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Commentary: Malaysia PM Anwar needs a major Cabinet overhaul to show he is serious about his reform agenda

HOBART, Australia: There is intensifying speculation in Malaysia that a Cabinet reshuffle is imminent. When asked about it on Wednesday (Sep 27), Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said he was still “thinking about it”. But really, it’s evident that he doesn’t have much of a choice.

First, the “green wave” in the six state elections last month confirms that the unity government’s support among the Malay voters has dropped since last November’s general election.

Second, the current Cabinet is simply not delivering the basic results expected by the people on cost-of-living issues. Prices have not fallen for basic goods and services. Many people think this may be an impossible mission given the weakening ringgit, one of the worst-performing currencies this year.

The ringgit was trading at 4.70 against the greenback earlier this week. The psychological barrier is RM5 to US$1. Fears are mounting that if nothing is done, it will hit the psychological barrier by the end of this year.

This is also the only time for a Cabinet reshuffle with the annual budget expected in mid-October. Having a new team in place when the budget is tabled sends a strong signal to the market that Mr Anwar understands the need for new people and new thinking to tackle cost-of-living and other economic issues.

Another reason, of course, is the vacant seat in the Domestic Trade and Cost of Living portfolio, after the unexpected death of Salahuddin Ayub following surgery for a brain haemorrhage in July.

ANWAR’S BALANCING ACT

What is often not recognised is that Mr Anwar’s options may be limited.

First, he will have to decide if he wants a mini reshuffle, replacing new ministers in key portfolios and keeping the rest intact, or a major reshuffle where changes are not only made to the Cabinet, but also to the top layer of the civil service, government-linked companies and key statutory bodies.

Second, and this is the tricky bit, Mr Anwar will have to “balance” the representation in Cabinet. After a decades-long wait for the prime ministership, Mr Anwar was finally sworn into power on Nov 24 last year. There were many twists and turns, but a Pakatan Harapan (PH)-led ruling coalition finally came together comprising previous ruling coalition Barisan Nasional, Gabungan Parti Sarawak, Gabungan Rakyat Sabah and Parti Warisan.

Each party in his unity government must get their share or it will lead to political instability. There is already unhappiness among the Chinese that PH component party Democratic Action Party, with the largest number of seats in Parliament on the government side, is under-represented. UMNO and the East Malaysians, on the other hand, are over-represented.

On top of that, Mr Anwar must consider the status of those he wishes to appoint. Obviously, they must hold senior positions in their respective parties or have some special skill set.

Mr Anwar must also carve up the work in “overlap” areas to avoid perceptions of conflict. For example, sections of the business community are not happy with the way the Ministry of Economy under Rafizi Ramli and the Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry under Tengku Zafrul Aziz are creating additional red tape and approvals because two ministries are involved.

Many in the business community would prefer the Economy Ministry, which was first established in 2018, to be scrapped and its core functions returned to the finance ministry.

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SHOULD ANWAR KEEP HIS FINANCE MINISTER PORTFOLIO?

There is general consensus in Kuala Lumpur that the biggest problems lie with the finance, health and education ministries.

Mr Anwar is double hatting as finance minister on top of being prime minister, and many think he should appoint a second finance minister. He broke his earlier promise of not allowing one person to hold the prime minister and finance minister roles concurrently. The finance ministry in Malaysia, like everywhere else, is the nerve centre of the government and impacts every other ministry. The preferred choice is for Mr Anwar to give up the portfolio completely and simply appoint a new finance minister.

The health and education ministers seem to have lost the plot and public opinion is that they have not brought any positive reforms in the past 10 months.

In the education arena, the controversy over introducing the “40 Hadith” teaching into national schools has created a strong backlash. The education ministry has said that the module is important to curb radicalism and extremism in the community, but many think there is already too much Islamic religion being taught in the national school curriculum.

In the health sector, there was also huge controversy when Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa removed liquid and gel used in e-cigarettes or vapes from being classified as “poison”. Three civil society groups have sued Dr Zaliha, claiming that her actions allow such items to be sold openly and legally to anyone – including children.

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STRONG SIGNAL NEEDED FROM ANWAR ON REFORMS

Cabinet reshuffles are political in nature and thus, it will be a political decision. It’s likely that Mr Anwar will have a major Cabinet reshuffle: He needs to get rid of the non-performers, and more importantly, he needs to send a strong signal that he is willing to rejig his government to tackle the stagnant economy and cost-of-living issues, key concerns of the overwhelming majority of Malaysians.

On the political front, Mr Anwar needs a major overhaul simply because there is widespread perception among the polity that he is no longer interested in real reforms. The perception is so strong that on social media, there is a hashtag called #reformati, meaning “dead reforms”.

Mr Anwar’s political brand has always been “reformasi” or reforms, and if he does not do anything now, his critics may be right.

James Chin is Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania and Senior Fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia.

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