Agenda Daily


The new Cabinet line-up sprang a few surprises after the shocking poll results of March 8, resulting in a chorus of objections. The growing dissent over the lack of leadership at the top-most level to quell such unrest in a timely and appropriate manner is worrying, to say the least.


THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE NEW CABINET ON March 18 has only heightened the controversy surrounding the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s March 8 electoral debacle and the inability of the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, to keep the ruling coalition intact.

No sooner after it was announced, a chorus of objections was heard from member parties. The most virulent opposition to his decision, interestingly, came from his own party, Umno.

The outspoken chief of the party’s woman wing, Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz, called a Press conference the next day to challenge Abdullah’s decision not to include members of the movement in senior posts.

Rafidah herself, a minister for 28 years and a poll winner, was excluded because ‘she has too long been in the Cabinet’, an excuse she and many of her keen supporters did not buy.

Ironically, Rafidah’s more junior deputy in the Wanita wing, Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, who lost her Lembah Pantai seat to Parti Keadilan Rakyat Advisor Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s daughter, Nurul Izzah, was made Prime Minister’s special advisor on women’s affairs.

That was not until she is said to have threatened to bring busloads of supporters to hold a nighttime protest at Abdullah’s official residence in Putrajaya.

The exclusion of the flamboyant former Science, Technology and Innovation Minister, Datuk Dr Jamaluddin Jarjis, from the Cabinet list came as a surprise, given the fact that like most of his Pahang counterparts, he did well at the polls.

His exclusion was even more surprising given the fact that the Prime Minister himself had openly said before the polls that all BN candidates were duly screened and cleared by the Anti-Corruption Agency. So what sin could Jamaluddin have possibly committed?

This has led to many observers shifting their attention to the fact that Jamaluddin was a close ally of Deputy Prime Minister and fellow Pahang representative Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Abdul Razak.

Two Umno Deputy Ministers, Datuk Anifah Aman from Sabah and Tengku Azlan Sultan Abu Bakar from Pahang, declined the appointments on account that they were sidestepped for promotions to the Cabinet.

The Prime Minister also incurred the ire of many, including members of his own party, when he brought back the controversial former Selangor Menteri Besar, Tan Sri Muhammad Muhd Taib, as Rural and Regional Development Minister.

Muhammad resigned as Selangor Menteri Besar in 1997 under a cloud of suspicion when he was arrested in Australia for failing to declare RM2.4 million cash he was taking out of the country.

Muhammad did not contest the March 8 polls but is currently a Senator. His appointment to the Cabinet is seen as further proof of Abdullah’s penchant for rewarding friends and favouring loyalty over integrity, despite officially declaring the latter to be the cornerstone of his administration.

As the chief of the influential Umno Information Bureau, Muhammad has made the defence of the Prime Minister and Umno President against the attack by former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad his crusade.

Understandably, there is no love lost between Muhammad and Dr Mahathir. It was during the latter’s tenure that Muhammad was forced to step down.

It is widely believed that had it not been for the BN’s poor showing at the polls, Abdullah would have also accelerated the promotion of his controversial and allegedly influential son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin.

The consensus is that Khairy, who won the Rembau parliamentary seat, would have been fast-tracked to a full minister or at least a key deputy minister.

The Prime Minister’s ability to root for his Oxfordeducated son-in-law and former special assistant was further curtailed by Khairy’s rising unpopularity with Umno members and leaders, many of whom blamed him for the party’s dismal performance.

Abdullah’s decision to appoint several other nonelected personalities as ministers and deputy ministers has also not gone down well with party members and leaders. Counting among them are lawyer Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, banker Datuk Amirsham Abdul Aziz and motivational speaker Datuk Dr Mashitah Ibrahim.

In 2004, Zaid, who was the Kota Baru Member of Parliament and division chief, was stripped of his party post and suspended as party member on allegations of involvement in money politics. He was later cleared but was not reinstated as division chief and was not nominated to contest in the March 8 polls.

