SINGAPORE: The biggest surprise from political developments in Malaysia over the past month is less the uncertainty Mahathir Mohamad plunged the country into with his shock resignation or the rapid turn of events that culminated in the Royal Palace swearing in Muhyiddin Yassin.
It is that the Malaysian government continued to function for two weeks without a Cabinet, first under then interim Prime Minister Mahathir, and later under new Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
There was little complaints about breakdowns in public service delivery. And in those two weeks, life simply went on for many Malaysians.
Although governments all around the world are expected to continue to function during a period of planned political transition and possible change, like an election, this sort of “auto-pilot” mode for the country’s administration, while major political personalities engaged in elite power struggles, is a testament to both the system’s resilience and the professionalism of civil servants.
Even as the news cycle brought blow after blow of twist and turns, and the Malaysian public looked on with bewilderment, the civil service might have been bemused but largely went about their business running the country.
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Perhaps Malaysians too just want to get on with it.
WHAT WAS MOST STRIKING ABOUT NEW CABINET? WHO WAS MISSING
This frame is useful to bear in mind, in evaluating news of Muhyiddin’s unveiling of his Cabinet on Monday (Mar 9). For the most part, Muhyiddin’s line-up similarly reflects a huge desire on Muhyiddin’s part to consolidate gains and move the country forward.
His two other appointments, of a well-respected federal court judge Idris Harun as the new attorney general, and of a graft-busting veteran Azam Baki to head the anti-corruption commission, announced earlier on the same day have been met with grudging but certain public approval.
While commentators scrambled to evaluate the new line-up when the Cabinet list was revealed, the absence of many personalities was more striking. As Muhyiddin promised in his inaugural speech as prime minister, not one of the many senior politicians within his ruling coalition who are mired in scandals and court cases entered his cabinet, gathering more nods of approval from observers and many Malaysians.
The controversial president of the Islamist PAS party, Abdul Hadi Awang, who frequently exuded fringe opinions, including most recently characterising a vote of no confidence against the Muhyiddin administration as an act of disrespect against the Malaysian king who appointed Muhyiddin to the top role, also did not make the cut.
This exclusion of controversial senior politicians has been well-played. Muhyiddin has cleverly excluded coalition partners whose Cabinet inclusion would have constrained his administrative hands.
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Their political seniority, at least in number of years and standing in their party, is equal to or even higher than Muhyiddin’s, which will create huge headaches when the coalition has to resolve policy differences.
This of course does not prevent the same coalition senior leaders from exerting their political presence through their respective Cabinet proxies.
WHY NO DPM?
Similarly, the first ever, conspicuous lack of a deputy prime minister is a bold move. It will avert the prospect of a premier-in-waiting eagerly knocking on the doors to the prime minister’s office.
That happened during Muhyiddin’s own time as Najib Razak’s deputy, when he attempted to utilise the then unraveling 1MDB scandal to unseat Najib, only to be fired by Najib.
It took place even more prominently during the 1990s when Mahathir’s deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, reportedly pushed too hard to succeed Mahathir, and was also fired.
Instead, the deputy position was somewhat “devolved” into four senior ministers from the major factions of the ruling Perikatan Nasional.
This include Azmin Ali, who was said to be instrumental in engineering Muhyiddin’s recent final push to replace Mahathir, taking on the trade and industry portfolio; UMNO vice-president Ismail Sabri assuming the defence portfolio; Radzi Yusof from Muhyiddin’s Bersatu party handling the education portfolio; and Fadillah Yusof from the Sarawak coalition of parties GPS manning the public works portfolio.
Through these arrangements, Azmin’s political ambitions would be recognised but also kept in check given he has three other co-equal cabinet colleagues to contend with if he attempts to unseat Muhyiddin.
THE BIG CHALLENGES AHEAD: THE COVID-19 OUTBREAK AND THE ECONOMY
The poster boy for Muhyiddin’s promise of a Cabinet with calibre is none other than Tengku Zafrul, the now former chief executive of CIMB Bank, who was appointed to the crucial finance ministry.
A symbol of Malay achievement, Zafrul is supposed to bring to the Cabinet and the Malaysian treasury his prized experience in the private sector that will help the country weather through these economically stormy times.
How Zafrul, a political novice, will navigate the treacherous political waters in the hastily cobbled together PN with its many factions, will be crucial when he tries to accomplish these challenging economic goals.
Similarly, as fears that the coronavirus outbreak in Malaysia may get out of hand, the appointments of two medical doctors Dr Adham Baba and Dr Noor Azmi to be the minister and deputy minister of the health portfolio, is at least reassuring to a general public that has huge concerns.
An able management of the COVID-19 outbreak and efforts to arrest the ailing economy will go a long way towards buttressing the reputation of the Muhyiddin administration.
THE SURPRISES: HISHAMMUDDIN HUSSEIN, KHAIRY JAMALUDDIN
Interestingly, former defence minister and promising senior UMNO leader Hishammuddin Hussein is back in the cabinet as foreign minister.
But he faces a tall order in achieving some sign of recognition for Muhyiddin’s administration by the major powers of the world, many of which have yet to congratulate the new Malaysian government.
A rather surprising Cabinet inclusion, as the somewhat peripheral science and technology minister, is that of Khairy Jamaluddin, the former UMNO youth chief, who has been somewhat distancing himself from UMNO amid initial rumours he had plans to build a new political force of his own.
WHAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON: LITTLE REPRESENTATION OF MINORITIES AND PAS
The overwhelmingly Malay proportion of ministers in the new Muhyiddin cabinet, in stark contrast with the more multiracial cabinet makeup of the previous Pakatan Harapan administration, suggests credence to the theory that it was mainly the Malay members of parliament from both sides of the political divide, uncomfortable with a large non-Malay mainstream political presence, who decided to come together to form a more Malay-centric administration.
Chinese and Indian cabinet representations were reduced to one each, although the East Malaysian Cabinet presence was considerable.
Another point of curiosity is PAS’ disproportionately small Cabinet delegation. This may have been arranged so that the conservative party’s participation in the new administration would not spook non-Muslims and foreign businesses critical for the country’s economic development.
But questions linger as to what PAS may have asked in return for this compromise.
In summary, the Muhyiddin Cabinet formation seems borne out of both political necessity in dividing up the political spoils after a successfully engineered mid-term change of government, as well as functional requirements in what the country needs to get through a socioeconomically difficult period.
And right now, speedy proof of the administration’s legitimacy – whether greater recognition by major partners or stronger support from Malaysians – will go a long way toward enabling Cabinet members to carry out their duties more effectively.
Oh Ei Sun is a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.