Did You Know
Did You Know
Malaysia's reformist icon Anwar Ibrahim, until recently tipped to be the nation's next prime minister, has questioned if the country's new cabinet is truly free of corruption - even as activists come forward to criticise its reduced representation of women and ethnic minorities.
Commenting on the 69-person line-up announced by new Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on Monday, Anwar asked how the ruling Perikatan Nasional coalition's cabinet and deputy ministers had been deemed "clean" in the first place.
"I would also like to ask what aspects were taken into account by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commision to declare this cabinet 'clean'," asked Anwar, who helms the now-opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition that was in government from May 2018 until late February.
Last month's shock resignation of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, following an attempt at creating a back door government by Malaysia's then opposition and splinter factions of several Pakatan Harapan constituent parties, led to a week of political uncertainty as various parties and factions claimed their chosen leader had a parliamentary majority.
The country's king then stepped in and on Feb 29 appointed Muhyiddin premier, believing he was able to command the majority of Malaysia's 222-person lower house - a requirement to become prime minister.
A day after Muhyiddin announced his new cabinet, reactions from activists and Malaysians were mixed. Many decried the nationalist and predominantly ethnic Malay slant to the line-up, with the sharp decline in diversity also raising eyebrows.
It is believed that Muhyiddin's emphasis when crafting his cabinet was neither representation nor gender equality, but the appearance of a "clean" cabinet free from the corruption scandals that have long tainted former ruling party the United Malays National Organisation (Umno).
While he has brought back an array of Umno leaders, none of them are currently on trial for corruption or abuse of power, unlike former premier Najib Razak who is believed to be a key figure in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad global corruption scandal, or former deputy premier Zahid Hamidi who is on trial for graft.
This has allowed Muhyiddin to appease his new coalition partners, have a cabinet that is - on paper - free of corruption, and retain a Malay-majority line-up to appease its main vote bank.
Many thought Malaysia had crossed a key psychological threshold following the landmark general elections in 2018, when the Southeast Asian nation appointed its first female deputy prime minister, five female cabinet members in ex-premier Mahathir's 28-person cabinet as well as four female deputy ministers.
Muhyiddin's cabinet also has five female ministers, but in a roster of 32 full ministers, a significant proportional decrease. He also named four female deputy ministers.
Among the female leaders he chose are housing and local government minister Zuraida Kamaruddin, who played a key role in February's political crisis; deputy women and family minister Zailah Yusoff, who in 2014 suggested that alcohol be banned on flights; and deputy minister in the prime minister's department Hanifah Hajar Taib, whose father Taib Mahmud, the current governor of the east Malaysian state of Sarawak, has faced multiple accusations of graft and abuse of power.
This, coupled with the presence of just one ethnic Indian and one ethnic Chinese minister in the new government - both from parties that were roundly defeated in the 2018 polls - have seen Malaysians questioning what appears to be a move backwards, although others have encouraged a non-racial perspective.
Women's groups released statements criticising the new cabinet, with the Women's Aid Organisation (WAO) expressing its disappointment that only 15.6 per cent of new ministers were women as well as concern over whether promises made by Pakatan Harapan would still be honoured.
"The Malaysian public voted for reforms. And in the past two years, various reforms have been developed and were close to being tabled in parliament. The new cabinet must now tell us how they intend to continue these efforts," WAO executive director Sumitra Visvanathan said.
NGO Sisters in Islam expressed grave concerns about the inclusion of the conservative Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) in cabinet, saying its permissive attitude towards child marriage - a persistent problem in Malaysia, despite the country being a signatory to the United Nations children's rights convention - could scupper moves to abolish it.
"Women's groups have been advocating for many years to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 years for all girls in Malaysia without exception, and yet we have a political party in the new federal government that deemed child marriage to still be a necessity in PAS-ruled states," a Sisters in Islam spokesperson said.
"With PAS in the fold, would the Perikatan Nasional government be at all interested to protect the interest of the child without resorting to marriage as being the answer for her to have a future?"
Female representation was the key to more egalitarian policymaking, said Vilashini Somiah, a senior lecturer in gender studies at University Malaya. "A better Malaysia is one that is able to acknowledge the importance of women in governance and the need for more diverse voices."
Academic Lai Suat Yan said the new cabinet had to "continue the former government's path of reform" for gender equality.
However, observers have pointed out that a predominantly Malay government such as Muhyddin's will not have a free hand to oppress minorities without ruining the economy.
"This is not Myanmar or Uganda under Idi Amin. From May 2013 to June 2016 [when cabinet was reshuffled], Najib's second administration had very few Chinese and Indians too.
Did Chinese and Indians lose their rights in those 13 months?" asked political scientist Wong Chin Huat of Sunway University, warning that such complaints might encourage party hopping, with non-Malay opposition MPs crossing the aisle to Muhyiddin's camp.
"If the ethnic minorities place so much importance on their ethnic representation in the government, they have no moral high ground to condemn this coup which is exactly based on the pretext that there were not enough Malays in the PH Government."
The representation of Malays in Muhyiddin's administration is 75.7 per cent, while it was 63.6 per cent under Mahathir.
The partnership between Muhyiddin's Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), Umno and PAS might actually have the opposite effect, he suggested, as these parties might soon find themselves stuck between taking a more moderate position to sustain the government while still pleasing its hard core supporters.
Ideally, the new premier's best bet would be to leave a strong legacy, Wong said, by making strong appointments and pushing for a two-term limit for the prime ministership to limit future long-term dominance.
"I think a term limit will really be his best legacy. It will be a check on Mahathir," he said.
Mahathir served as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, and again from 2018 until February 2020.
After coming to power, Muhyiddin postponed the next parliamentary sitting from early March to May 18, delaying Pakatan Harapan's planned gambit of a motion of no confidence from the floor, although the opposition coalition still harbours hopes of reclaiming its power.
If this were to happen, said former deputy prime minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Anwar is most likely to lead the country instead of Mahathir.
"I will have a meeting, and I think most probably it's going to be Anwar," Wan Azizah, who is married to Anwar, told Bloomberg in a television interview.