The Fearless Deputy

By Zaid Ibrahim

Someone asked me if there is a power struggle going on in UMNO right now. I said no, only in the Cabinet. This poser was perhaps brought about by the way Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has skilfully contradicted Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Razak on several important issues. When the PM promoted the idea of 1Malaysia, the DPM countered with his now notorious statement: “I am Malay first”. It seems the PM didn’t know what to say in reply. Many people know that the PM would have liked Science and Mathematicsto continue to be taught in English (as it should be), but his Deputy, who is also Education Minister, decided otherwise.

Najib recently made another sensible decision to accommodate – or at least to recognise – some of the concerns raised by Bersih. He has decided that a Parliamentary Select Committee should look into the many complaints in the way elections are being conducted in our country. Not surprisingly, his Deputy quickly reminded him that very little was wrong with the process. It just needed a little “tweaking”, Muhyiddin said.

Now this is not the first time that a Minister in the Cabinet has openly challenged a PM in Malaysia. It happened even in the most recent administration before this one: when Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was PM (this was soon after the 2008 General Election), Muhyiddin called on him to step down. He used the phrase “peralihan kepimpinan” — change of leadership. And he did so not once but many times. It was a sorry sight to hear Pak Lah telling Muhyiddin “sabar lah”. Be patient.

Muhyiddin was probably emboldened by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed, who joined the fray and openly discredited and ridiculed the man he himself had endorsed to lead the country. I believe had Pak Lah reshuffled his cabinet post 2008 to show that the Cabinet was his, he would still be PM today. Sure enough, they took him out soon after.

In the Westminster system of Government, the PM is always the real power. The Cabinet are his advisors. This is why it’s normal for Prime Ministers in other Westminster-based countries to reshuffle their Cabinets whenever they feel that effective government will be compromised without such a change. The Prime Minister is responsible, as head of the ruling party, to make sure that the right policies are implemented. In an ideal situation, the Ministers serve to advise the PM on how these policies should be executed, and they bear responsibility for this.