Najib’s Cabinet is not a sign of reform

As smelly as Abdullah’s post-March 8 Cabinet was, at least it was a dramatic break from the past; it is hard to recall a prime minister brave enough to appoint such dramatic outsiders like Datuk Shahrir Abdul Samad and Datuk Zaid Ibrahim to the Cabinet.

John Lee, The Malaysian Insider

The dust is finally settling — with the tri-elections over and a new Cabinet sworn in, maybe Malaysians can now look forward to some serious reforms in our government and politics. That is, after all, what we have been promised by every politician from every side of the aisle: from Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim to Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to Datuk Seri Najib Razak. Unfortunately, if Najib’s new Cabinet is any indication, we are in for more of the same.

Don’t get me wrong: I like Najib’s rhetoric. Najib is the chap who went on international television to announce he would look into revising the New Economic Policy, and to his credit, he has not shrunk from that and claimed he was misquoted. Najib has at least proposed a serious, concrete reform to the Umno election system — something his predecessors assiduously avoided doing. But promises are just empty words, as the public learned so very well from both of Najib’s predecessors: the proof is in the pudding.

And the first pudding Najib has baked for us — his brand-new Cabinet — well, it stinks. Yes, Najib dropped a bunch of unpopular faces from the Cabinet — what a shocking surprise. Every prime minister has done that. Doing exactly what your predecessors did does not count as change or reform.

As smelly as Abdullah’s post-March 8 Cabinet was, at least it was a dramatic break from the past; it is hard to recall a prime minister brave enough to appoint such dramatic outsiders like Datuk Shahrir Abdul Samad and Datuk Zaid Ibrahim to the Cabinet. Unfortunately, both men saw the writing on the wall, and quit: when you have over 70 ministers and deputy ministers, it is very hard being the two or three lone voices of reason in the room. If Najib was committed to change, he could have at least made an effort to reach out to these men and others in Umno potentially aligned with their brand of reform — instead, he took the easy way out, and appointed a bunch of familiar faces to his Cabinet.

Let’s assume Najib is truly committed to reform — what message is he trying to send us through his Cabinet appointments? It sounds like Najib believes that a leopard can change its spots — that you can pick a group of people who have been doing business and politics (the two are almost the same in Malaysia anyway) in a corrupt, inefficient way for years if not decades, and if you only ask them politely enough, they can spearhead your efforts to overturn this old way of doing things once and for all. If Najib sincerely believes that the leopard can change its spots, he is too stupid to be leading this country.

The more realistic scenario is that Najib does not plan on carrying out significant reforms. I am not at leisure to speculate on his motivations why. But again, assuming he is sincere, he is also probably wise enough to know that trying to push change onto Umno would be signing his political death warrant. He has no realistic chance of changing the country; he would be vilified by his Barisan colleagues, and jeered by the Pakatan Rakyat opposition.

So, that is one Cabinet I am not happy with — but let’s turn to a different sort of Cabinet. Anwar has been promising a shadow Cabinet for over a year now. Various leaders in Pakatan have been calling for a shadow Cabinet for God knows how long. Where is this shadow Cabinet?

Anwar was so obsessed chasing his dream of toppling the Barisan government in a few short months that he paid little attention to the long-term political priorities of Pakatan. The dream died, so now Anwar is going back to the drawing board: he wants to establish a shadow Cabinet. I say good for him, and good for the country: the sooner we can get a systematic set of policy proposals and a concrete policy debate going, the better.

But Barisan is still intent on parrying all of Anwar’s tactics the way it fended off his crossover ploy: they deny and mock everything. “Where is the change?” has been the rallying cry of the state opposition benches in the Pakatan-governed states, from Selangor to Penang. In the first place, it is fantastic that things have not changed more: before Pakatan came to power, few people believed that the former opposition could actually properly run and govern a state, let alone the country. If Pakatan came to power, there would supposedly be utter chaos, as the rabble-rousing opposition politicians had to learn the ropes of governance — but what’s characterised the Pakatan states is how smoothly things have gone for them, and how few hiccups they have had. The quiet success of all the Pakatan state governments — to say nothing of the uproar in Perak when Barisan toppled their heretofore efficient Pakatan government — has only convinced more people that Pakatan is a viable alternative to Barisan.

Pakatan has already proven that it can be as good as Barisan at running a government — if not better, considering that the only serious scandal involving a Pakatan mentri besar centres around a handful of cows. It is now up to Pakatan to prove that it can exceed Barisan in improving and reforming the government — and there is no better way to do that at the moment than to establish a shadow Cabinet. The past Barisan leadership has consistently failed to deliver on its half-hearted promises of change; the composition of the new Cabinet suggests it too will be no exception. If Pakatan can’t one-up Barisan on this, it should be ashamed of itself.

John Lee is a second-year student of economics at Dartmouth College in the United States. He has been thinking aloud since 2005 at