to compulsory public asset declaration as one such action that is “extremely important”, especially for ministers.
“I think that’s just the minimal level of scrutiny and accountability that should be expected from our ministers,” she said.
Ms Aira noted that some candidates did so in the run-up to the election but not all did.
She added that she hopes the Cabinet members will take the lead from Mr Anwar, who rejected a Mercedes car purchased by the Prime Minister's Department for his use, citing prudence.
GETTING ECONOMY BACK ON TRACK
Ms Tan noted that Mr Anwar, who first held the finance minister role 30 years ago under the government of then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, was popular with the West at the time.
She said that she does not expect Mr Anwar to try to rock the boat in the first year given the political instability of recent years.
His first job is to provide political stability and his second job is to steady domestic confidence, she said.
“A lot of the ringgit issues have to do with also low domestic confidence, sending ringgit funds out. But he has an opportunity to cultivate international confidence through his commitment to transparency, institutional reform, and further market liberalisation,” she added.
She noted that Malaysia has good economic fundamentals in terms of a young labour force that is educated and English-speaking.
“It's going to benefit from the decoupling of the global supply chain and so both the West and Chinese companies would be open to looking at Malaysia,” she said, although she acknowledged that the country is “losing some of its shine vis-a-vis Indonesia and Vietnam," she said.
“The first thing Anwar needs to do is to come and basically say ‘we are back on the international stage and we are in the competition again’."