He came to prominence as an Umno lawyer in the aftermath of the party’s 1987/88 crisis. He represented the party in a number of court cases and later acted as a legal representative and a proxy in business deals involving the party.

Since his sacking as division chief, Zaid has fashioned himself as a neo-liberal, championing civil society and human rights issues.

With political baggage that dates back to Dr Mahathir’s time, it would be interesting to see how Zaid plays his new role as Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department responsible for law.

Suffice to say that this wealthy lawyer is not above playing to the gallery and has made many miscalculations in his political moves, including his failed attempt to offer himself as a candidate for the post of Umno Vice-President in the 2004 party election.

As for the extremely low-profile Amirsham, who was until a few weeks ago the Chief Executive Officer of Malayan Banking Bhd, his inclusion in the Cabinet is a mystery, although he will, hopefully, help strengthen the financial management of the country and the government.

Given his demeanour and hands-down management style, Amirsham can be expected to complement and supplement the work of the Second Finance Minister, Tan Sri Nor Mohammed Yakcop, who is effectively the Finance Minister.

Understandably, the Prime Minister has opted to remain at the top of the Finance Ministry despite having two assistants.

Having rewarded himself with the largest ever development budget of any Prime Minister under the five-year development plan, Abdullah has to make sure that the control of nearly RM50 billion under the Prime Minister’s Department and Finance Ministry does not slip into somebody else’s hand.

But it is also good for the Prime Minister to have a strong finance team, given the less than encouraging domestic and international economic outlook for the next couple of years.

Abdullah’s decision to give up the Internal Security Ministry is a face-saving move. His long tenure at the ministry – since 1998 - had been marred by a series of controversies. Notable among them were the general decline in the professionalism of the police force, the rising crime rate and the infamous videotaping of a strip search of a woman detainee at the Petaling Jaya police station.

Acting on an Opposition complaint in Parliament that a Chinese national had been stripped and videotaped, Abdullah hurriedly dispatched Datuk Azmi Khalid, the-then Home Minister, to Beijing to apologise to the Chinese Government. As it turned out, the victim was a pregnant Malay woman. She has since sued the government for RM10 million for her detention and humiliation.

By re-merging the Internal Security portfolio and the Home Ministry into one and assigning loyalist Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar to the critical job, Abdullah continues to keep a tight rein on law and order management.

Other notable appointments are that of the former Parliamentary Secretary of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Datuk Ahmad Shabery Cheek as Information Minister, and the maverick former Federal Territory Minister, Datuk Shahrir Abdul Samad, as Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister.

Abdullah also broke convention by giving the Works Ministry, which was the domain of the MIC President, to an Umno representative, Datuk Mohd Zin Mohamad. The former Works Minister, Datuk Seri S Samy Vellu, lost to PKR in the March 8 polls.

The Women, Family and Community Development portfolio, which was the preserve of Umno, was given to the MCA representative, Datuk Dr Ng Yen Yen.

MCA ‘rebel’ Datuk Ong Tee Keat was made Transport Minister, while the MIC, despite its neartotal defeat, was given the Human Resources post. It is represented by Datuk S Subramaniam.

Admittedly, not all ministers are poor choices. Many have proven track records, while others are above average. They certainly are not in the ‘half-past-six’ category.

Among the newcomers, hopes have been pinned on the likes of Ahmad Shabery, Ng, Tee Keat, Amirsham, Datuk Seri Ong Ka Chuan — the Housing and Local Government Minister who is also the brother of MCA President Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting — and Datuk Shaziman Abu Mansor, the Energy, Water and Communications Minister.

Unfortunately, their appointments have been overshadowed by the ongoing controversies over the Prime Minister’s stance and the showdown with the Terengganu Ruler over the appointment of the Menteri Besar.

Their credibility and integrity are being affected, to some degree, by the poor performance of the BN at the polls and the mounting challenge against the Prime Minister.

