The Unity Government: Of Pragmatism and Idealism

03 Dec 2022 03:51pm
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim showing the list of cabinet members in the unity government during a press conference in Putrajaya. - BERNAMA
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim showing the list of cabinet members in the unity government during a press conference in Putrajaya. - BERNAMA

Yesterday, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim unveiled his much awaited cabinet-line up, 10 days after his appointment as Prime Minister.

His cabinet consists of 28 members, fewer than the 31 ministers from the previous administration and just one higher from the last time Pakatan Harapan (PH) was in power.

His announcement was received with mixed reactions - but could this be the formula needed for Malaysia to achieve a semblance of stability this term?

A delicate balancing act

From day one as Prime Minister, Anwar was confronted with an uphill battle in ensuring that his cabinet is representative of its coalition members.

Given the medley of coalitions, Anwar had to be tactical.

The criteria is not just about who is suited for the role, but also the combinations that will give him a comfortable runway to affirm his majority leading up to the vote of confidence when Parliament reopens on Dec 19.

We also see party hierarchy becoming a factor, with party heads and their leadership team helming the different portfolios.

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Undeniably, any administration would face a tough year ahead amidst looming economic downturn, tenuous geopolitical dynamics, rising cost of living and inflation.

In Anwar’s case he has an additional challenge: to manage the Malay-Muslim electorate and the Borneo bloc.

After GE15, we saw a shifting tide in the population. Perikatan Nasional had a surge of support, amplified by TikTok and its component party Pas came out as the surprise winner with 44 seats, the highest held by a single party.

The Malay-Muslim electorate are in search for an alternative party that represents them and one that is not tainted by corruption.

Translating that to Cabinet roles, it is an unspoken (though not inviolable) practise that some key portfolios should be helmed by Malay politicians. An effort to assuage the Malay base.

These portfolios are typically the Finance Ministry, Education Ministry and Rural and Regional Development Ministry and we see that Anwar has balanced that out in this Cabinet.

If balanced right, he could sway the Malay-Muslim electorate over to his administration.

Walking the talk on Inclusivity

PH won the most seats this election on the back of promises of institutional reforms, fighting corruption and championing an inclusive government. But certain names came as a surprise.

The most talked about is Zahid, who is facing 47 corruption charges, who was announced Deputy Minister as well as Minister of Rural and Regional Development.

Many citizens and non-governmental organisations, such as electoral reform group Bersih, expressed their disappointment.

Social media users were seen resurrecting and mocking one of PH leaders' oft-used campaign slogan, “1 vote for Barisan Nasional (BN) = 1 vote for Zahid” to show their dissatisfaction.

Anwar announcing himself as Finance Minister also raises eyebrows.

It was reminiscent of his predecessor Datuk Seri Najib Razak who was the last premier to hold both posts simultaneously and was jailed this year for abusing that arrangement leading to the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) scandal.

It was surprising because the week before, Anwar told Bloomberg he was not considering keeping the finance portfolio for himself.

Furthermore, in PH’s 2018 general election manifesto, they pledged that the prime minister would not hold another ministerial portfolio simultaneously for fear of repeating 1MDB.

A third surprise came in the form of Tengku Datuk Seri Zafrul Aziz making an unexpected comeback as International Trade and Industry Minister, despite losing to Amanah’s Dr Dzulkefly in Kuala Selangor.

Having said that, to the rest of the public following Malaysian politics, these outcomes came as no surprise as some unpopular decisions were expected to manage the different interests.

This then raises the question - how committed is the newly-minted Prime Minister in fighting corruption and bringing reforms?

As previously alluded to, this Cabinet is probably the most complex in recent Malaysian history, more so compared to GE14.

It bears reminding that this is not a “PH government” hence they cannot decide freely on the appointments. Some would argue that this is a compromise for him to continue enjoying two-third majority in parliament with the help of Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS).

We may see this trend continue as Anwar manoeuvres a complex coalition and continues to make unpopular but necessary decisions that may not align with the PH manifesto.

Taking a step back and looking at the Cabinet composition, Bornean representation has taken a large step forwards.

According to the Prime Minister, PH, Barisan Nasional (BN) and GPS, constitute the “pillars” of the new administration and this is reflected in his Deputies - BN’s Zahid and GPS’s Datuk Seri Fadhillah Yusof, who is Malaysia’s first East Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister.

Bornean ministers also make up about a quarter of the Cabinet.

Anwar can be seen making a conscious effort to maintain control of his Cabinet with eight key portfolios held by PKR, the highest in the Cabinet.

Female representation still remains lacklustre with only five female ministers, similar to the previous administration.

However, this is the first time women have led key portfolios such as the Health Ministry, Education Ministry, Law Minister and that a woman from a minority group is appointed as Youth and Sports Minister.

This is refreshing as women tend to be pigeon-holed to the women’s ministry or lead ‘less crucial’ ministries.

In favour of a leaner cabinet however, some level of diversity was sacrificed as we see only one Indian minister.

What does this mean for Malaysia?

When Anwar came into power, he said all the right things - by not accepting a salary, as well as cutting ministers salaries in a show of solidarity with those that are struggling with high cost of living; acknowledging that the civil servants are the backbone of the government and that he will remind the new Cabinet ministers of the same and that the government's procurement process can no longer be conducted without tenders to ensure corruption is curbed.

Reforms are very much welcomed; though it is uncertain on how robust they will be. It is likely that Anwar may not make any novel or major policy changes in the near term as he waits for the dust to settle.

The ‘reformasi’ momentum may be subdued until there is more certainty, and reforms will be in piecemeal with Anwar targeting low hanging fruit such as managing his expenditures in the Prime Minister’s office.

It is expected that the rakyat manage their expectations because this administration is unlike when PH ruled in 2018. A

nwar was quick to remind that this not a PH government, it is a coalition government where PH has the most seats.

From the recent announcement, it is clear that pragmatism has overshadowed idealism to manage the delicate grand coalition and ensure its survival.

Political parties and the public would benefit to go beyond the superficial blame game and delve deeper into policies and its impact on the rakyat.

Both Anwar and Malaysia are in untested waters, and they may take time to find their footing to create a government this country deserves.

Arinah Najwa is a Senior Analyst at BowerGroupAsia a public policy advisory firm. She has under a decade of experience across corporate, government and non-profit sectors.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sinar Daily.