KUALA LUMPUR : Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob may not have branded his government under any specific political coalition, but his Cabinet line-up likely points to minimal changes and the continuation of his predecessor’s policies, which were heavily criticised amid the worsening Covid-19 situation.
The former prime minister, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, was forced to resign last week after losing the support of a number of parliamentarians in Umno, which helped to prop up his Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition.
Datuk Seri Ismail, who served as deputy prime minister under Mr Muhyiddin and is an Umno vice-president, picked a near-identical Cabinet line-up to that of his previous boss, removing any expectations of a leaner, “war Cabinet” to tackle the crisis caused by Covid-19.
Mr Ismail’s decision to have a 69-member administration – 31 ministers and 38 deputies – is just one fewer than Mr Muhyiddin’s and it quickly came under fire from the opposition as well as Malaysians on social media, souring the mood after a week of renewed hope for cooperation from all sides of the political divide.
Over the past five days since he was sworn in last Saturday, Mr Ismail has talked about bipartisan cooperation and even of engaging opposition politicians on key reforms.
His Cabinet picks, though, indicate the fragility of his hold on power.
Mr Ismail has only 114 Members of Parliament backing him, giving him a majority of only three seats, and more than half of his backers have now been given positions in government which actually is made up of three major coalitions – Umno-led Barisan Nasional, PN led by Mr Muhyiddin and Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), an agglomeration of Sarawak parties.
Amid reports of jostling for the position of deputy prime minister, Mr Ismail opted to emulate the approach of his predecessor. He did away with it and instead appointed four senior ministers – two from Mr Muhyiddin’s party, one from Umno and one from GPS.
Most senior lawmakers from the previous PN administration were retained, many in the same portfolio and the most notable change was the appointment of Umno’s Khairy Jamaluddin as the new Health Minister.
Mr Khairy was largely regarded as one of the better performing ministers in the previous administration as he led the country’s immunisation programme, which boasts one of the fastest vaccination rates in the world. He now faces the daunting task of managing Malaysia’s Covid-19 crisis, as the country continues to set new records for infections and deaths.
“Obviously, he (Mr Ismail) prizes political balance so much more than effectiveness to combat the pandemic,” said Singapore Institute of International Affairs senior fellow Oh Ei Sun.
“It is likely to continue in the same old failed policies to tackle the pandemic and to revive the economy,” Dr Oh told The Straits Times.
Political scientist Wong Chin Huat said Mr Ismail had played it “safe” and was “overly cautious”, noting that the Cabinet was 87 percent similar to Mr Muhyiddin’s whose influence on the new picks loomed large.
Mr Muhyiddin backed Mr Ismail to succeed him and, prior to the Cabinet announcement, labelled the new administration as a continuation of his PN government.
“Ismail has wasted his newly gained political capital from his peacemaking with the opposition on Wednesday. With an expected confidence and supply agreement with the opposition in his hand, he should have been bolder to fend off the competing demands from Bersatu, Umno and GPS to build a team with some bright spots,” Professor Wong said.
Mr Muhyiddin is leader of the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.
Mr Ismail said in his speech on Friday that the new Cabinet, featuring many of the old faces, is now tasked with the duty of “winning the people’s trust”. He set the target of each ministry providing a 100-day report card on its performance.
He also said that Malaysia should now learn to live with Covid-19, which will become endemic, and that his Cabinet would be focused on reopening the economy gradually and in a safe manner.
But any hope of Mr Ismail enjoying a honeymoon dissipated almost as soon as he had announced his Cabinet.
The #Kerajaan Gagal (Failed Government) – a running online criticism of Mr Muhyiddin’s government – returned within hours of the announcement, trending in the top three on social networking site Twitter.
“Ismail Sabri, you had the opportunity to reform the government but you just copy-pasted and swapped it, and this is kerajaan gagal all over again,” said Twitter user with the handle Fararara.
By : Ram Anand – THE STRAITS TIMES