THERE is no emphatic message emerging from the make-up of the cabinet, but that’s no reason to be harsh on the Prime Minister. It is emblematic in any Westminster democracy for cabinet appointments to be dominated by compromise – what more, within a constrained field, for the menu of candidates is primarily limited to members of the same party successful in the general election.
Bringing in outsiders via the unelected house only works for a small number of individuals, and they require seriously good credentials to compensate for their lack of democratic legitimacy – which appears to be true from my previous encounters with the new senators – Ministers in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Paul Low and Datuk Seri Abdul Wahid Omar.
In Malaysia, cabinet appointments are also influenced by the need to reward component parties or states that performed well for the coalition in the election. This notion that parties need to be rewarded and racial representation sought is a major factor of why we have too many ministries.
Decades after his deposition, Tunku Abdul Rahman said: “In my time we had a cabinet of 13 Ministers. Even then they didn’t have enough work. What they do now with 45 [including deputies], I don’t know.”
Today our population of under 30 million is served by 31 full ministers; the UK’s 60 million has 22 full ministers while the USA’s over 300 million has 15 to 23 depending on the definition – and the US system of appointment is quite different, with all appointees undergoing grilling in public Senate hearings.
Remember also that because we are a theoretically decentralised federation, we have the State Executive Councils (or State Cabinets) too.
Finally, for this cabinet, two more key forces are at work: Datuk Seri Najib’s desire to triumph at the party election later this year and the next general election. One view holds that the dream cabinet for the first objective is completely opposite to the dream cabinet to secure the second, but when pressed with survival, any politician will prioritise the short-term.
Still, one important dynamic is how the appointees will now behave. The burden of ministerial responsibility or a fresh portfolio can change people: impatience can morph into arrogance, ambition into complacency, or service to the people into servitude to persons (or money).
However, if new Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin and Urban Well-being, Housing and Local Government Minister Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan wisely deploy their superior education, professional experience, and ability to connect to younger Malaysians, they may well emerge as saviours of the coalition in years to come. Even amongst the veterans, the fact that they have been retained or reshuffled by a prime minister with a fresh mandate may help align their thinking more closely to his transformation agenda.
There is another moderating factor in play, though, and that’s the civil servants. The new ministers will have to familiarise themselves with their bureaucrats, and the internal relationships, while invisible to citizens, will influence in the way in which policies are implemented.
In the meantime, there are still discontents using racial issues to provoke already agitated quarters. It’s comforting that May 13, 2013 was like any other working day, but some were goading for something explosive to happen to confirm their prejudices: that only one party, and one arrangement, could secure the interests of their race.
An irony would have been made clear to anyone watching the appointments of Menteris Besar in the state palaces, especially in Selangor. Only after the Sultan’s procession accompanied by nobat did Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim, bedecked in Malay ceremonial dress, hold firm to a royal spear as he recited his oath as Menteri Besar. There could scarcely have been a more quintessentially Malay ceremony than this, and yet this was the candidate agreed to (in the end) by a coalition of 15 DAP, 15 PAS and 14 PKR representatives. The idea that one community must rely on one political arrangement for their survival is discredited nonsense.
Of course, distinct state identities featured too. In Negeri Sembilan, the Yang di-Pertuan Besar reminded representatives from all parties in the historic lobby of the Istana Besar Seri Menanti that the state’s unique culture should be cherished by all, while in Johor, the appointment of the Executive Council triggered references to the state’s 1895 Constitution, though perhaps the historical context since the adoption of the Kangchu system in the early 19th century could also have been mentioned.
Contrary to what paranoid ethno-nationalists may think, the institutions of this country are fully capable of performing their constitutional functions without interference from an all-mighty centre. And that includes responsibilities to Malaysians of all ethnicities.
Tunku Abidin Muhriz is president of Ideas.