Analysts: Umno-heavy Cabinet reflects Najib’s party polls focus, could affect reforms

By Amin Iskandar, Debra Chong and Syed Jaymal Zahiid
The Malaysian Insider
May 16, 2013

KUALA LUMPUR, May 16 — Umno’s domination of the 2013 Cabinet shows Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s desire to shore up his personal support ahead of party polls but at the expense of the prime minister’s national reform measures, several observers say.

While the pundits held grave reservations over the large number of veterans in the 32-man Cabinet, they said Najib deserved a chance to prove he could deliver on his promised government and economic transformation agenda once he had secured his party presidency.

The Umno president had cast 17 of his party colleagues in ministerial positions when naming members of his Cabinet yesterday. Of the line-up, most were old government hands being switched around or promoted with the exception of new faces Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin and Sabah Barisan Nasional (BN) secretary Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan.

Such an Umno-studded cast was “clever”, according to William Case, a professor in Asian and International Studies at the University of Hong Kong.

“My take is that while many critics are dismissing the Cabinet as made up most of old hacks, I see it as more mixed, possibly in clever ways, as it includes Najib’s personal supporters, reformers, and nativists,” he told The Malaysian Insider in an emailed response yesterday.

There has been speculation that Najib, 59, is likely to face a challenge to his presidency from within Umno in the party ballot due this year for failing to return the BN’s two-thirds supermajority in the May 5 general election despite improving the Malay party’s number of federal seats to 88.

Case noted Najib had encircled himself with loyalists, such as his cousin Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein and Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, “useful” for engaging with civil society activists.

He said the prime minister’s decision to shift Hishammuddin from handling home affairs — a senior Cabinet position — into taking care of defence may enrich the Umno vice-president but would also “diminish his domestic soapbox, which should help Najib in October” when the party election is likely to be held.

He noted too the overtures to party members linked to minority camps, namely Khairy, the son-in-law to Najib’s predecessor, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and new Information Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek, once seen to have close ties with veteran politician Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who is from the Kelantan royal house.

“Shabery Cheek was associated with Razaleigh, which should also help Najib in countering the Mahathirists,” the academic said, referring to Umno warlords loyal to former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, whose shadow still looms large over the party but whose influence in today’s society appears to have waned.

Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of think-tank Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), also viewed the prime minister as creating a Cabinet that would help him defend his post in Umno.

“By hook or by crook he would be thinking about the Umno polls,” he said.

But Wan Saiful pointed out that Najib was also considering his transformation programme and had selected those whom he felt could smoothen the process.

“He knows that he has to name those who would support it and putting people like Idris Jusoh in education is a very good move as education is important to the transformation process,” he said, referring to the former Terengganu mentri besar promoted to become the second minister of the merged education and higher learning portfolio.

Like Case, Wan Saiful said the inclusion 37-year-old Khairy and Rahman Dahlan was a good move as the duo were seen to represent the younger voice in an ageing Cabinet whose average age stands at 57.

In comparison, the average age of Malaysia’s first Cabinet members in 1957 was reported to be in the 30s.

Universiti Putra Malaysia political scientist Prof Jayum A. Jawan, however, was sceptical about the changes that Najib could make with what the don branded a “conservative” Cabinet.

“I don’t see a real power-sharing here. The positions of power are all held by Umno like Finance, Home Affairs and Defence,” he said.

“Well definitely he is seeking re-election this year and that will be reflected in his Umno Cabinet line-up. You can see him strategising for re-election but how is he to do that leaves a question mark because most of them are just old-timers,” he said, adding that the names announced had been in government for a very long time, even if not at Putrajaya’s highest decision-making level.

Like the other pundits, Jayum viewed Khairy’s inclusion as a positive step towards getting youth support, but noted the move was unlikely to be sufficient to parry a possible challenge in the party polls.

“Some people in Umno are already saying that Najib would not see a smooth re-election and that there are some people that will likely challenge him,” he said.

Economist Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam said that Najib had concocted a compact and balanced line up of ministers, factoring in their age, experience and skills set, barring the near absence of Chinese support and the age disparity between the decision-makers and the people they were to represent.

He agreed that the Cabinet line-up studded with Umno faces was a bid to shore up support for Najib with party polls due this year, adding that it was “payback time” for Umno’s performance in the 13th general election.

But he believed “the Cabinet could still be a good Cabinet despite the weaknesses”.

“What is important is that in the next 100 days there must be definite policies to strengthen the fight against corruption, crime, cronyism, and most of all this ketuanan thing,” the chairman of the Centre of Public Policy Studies said, the last referring to the growing right-wing elements within Umno for racial supremacy which, he said, were at odds with the aspirations of the electorate.

  1. #1 by Winston on Thursday, 16 May 2013 - 11:16 am

    Umno’s domination of the 2013 Cabinet shows Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s desire to shore up his personal support ahead of party polls but at the expense of the prime minister’s national reform measures, several observers say. – End of quote

    Nation reforms???
    Does any Malaysian really think that the ruling party is interested in reforms???
    No wonder the axiom that a sucker is born every second is still applicable today as when it was first quoted!!!!

  2. #2 by good coolie on Friday, 17 May 2013 - 11:40 pm

    Along with the old and fading banners (especially the dacing), remove the alphabet soup, too. No need for the mumbo-jumbo acronyms (one-this-and-one-that also). Nobody forgets them because nobody remembered them.

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