THE Cabinet is no longer a place for cosy discussions. In fact, it befits a banquet.
With Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi himself chairing deliberations of national importance around a gargantuan oval table spilling over with files, documents stamped sulit, and tea and snacks to sustain them through their deliberations, the 33 full ministers cannot hear each other without a microphone.
Back in their ministries, deputy ministers and parliamentary secretaries await the post-Cabinet debriefing.
The Cabinet, with 28 members all in, was large enough under former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
It now begs the question: Do we really need this kind of specialisation?
The Malaysian Cabinet is top-heavy for a population of 25 million served by a civil service of 800,000. Objectively, it looks a bit like steering the Queen Elizabeth through fairly calm waters.
Some of the streamlining in the new Cabinet is most welcome. Coupling Natural Resources with Environment is most logical, as is the creation of a Plantation Industries and Commodities Ministry.
In terms of appointments, the retention of Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcop as Second Finance Minister undoubtedly gives Abdullah’s Cabinet the most credibility. Abdullah himself holds the Finance portfolio.
Nor Mohamed is a senator, not an MP, and does not have to serve a constituency to be re-elected. Financial circles and corporations had lauded his appointment, proof of his reputation of financial astuteness and integrity.
Elsewhere, the new portfolios and the splitting up of old ones reflect the importance of some of these functions – for instance Arts, Culture and Heritage, headed by Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim, which among its other tasks will look at old buildings dating back to British rule.
In wanting to separate the touristy side of culture and the genuine enhancement of our cultural treasure, however, one wonders if there is not too much emphasis on an aspect that was simply not adequately attended to by the previous Culture, Arts and Tourism Minister. In other words, while the outgoing minister may have been immensely successful in tourism, perhaps it was at the expense of some of the other areas under his purview.
New faces make up some 40% of the Cabinet, underscoring Abdullah’s emphasis on nurturing the second echelon. This is all the more important, given that 33.3% of the population is below 15 years old.
One wonders, however, if some new faces were being pushed too far too fast. Datuk Azalina Othman’s appointment to a full Youth and Sports Minister is a case in point. While Puteri Umno contributed decisively to the national electoral turnout – an average of 80%, one of the highest in recent history – it is difficult for a newcomer to move from zero to full speed without any training, other than her political family background.
A kinder move, perhaps, would have been to make her a deputy first and only after a period of tutelage move her up to full ministership. She would have benefited, as would the nation.
One understands, of course, that the Prime Minister is bound by certain constraints: distribution of power among coalition parties, state interests and the political correctness of appointing a fair number of women and Youth wing members as ministers and deputies.
This is the meaning of Barisan Nasional and it has been so since the coalition’s inception in 1974. The choice of the dacing as a coalition symbol in itself is very telling of the goals of balance of power.
First, racial composition and the interests and performance of individual parties had to be considered. To his credit, Abdullah withstood pressure at the top and gave one deputy minister’s post to Datuk M. Kayveas of the People’s Progressive Party in recognition of its joining the Barisan in 1974, when the PPP held sway in Perak and the Barisan nearly lost the state to the DAP after the 1969 race riots.
Wherever he could not give out full minister’s posts, he would attempt to reward them at lower levels: deputy ministers and parliamentary secretaries.
Then there were regional rewards to be meted out. Perak now has four full ministers, the strong inroads the DAP made in the Kinta Valley notwithstanding. Johor, the cradle of Umno and a Barisan bastion, boasts seven full ministers – having delivered 100% to Parliament and all but one state seat which it lost on nomination day itself on a technical default.
But Kelantan, which did extremely well with 49% of the popular vote despite not quite wresting the state from PAS, has but one full minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in Datuk Mustapa Mohamed.
And Pahang, which had four full ministers, lost two despite having contributed tremendously to the Barisan’s sweeping victory.
Parti Bersatu Sabah, which only just returned to the Barisan fold last year, managed to promote Datuk Dr Maximus Ongkili as full minister in the PM’s Department, aptly in charge of national unity and the civil service of Sabah and Sarawak.
Dr Maximus’ star is certainly shining now, as he is being rewarded for party loyalty in a state where party hopping is the norm. Dr Maximus is younger brother to one-time minister Datuk James Ongkili.
Two other ministers from Sabah are Tan Sri Bernard Dompok of the United Pasok Momogun Kadazandusun Murut Organisation, who is also Minister in the PM’s Department, and Umno Sabah’s Datuk Shafie Apdal (Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs), bringing Sabah’s tally to three.
Next door in Sarawak, the fractious Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak lost its lone position in Cabinet when Datuk Amar Leo Moggie stepped down as outgoing Minister of Energy, Communications and Multimedia and no one from the PBDS was chosen to replace him.
Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Taib Mahmood’s Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu, however, managed to push in two full ministers, ample reward for delivering the state yet again to the Barisan, while Datuk Peter Chin Fah Kui of the Sarawak United People’s Party was appointed Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister. This brought Sarawak’s count also to three.
So juggling was really the name of the game.
There were some disappointments. Datuk Shahrir Samad, one-time Minister of Federal Territory, was not picked despite having won by a thumping 40,000-plus majority in Johor Baru, the largest in the 2004 general election.
He was a minister who had performed his duties diligently and with good humour in the 1980s. So what happened? Who was the Johorean who “took his place”?
In the small state of Perlis, Datuk Azmi Khalid was promoted to Minister of Home Affairs, while Datuk Radzi Sheikh Ahmad, a seasoned politician and one-time Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, was reinstated to full Minister in the PM’s Department in charge of legal affairs.
Radzi is a practising lawyer. He was dropped in the mid-1980s by the previous administration for being aligned to his immediate “boss”, Tan Sri Musa Hitam, then Home Minister, when the latter threw in his lot with the Team B challenge against Dr Mahathir.
A huge chunk of the problem lies in expectations – personal as well as that of their supporters. Many MPs and assemblymen feel that they deserve a position after serving two terms as wakil rakyat.
Obviously not all deserve it. And not all can afford it. The war chest needed to fight for a seat on the 25-member Umno Supreme Council is awesome. More to the point: not all can make it and will fall by the wayside.
But not all is lost. The Umno general assembly this June will likely bring a minor Cabinet reshuffle in its trail. Several of the Umno luminaries – and hopefuls and wannabe’s – may be moved around at that juncture as others take their place in the political sun.