Malaysia Cabinet: Who heads Malaysia’s Foreign Policy?

The ambitious Khairy, winner of the Umno Youth Chief contest against Mukhriz Mahathir should have been in the Cabinet. His absence is said to be a confirmation of the split that has emerged within the Umno after the March General Assembly of the party.

Written by Kazi Mahmood, World Futures

Malaysia’s foreign policy takes a twist with Mukhriz Mahathir nominated as International Trade Ministry’s deputy Minister and a virtual unknown – said to be close to Tun Mahathir – as Minister of Foreign Affairs. The FTA with the US seems in sight and Malaysia may want to impose its conditions with the stronger arm of Tun Mahathir ready to twist Washington’s offers further.

Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s Cabinet was announced with little surprises and the obvious entry of the son of former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad’s son Mukhriz Mahathir as deputy Minister. The Cabinet has some virtual unknowns including the new minister for Foreign Affairs which sent the diplomatic corps in Kuala Lumpur scrambling for information.

PM Najib Razak is banking on his policy of One Malaysia for all and immediate delivery with the solving of urgent problems affecting the country. The sidelining of Khairy Jamaluddin, United Malays National Organization (UMNO) Youth Chief is a bad start however, thought it was to be a surprise if he was nominated.

The cleaning act in the Ministerial Cabinet was too obvious though with several pro-Abdullah Badawi ministers dropped, including the famous former Minister of Home Affairs Syed Hamid Albar.  Syed Hamid grew unpopular with the ‘flip flopping’ arrests under the infamous Internal Security Act (ISA) which now falls under the ‘cousin’ of the Prime Minister, Hishamuddin Hussein.

The first impact of the cabinet on observers is that it lacks aggressiveness and has the absence of several popular names from the state of Johor.  While most people believe Tun Mahathir is behind the selection of the Ministers and influenced his son’s entry in the cabinet, they also believe Khairy Jamaluddin was blocked by the PM and Tun Mahathir.

The ambitious Khairy, winner of the Umno Youth Chief contest against Mukhriz Mahathir should have been in the Cabinet. His absence is said to be a confirmation of the split that has emerged within the Umno after the March General Assembly of the party. Though Mukhriz’s presence as deputy Minister of International Trade and Industry is a stepping stone and will have little impact on the running of the government, it could be the ears and eyes of Tun Mahathir in the Cabinet said several observers.

The virtual unknown is the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Anifah Aman who will have a hard time making an impression on the international scene. There has been several lambasting letters in the local press with regards to the apparent weakness of the ‘Wisma Putra’ which local observers believe must be strengthened.  It is improbable to decipher the impact that Anifah Aman will have at Wisma Putra which is a very important ministry from where Malaysia’s foreign policy is supposed to be emanated.

It is also apparent that Anifah Aman would not be at this ministry if it was not for the tacit approval of Tun Mahathir, hence a very strong anti-American foreign policy may be observed in the coming months, though this is not guaranteed.  Anifah Aman made the news in March last year when he refused a post of Deputy Minister, creating a first in Malaysian history for rejecting a ministerial post after it was made public. Being the brother of the current Chief Minister of Sabah, Musa Aman, it is also possible that Anifah Aman is posted at Wisma Putra in a bid to consolidate Sabah’s role and position in the Malaysian national entity. There have been recent claims that Sabah and Sarawak, the two states in Borneo Island, were on the verge of breaking away from Malaysia throughout 2008.

Nevertheless, Najib Razak is known to be closer to the US and Europe in terms of friendship. The Prime Minister has been a regular figure at the selective and secrecy bound Shangri-La Dialogue held annually in Singapore. It is his long posting at the Ministry of Defence portfolio that made it possible for Najib Razak to meet the top brass of America’s and Europe’s defence secretaries (USA) and defence ministers from Australia, Singapore and the EU.

Will the nation’s foreign policy be directed from the Prime Minister’s office or from the offices of Tun Mahathir Mohamad? The presence of a novice in the foreign affairs ministerial seat indicates that Malaysia’s foreign affairs policies will come from the Prime Minister’s office and certainly with the advice of Tun Mahathir. Malaysia may be heading for a time of cooling off with the newly appointed American administration with relations between the Democrats (and Hilary Clinton – who is the State Secretary for Foreign Affairs) and the Barisan National (BN) government of Malaysia always in good shape.

The most pressing issues that the Malaysian Foreign Minister will have to deal with is the FTA with the US and this is where Mukhriz’s role will be crucial in the shaping of the country’s foreign policy coming from Tun Mahathir’s desk. Malaysia had a long spat with the US on the signing of the FTA, delayed after protests by the Umno and local producers and farmers who feared their ‘political’ and ‘economic’ freedom and power would be in jeopardy if the FTA was signed.

On the other hand, it is also being said by local opposition parties that the Cabinet line up is a factional one with Prime Minister Najib Razak obligingly allowing pressure from Tun Mahathir to have his say while the PM forced his direct political opponents from the Umno to have lesser roles.

The Harakah Daily online newspaper of the Party Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) stated on Friday 10th April that the nomination of the Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yasin as Minister of Education was a sign that Najib had his say in the Cabinet nominations, despite Tun Mahathir’s strong arm tactics.

The newspaper also mentioned the fact that Hishamuddin Hussein and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, former political secretary of Najib Razak, are nominated at the posts of Internal Affairs and the Defence Ministry respectively is an indication of Najib’s strengthening his position in the Cabinet. This, the paper said, reduces the influence of the deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yasin.

Overall, it will be interesting to see how Malaysia’s foreign policy develops in the coming months with the US offering an olive branch to the Malaysian government after the heated debate between Malaysia and the US over the American interference in the local affairs of the country in 2008. The US criticized Malaysia for its handling of the second sodomy accusation against Anwar Ibrahim which led to severe criticism from several quarters in Malaysia, including the former Minister of Foreign Affairs Rais Yatim and the fallen Syed Hamid Albar.