But it is unfair to judge them solely on the lackluster poll performance of their party and the weakened position of their boss, the Prime Minister. They should be judged on the integrity of their character and performance.

Challenging Abdullah

MEANWHILE, the challenge against Abdullah is not likely to abate anytime soon. Instead, all indications point to it getting more widespread and strident.

Despite the mainstream media continuing to gloss their reports to make him look presentable, the undercurrents are just about the opposite.

Abdullah’s inability or disinterest to solve the impasse in Terengganu and his apparent belligerence are not endearing him to the Malays who still revere their rulers.

Abdullah broke his silence on the issue by declaring that ‘the appointment of any person other than Datuk Idris Jusoh, as the Menteri Besar of Terengganu, is unconstitutional’.

The warning, which was disputed by the Gua Musang Member of Parliament Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah as inept, came after the Regency Advisory Council named the BN Kijal State Assemblyman, Datuk Ahmad Said, as Menteri Besar.

The Malaysiakini online newspaper quoted Tengku Razaleigh, who is offering himself as Abdullah’s challenger for the Umno presidency, as saying that the situation in Terengganu is a ‘crisis of government, not of the constitution’.

‘As in the recent crisis in Perlis, the Prime Minister’s actions suggest stunning ineptness in managing fundamental relationships and straightforward functions of government.

‘The Sultan acted within his powers in appointing the person who, in his judgment, is likely to command the confidence of the majority of the members of the State Assembly.

’Ahmad Said’s appointment is effective and he is now Menteri Besar of Terengganu. It is up to the properly convened State Assembly to test him with a vote of confidence in due course.’

Simmering dissent

WHAT prompted Abdullah to take such a lackadaisical attitude towards the impasse is a

mystery. The Rulers not agreeing with the appointments of Menteris Besar is not new to Umno. But in the past, such differences were amicably settled behind closed doors, with the Prime Minister seeking an audience with the disgruntled Ruler. Dr Mahathir had done this countless times during his 22-year tenure.

The Prime Minister’s stance is seen as a last-ditch attempt to salvage his reputation, having failed in the fight to reappoint Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim as the Menteri Besar of Perlis. Like Idris, Shahidan was rejected by the Raja of Perlis in spite of him carrying the surat tauliah (letter of authority) bearing Abdullah’s signature.

The Perlis and Terengganu incidents and rising chorus of opposition and dissatisfaction from Umno divisions and branches have further weakened Abdullah’s position as Prime Minister and Umno President.

Even his position as BN Chairman is becoming less tenable. A growing number of Malaysian Chinese Association, Malaysian Indian Congress and Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia leaders are becoming less patient with his continued refusal to address the coalition’s dismal March 8 performance.

Some have come out to criticise him, his so-called advisers and media supporters. Even the mildmannered acting Gerakan President and former Penang Chief Minister, Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, has finally lost his cool. According to the March 24 issue of The Sun newspaper, Koh blamed the ‘arrogance of power’ of certain Umno leaders for the BN’s dismal performance in the general election. The Gerakan-led BN lost Penang to the DAP-PKR-Pas coalition.

Without mincing his words, Koh said: ‘Certain Umno leaders’ deeds, words and actions in the past two years have resulted in a feeling of resentment.’

There is every indication to suggest that the Peninsula-based BN coalition partners are ready to throw their weight behind any move by Umno to remove Abdullah. They see this as a necessary prerequisite to rebuild the coalition.

Koh’s frustration is understandable. It’s an established fact that the relative strength of the smaller BN parties is closely tied to the strength of Umno. A weak Umno leadership is as much a burden to them as it is to Umno.

The question now is: How effective is the challenge by Tengku Razaleigh, or will there be other equally formidable Umno leaders offering themselves in due course? There is talk that Abdullah may call off the party election.

And as a matter of qualification, the latter group is not likely to include Deputy President Najib who appears to be solidly behind his boss.

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