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New Wine in Old Plastic Bottles - MGG Pillai
By web aNtu

13/12/1999 1:00 am Mon

The Malaysian Cabinet: New Wine In Old Plastic Bottles

The Prime Minister's new cabinet, announced yesterday (10 Dec 1999) to thunderous silence, is in line with his previous practice of filling in the blanks, relying on tired old people who should have retired instead of men and women who could lift it out of its current lethargy. He misused his opportunity to fashion a cabinet prepared to govern instead of second guessing municipal authorities. He downgrades the position of mentris besar further by appointing the former chief minister of Malacca, Dato' Seri Abu Zahar Isnin, a parliamentary secretary; they are normally brought into federal service as deputy ministers, as the former Perak mentri besar, Tan Sri Ramli Ngah Talib, is, rarely as ministers, as Tan Sri Muhiyuddin Ya#sin was on returning to the centre after a stint as mentri besar of Johore.

The one imaginative appointment is that of Tan Sri Musa Mohamed, the former vice-chancellor of the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang, in education, which he balanced by bringing in his former political secretary, Dato' Aziz Shamsuddin, whom he had appointed senator earlier. (But Dato' Aziz was involved in a serious road accident in Rawang today which killed his wife and he in serious condition in hospital.) Six ministers lost or retired after the last elections, and he dropped three (far too few), one each from Sarawak, UMNO and MCA. The Prime Minister indicated he would have wanted more than the three he appointed through the senate, but there were no more vacancies there, a strange admission from a man who led the National Front to a resounding, though it turns out pyrrhic, victory in last month's general elections. He made no cabinet appointments from Kelantan and Trengganu. The sole National Front MP from the two states, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, once again returns to his 1987 role as a potential challenger to the Prime Minister in the June UMNO elections; two of his fellow conspirators then, Dato' Rais Yatim and Dato' Zainal Abidin Zin, return to the government, one as minister the other as deputy minister.

The deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, remains home minister; the finance minister, Tun Daim Zainuddin, is also in charge of the Economic Planning Unit in the prime minister's department; the National Front component leaders remain in their old portfolios. The new ministers include the former Sabah chief minister, Tan Sri Bernard Dompok, prime minister's department; Dato' Mohamed Effendi Norwari, agriculture; Dato' Hishamuddin Hussein, youth and sports; Dato' Azmi Khalid, rural development; Dato' Nazri Aziz, entrepreneur development. The MCA lost two ministers it could ill afford to: the human resources and manpower minister, Dato' Lim Ah Lek, who retired at the end of the last parliament, and the local government and housing minister, Dato' Ting Chew Peh, whose anger at having to pick up the pieces after the IWK privatisation did not fit in with the official view that IWK must be helped at whatever cost.

As it turned out, the changes were cosmetic, the result of electoral losses. More important and dangerous is Dr Mahathir's decision to cut out any cabinet appointees from Kelantan and Trengganu. In the past, the senate was used to ensure adequate representation; this time, he decided on an open confrontation. He still fights a rearguard battle to rein in the states, and this cabinet gives all the signs that he intends to bring them into line. The difficulties he encountered in having his men appointed as mentris besar raises the possibility of another confrontation with the state rulers. The mainstream newspapers already call for one. The shrewd political operator he is, this time he is caught in a trap of his own making. The Malay ground remains divided. And would until the Anwar issue is put to rest. This is more important than if Malaysia would have its first octogenarian prime minister.

The former deputy prime minister's s###my trial is put on hold, the judge this time having a bad backache. Come February, when UMNO branch and divisional elections are due in preparation for party elections in June, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim becomes an unseen presence in UMNO's conclaves. He has surrounded himself with loyalists to deflect challenges to him. With Kelantan and Trengganu UMNO on the boil, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and the new defence minister, Dato' Seri Najib Tun Razak, mounting their own personal challenges in UMNO, the uncertainty of the Anwar brigade in the party, this is the best cabinet the Prime minsiter could fashion; but not to meet the pressures and perils ahead. With or without He Who Must Be Destroyed At All Cost.

M.G.G. Pillai