The appointment of ministers and deputy ministers exposed divisions among supporters of both sides. On the one hand, the Prime Minister’s retention of the finance portfolio was criticised as an over-concentration of power (enabling massive corruption in the past, including 1MDB) and a violation of an earlier promise, but also understood as a way to prevent certain political factions from grabbing too much power. The choice of a Deputy Prime Minister facing 47 corruption cases was denounced as a dereliction of principle, but also accepted as a necessary feature of an unprecedented unity government: some called it an opportunity for true reconciliation and reform.
Others appointed to the cabinet include first-time appointees upon whom much hope is placed, alongside returnees from previous cabinets. This has led to some unexpected bedfellows: for example, the Defence and Transport ministers were at one time the Menteri Besar and Opposition leader in Negeri Sembilan respectively!
Many disgruntled people have tried to argue that certain parties should have received more ministerial posts based on the strength of parties in the Dewan Rakyat. Lobbying continues for appointments into government-linked companies and federal statutory bodies, and I hope that the sentiment from the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) statement prevails: for everyone ‘to proceed in the spirit of sacrifice and generosity in ensuring a stable unity government’.
Indeed, the very survival of the government is a subject of chatter, with the vote of confidence in the Dewan Rakyat being regarded as a first important test, before a major evaluation in the form of six state elections due next year. No doubt, the newly appointed members of the executive branch will be under enormous pressure to perform: many of them will be seen to have been appointed only to appease certain quarters and so will want to prove their mettle in a short time.
Yet, the most important challenges facing our country require a long-term view. I am curious how powerful and impactful the National Unity Ministry will be, for in order to be effective it must be able to coordinate reforms and programmes with the ministries of Education and Higher Education; Youth and Sport; and Tourism, Arts and Culture. Only such a holistic approach can ensure consistent teaching and application of principles and values commensurate with the spirit of togetherness that was called for by the Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negeri Sembilan after the Conference of Rulers.
In the meantime, the National Unity Ministry is welcome to revisit the National Unity Youth Fellowship that was previously organised by Ideas in partnership with the National Unity and Integration Department under the Prime Minister’s Department and the Malaysian Institute of Integrity in 2015 and 2016. This programme saw dozens of Malaysians visiting communities across the country to truly understand the lives of fellow compatriots.
Of course, each of the ministries I mentioned has a duty to deliver according to the precepts of the Federal Constitution and Rukun Negara even without the existence of a National Unity Ministry.
Our schools and universities need to be places where Malaysians feel like they are growing up together with a shared future (even in schools which are mono-ethnic it is possible, as MCKK boys and TKC girls will tell you). Youth programmes with a wider geographical scope should emphasise cooperation across extra-curricular activities, while sports associations must be given the latitude and resources to nurture champions of all backgrounds. And the ‘liberal approach towards our traditional heritage that is rich and diverse’ as specified in the Rukun Negara must be reflected in the government’s policy for arts and culture, including by ensuring freedom of expression.
Already hitting the ground running with important long-term reforms is Dato Sri Azalina Othman Said, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of Law and Institutional Reform (I believe this is the first time the word ‘Reform’ appears in any ministerial portfolio), and relevant legislation should appear soon. The proposed political financing bill (which I’ve written about before) was scuppered by the dissolution of parliament, so perhaps that can be revived next: and the (former and soon to be regrouped) All Party Parliamentary Group has ready legislation on this which I hope her proposed task force will endorse. Next should be the provision of equitable constituency development funds – so that Members of Parliament are guaranteed resources to assist their constituents – as another area of reform that would strengthen our democracy.
There are a myriad of other areas of public policy that could be written about at length, of course, but these institutional reforms are crucial because they enable the policymakers to do a better job, thus strengthening the efficiency and legitimacy of everything else they do.