Anwar needs to make smart political appointments

Anwar’s announcement of his Cabinet lineup was pushed back throughout Friday and was only eventually made after 8pm. — AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

DATUK Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s Cabinet lineup and the delay in announcing it on Friday underline the difficult balance Malaysia’s 10th Prime Minister needs to strike among three considerations: representation of the interests of various parties, communities, demographic groups and institutions; competence; and a lean administration.

The last two are what civil society organisations, businesses and the general public want to see. However, failing to see to the first one would mean a short lifespan for his government.

Here is where both the government and ordinary Malaysians need informed pragmatism and true strategic thinking, rather than internalising expediency – inevitable in difficult situations – as a core value.

Political necessities in compromises must be clearly identified and honestly communicated to the public. The government needs to stay clear of its challenges amidst unrealistic expectations by critics and unconditional defence by apologists.

Controversial appointments

Take for example the controversial appointment of Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as Deputy Prime Minister. It is unfortunate that Anwar cannot get his government partners’ agreement to exclude from his Cabinet all MPs with outstanding court cases.

However, if this is justified on the grounds that parties in a coalition government have the final say on their Cabinet representatives, then we have at least a clear rule that may potentially stabilise multiparty politics.

Under Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri, the former prime ministers’ disregard of government parties’ own ministerial picks had all contributed to subsequent intra-government clashes that ended the three governments.

Accepting Ahmad Zahid because of Umno’s decision is worlds apart from some apologists’ total defence, that the Anwar government’s survival is tied to Ahmad Zahid’s control of Umno.

If such an assertion is true, then this government may collapse if or when Ahmad Zahid loses an Umno presidential contest, which might be held by May 19, or if he is convicted of any of the charges he is facing in court and must relinquish his presidency.

By this logic, the next bitter pills that the Pakatan-led government and its supporters must swallow would be helping Ahmad Zahid to win his party election with government resources and getting him acquitted through intervention of the Attorney General’s Chamber (AGC) and/or the courts.

Such “pseudo realist” solutions would mean an Umno walkout of the coalition government under a hostile new leadership in the event of failure. In the event of success, Pakatan becomes the monster it fought so hard to remove, waiting to be ruthlessly punished by voters – especially the disillusioned Malay middle-ground – and disastrously trounced by Perikatan Nasional.

A smarter solution would be to ensure Umno staying in the coalition government is in its own best medium-term interests, with no Pakatan’s interference in Umno party elections. After all, Umno’s revival lies in recovering ground lost to PAS and Bersatu, not eyeing Pakatan’s multiethnic strongholds.

If Umno party elections can be a soul-searching journey for its reinvention and rejuvenation rather than a proxy war between the pro-Pakatan and pro-Perikatan factions – reminiscent of the 2014 PAS party elections – then whoever leads Umno will want to keep his/her party in the coalition government till 2027.

Institutionally, the damage control needed is an immediate start to separating the Public Prosecutor’s Office from the AGC, and till that is done, a moratorium on dropping charges against all politicians. If the prosecution has to lose in court, let it be, instead of blaming the government for letting off its own ministers or MPs.

Smart appointments for political peace

The public has to accept the fact that a purely meritocratic government is not possible in a parliamentary democracy.

American and Indonesian presidents can appoint technocrats, entrepreneurs and activists to their Cabinets exactly because they are executive presidents elected on a personal mandate. They are the bosses of the ministers they appoint.

A technocratic “dream team” Cabinet is a pipe dream in a parliamentary government in which the prime minister is just the leader of his/her parliamentary colleagues who must appoint enough of them to stay in power. All the talk that ministers should be appointed purely on merit and regardless of party hierarchy and political favour is a fairlytale.

Producing competent ministers

First, beyond getting smart guys elected to Parliament, parties train their MPs on ministerial affairs through parliamentary select committees and, if in Opposition, through the shadow Cabinet.

Second, the prime minister needs to calculate the gain and cost between substituting a choice based on competence with a pick for reward or group representation. Too few talents, voters will punish him/her for the government’s underperformance. Too few rewards, the prime minister may suffer internal revolt later.

It was because of the survival consideration that the last two governments were bloated – not just a 70-member administration, but most government backbenchers were given lucrative jobs in government-linked companies (GLCs) and statutory bodies.

It is therefore commendable that Anwar has managed to keep his Cabinet ministers to only 28, four fewer than his predecessors’ 32. If he can appoint only one deputy minister for each portfolio, then his entire administration would have only 56 members, 14 less than 70 under Muhyiddin and Ismail Sabri.

However, this lineup significantly underrepresents DAP, with only four ministers out of 40 MPs (10%), compared with PKR’s eight (26%), Umno’s six (23%) and PBB’s four (29%).

While this was presumably done to deny any basis for Perikatan’s accusation of DAP’s dominance, this also hurts DAP’s standing with its base.

Already some claim that DAP is more marginalised than MCA before 2008. Left unmanaged, Pakatan may just suffer a disastrously low turnout in the upcoming state elections in Selangor, Negri Sembilan and Penang. However, it is politically infeasible for DAP to get half of the deputy minister positions as compensation.

Reacting to circumstances, some apologists may next urge Anwar to appoint government MPs to GLCs and statutory bodies to ensure the government’s survival. But this would only further damage Pakatan’s reformist credentials.

Anwar should consider “smart” political appointments in Parliament for not just government backbenchers but also Opposition MPs.

Every ministerial portfolio should be scrutinised by a shadow minister appointed by the Parliamentary Opposition leader, and a cross-party parliamentary select committee filled by government and Opposition backbenchers. The committee’s chair and deputy chair should come from the different sides of the divide.

This means we will have five MPs tasked with each portfolio, three from government parties and two from the Opposition; two in running the ministry, and three scrutinising it from the shadow Cabinet and parliamentary committee.

This would enable better policymaking, law-making, budgeting and accountability, which is vital for our post-Covid-19 and post-1MDB recovery.

Most importantly, this can channel politicians’ energy into healthy competition over policy and governance instead of communal grandstanding and personal attacks.

With 28 portfolios, this can create 28 positions for government backbenchers and 56 positions for Opposition MPs. These would be the talent pools for ministers in future government changes or Cabinet reshuffles.

The media can cover shadow ministers and committee chairs besides ministers so the public can compare alternatives. This may force the Opposition to be more professional and reduce unpredictability in government policy continuity.

The shadow ministers, committee chairs and deputy chairs should, of course, be given access to government information and policy researchers.

They should also be paid a commensurate salary, perhaps half, a third and a quarter of a minister’s basic pay, but get no pension or any subsidies, or have an entourage of aides (the costliest part of a bloated administration). As political instability is too expensive, we must not be penny wise, pound foolish.

Anwar’s political pragmatism must be clear-eyed, strategic and innovative. He must not keep Malaysian politics in a state of cut-throat competition for dominance and incumbent advantages using ethnicity, religion, language and royalty.

Prof Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist and deputy head (Strategy) of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network Asia Headquarters, Sunway University.

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