ASIAWEEK (DECEMBER 24, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 51)

Stirred But Not Shaken

Mahathir's new cabinet exhibits little change


To followers of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, it represented the "stability and continuity" that he had promised. To oppositionists, it was "antediluvian" and "Jurassic." The reactions that greeted Mahathir's new cabinet may have seemed divergent, but they pointed to the same thing: the line-up exhibited few major changes. There were some new faces, even a surprise or two, but the overall sense was that the status quo had been preserved.

Perhaps this was to be expected. After all, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition's victory in the Nov. 29 elections gives it a fresh mandate to continue as before. But the matter is not so clear-cut. While BN emerged with its two-thirds majority intact, the news was not so good for its dominant party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). It dropped 22 seats in Parliament and lost ground in the northern Malay-belt states - a result attributed to its loss of support among Malay and younger voters over the Anwar Ibrahim affair. After the poll results came out, Deputy PM Abdullah Badawi himself said: "What is most important now is for UMNO to become relevant to the younger generation."

But if many Malaysians were hoping that this undercurrent of dissatisfaction, this underlying yearning for change would somehow be reflected in the new team, they were disappointed. By stacking the cabinet with familiar loyalists, Mahathir indicated that his priorities lay elsewhere. Indeed, he had many other factors to consider, which was why the cabinet announcement on Dec. 10 came a full 11 days after the elections (in 1995, he took just four days). The PM said that considerations had to be given to representation by different states, the filling of vacancies created by ministers losing their seats and the balance between the various components of BN.

The result: Abdullah kept the deputy premiership and the home ministry portfolio. Also remaining in the same posts were Daim Zainuddin (finance, special functions), Syed Hamid Albar (foreign), Rafidah Aziz (international trade and industry), Ling Liong Sik (transport) and Samy Vellu (works). Najib Tun Razak was moved from education to defense, where he had served before. Abdul Hamid Othman lost his seat in the polls but was brought back to his old job (minister in charge of religious affairs) by being appointed a senator. The government needs Islamic scholars like Hamid to blunt the advance of opposition Islamists.

A major surprise was the elevation of academic Musa Mohamad to education minister. The onetime university vice chancellor is not even an UMNO member. As he is not an MP, he is to be appointed a senator to serve in the cabinet.

There was no change in the Chinese share of the portfolios, even though the Chinese swing vote played a crucial role in BN's victory. But Sabah and Sarawak, where BN cleaned up, were given greater representation, with former Sabah chief minister Bernard Dompok moving into the PM's department as a full cabinet member.

Mahathir's decision to leave the senior leadership largely unchanged appears to be part of a plan to enter into a holding pattern until the UMNO general assembly next year. That's when critical party polls, which might decide UMNO's future leadership, take place. Says a senior UMNO member:"He has bought himself time, and he can make changes after he observes what the trends are in the general assembly."

At the same time, Mahathir seems to be paving the way for Abdullah to eventually succeed him. (Asked if this would be his last term, Mahathir, 74 on Dec. 20, replied: "Next time I will be very nearly 80 years old and having a stick and my eyesight will be affected, so this will be my last term.") The replacement of Najib with an unknown in the powerful education ministry has removed a potential threat to Abdullah. His other main rival, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, was not given a ministry.

Mahathir has lashed out at those he deemed responsible for UMNO's losses. Denying there was a split in the Malay community, he put the blame on a lack of loyalty within UMNO. "It is due to intra-party rivalries and loyalty to personalities rather than to the party," he said. "If your own man does not become a candidate, you close up shop and don't campaign." Later, UMNO said it would consider taking action against these "backstabbers." A purge in the offing? Perhaps. What is more certain is that the story is not over yet; the general elections were just a prelude to the UMNO general assembly and polls next year.

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