Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s pledge to appoint a “clean” Cabinet appears to have precluded the appointment of top Umno figures who were collectively slapped with hundreds of graft charges in the aftermath of their shock 2018 election defeat.
Setting his stall out in his first public address as premier, which was broadcast on national television Monday night, Tan Sri Muhyiddin said he was “aware that the public wants a government that is… corruption-free”.
“I promise to appoint a Cabinet from individuals who are clean, with integrity and calibre. My government will also prioritise efforts to increase integrity and good governance,” he said.
Sources from his newly formed Perikatan Nasional (PN), or National Alliance, told The Straits Times that the likes of Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is facing 87 counts of corruption, former premier Najib Razak (42 counts) and several ex-government officials from Umno would be ruled out from ministerial positions.
“PM has promised these scandalised old faces will not be in Cabinet,” a top official said on condition of anonymity, adding that it would be crucial to reducing the uncertainty over whether the Muhyiddin administration would see a return to the scandal-plagued years leading up to Umno being dumped in the May 2018 polls.
“After forming the Cabinet, even Tun Mahathir would be pulling the handbrake,” he said, referring to the war of words incited by the recently ousted leader of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government who abandoned Umno in 2016 and then campaigned against the party in 2018, citing endemic corruption in the party.
Some analysts like Singapore Institute of International Affairs senior fellow Oh Ei Sun believe Mr Muhyiddin, the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia president, needs to follow through on early pledges “if he doesn’t want to invite cynicism” the same way PH did when some electoral pledges were abandoned.
But some partners in PN have argued that there are reasons why some tainted leaders should still be considered. PAS president Hadi Awang pointed out that PH leaders were appointed to government and then had charges dropped.
He was likely referring to former finance minister Lim Guan Eng, who was appointed in May 2018, months before a new PH-appointed attorney-general decided to withdraw a graft charge related to an alleged discounted property purchase.
Some leading figures from the Islamist PAS were investigated for graft, although only an ex-deputy president was eventually charged.
While Umno secretary-general Annuar Musa has called on the government not to intervene in high-profile court cases, he did add a caveat that politically motivated cases should be dropped.
But having asked Malaysians to give him a chance, Mr Muhyiddin will be walking a tightrope. Umno is the largest party in his coalition, and he holds power by a razor-thin majority in Parliament that the opposition has raised doubts over.
“Muhyiddin will have a hard time deciding. He needs a wartime Cabinet that shores up his support while balancing that with perception management,” said government relations adviser RNA Consulting’s chief executive, Mr Rahman Hussin.
The silver lining is that having inherited an economy that in the last quarter of 2019 grew the slowest in a decade, the premier’s Cabinet picks will unlikely impact short-term prospects. Political risk consultancy Eurasia Group believes “the immediate concern of markets will be any risk of changes or delays to the recently announced stimulus measures and the extent to which change of government will disrupt spending and investment plans”.
“However, the appointment of politicians with chequered pasts to the Cabinet could come into focus more if it significantly raises the risk of social instability or intensifies scrutiny about governance and the longevity of the new administration,” its Asia director, Mr Peter Mumford, told ST.