Cabinet line-up seen as crucial test for Najib

The announcement is closely watched as it could make or break his new image as a leader who wants to be in touch with the ground.


Over the last few days, Prime Minister Najib Razak has tirelessly sent out a message that his administration will not be shackled to narrow party interests, but the real test will be his Cabinet line-up. His aides say the announcement could be tomorrow.

The announcement is closely watched as it could make or break his new image as a leader who wants to be in touch with the ground.

There have been hints that a number of ministers, particularly from his Umno party, will be dropped as they do not have the approval of Malaysians. Speculation is rife that the Cabinet could be trimmed by up to six posts.

There is also talk that a prominent corporate figure could be second finance minister. That will be welcomed as this is seen as a technocrat’s job with Datuk Seri Najib likely to retain his finance portfolio.

The names bandied about are Tan Sri Mohamad Nor Yusof, a banker and former managing director of Malaysia Airlines, and Tan Sri Azman Mokhtar, managing director of investment arm Khazanah Nasional.

Najib has been meeting the Barisan Nasional component party leaders since Monday for their input.

He has raised expectations in recent days when he reached out to minority communities, released detainees under the Internal Security Act, and lifted the ban on two opposition newspapers.

“I believe that Najib will cleanse the party and government of corruption and corrupt persons. The signs will be seen when he sets up his Cabinet,” former premier Mahathir Mohamad wrote in his blog yesterday.

Cabinet posts traditionally go to party loyalists, with representation from the biggest component parties and states. It will be tough to abandon this formula.

Furthermore, the minorities want a bigger role. The MCA has asked for a Chinese deputy premier, or a Chinese affairs minister. The Malaysian Indian Congress wants a second ministerial post.

The chances are slim if Najib is to trim the Cabinet.

But his toughest job will be the Umno warlords. Several winners in the recent Umno elections may expect to be rewarded, but they are unpopular with Malaysians while a few of those who lost are respected.

There are currently 32 members in the Cabinet with 27 ministries. Umno holds the lion’s share at about two-thirds of the Cabinet.

There are several near-certain appointments. Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, the current International Trade and Industry Minister, will be appointed deputy prime minister. He will also have another portfolio, and it is understood that he has asked for a post that does not entail much overseas travel.

The three Umno vice-presidents will get major portfolios. The finance, defence, home, foreign, international trade, and education portfolios are traditionally held by Umno.

The vice-presidents are current Education Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, and National Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Shafie Apdal. The speculation is that Datuk Seri Hishammuddin could move into the powerful international trade portfolio, or the Home Ministry. These are not likely to ruffle feathers.

But controversy could arise if Najib appoints Khairy Jamaluddin, Umno’s new Youth chief, to his Cabinet.

Under normal circumstances, the position would put him as a prime candidate for a junior ministry. But Khairy, the son-in-law of former premier Abdullah Badawi, was found guilty by Umno’s disciplinary board of buying votes in the party’s recent internal elections, and was controversially still allowed to contest.

Najib is also expected to drop several unpopular Umno ministers. Fortunately for him, many had lost in the party elections. They include Tourism Minister Azalina Othman Said, Rural and Regional Development Minister Muhammad Muhammad Taib, and Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar.

As for the MCA, Housing and Local Government Minister Ong Ka Chuan, and Women, Family and Community Development Minister Ng Yen Yen may be dropped.

The talk is that two new MCA faces will be made full ministers – Deputy Finance Minister Kong Cho Ha and Deputy Education Minister Wee Ka Siong.

Another new full minister could be Deputy International Trade Minister Ahmad Husni Hanadzlah.

For now, Najib is keeping the list close to himself.