- Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim rolled out his cabinet quickly, naming 28 ministers from his sprawling coalition eight days after being sworn in. This was no mean feat. In today’s Malaysia, securing parliamentary majorities requires cobbling together amorphous multi-coalition groupings, with ‘equitable’ apportioning of cabinet positions as the glue.
- Pragmatism ruled the day, as key Pakatan Harapan reform pledges were sacrificed. Anwar simultaneously holds the positions of prime minister and finance minister. Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the UMNO party president, is one of two deputy prime ministers – despite facing copious corruption charges.
- Within Pakatan Harapan (PH), Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) did the best. Party members netted eight ministries, including six out of the ten with the largest budgets. Priority went to hard-core Anwar loyalists, who secured key positions such as education, health, and home affairs.
- PKR deputy president Rafizi Ramli was named to the high-profile but small-budget ministry of the economy. This nomination is the clearest indication that Anwar has no immediate plans to groom a successor.
- As for Barisan Nasional, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) received six ministries. Those affiliated to Zahid – Anwar’s long-time forbidden friend – netted the influential defence, rural & regional development, and higher education portfolios.
- Pakatan Harapan’s new relationship with its former foe Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) yielded its lead party, Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), a deputy prime ministership, along with the works and plantation & commodities portfolios.
- Despite having the most MPs in PH, the Democratic Action Party only secured four ministerships, of which transport and local government are the most significant. This was partially compensated by the party also holding six strategic deputy ministerships.
- It is unlikely that tension within PH will be an issue in the near term. However, in so clearly tying his fortunes to Zahid Hamidi, Anwar raises questions about his commitment to reform and leaves himself vulnerable to the after-effects of UMNO’s internal factionalism.
* Francis E. Hutchinson is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. The author would like to thank Dr Cassey Lee for the data on budgetary allocations per ministry. Comments from Cassey, Lee Hwok Aun, Kai Ostwald and Lee Poh Onn are much appreciated. Thanks are also due to Ooi Kee Beng for his “finely tuned” edits.
ISEAS Perspective 2023/18, 15 March 2023
While Anwar Ibrahim is currently Malaysia’s most powerful politician, it has been a quarter century since he last held public office. His sacking as deputy prime minister and finance minister took place in 1998 – before many of Malaysia’s voters were born. Anwar’s subsequent career as an opposition leader, his formidable oratorical ability, and several near-misses at the top job have created a mystique about what sort of leader he will be.
Despite his considerable skill set, Anwar comes to power under new and more fluid circumstances than most of his predecessors. Gone are the days when the winner could secure a crushing parliamentary majority by itself. This period, spanning 1955-2008, still evokes fond memories among Barisan Nasional (BN) veterans, when that coalition had a two-thirds majority in parliament and could amend the Constitution at will. Nor is Malaysia still in the 2008-2020 period, when two national coalitions – Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Harapan – battled it out at the polls. While they commanded ever-decreasing majorities in parliament, the victorious coalitions were nevertheless still able to attain power by themselves (Figure One).
Figure 1: Majorities in Parliament (1955-2022)
Now, following the 2020 Sheraton Move, which sundered PH and ushered in the Muhyiddin Yassin and subsequently the Ismail Sabri administrations, Malaysia’s political context is more fractious and fractured. Both Muhyiddin and Ismail Sabri struggled to garner enough MPs to form a majority, and their effectiveness to govern was consistently undercut by the threat of elections or parliamentary defections.
Following Malaysia’s general election in November 2022, intense negotiations and the long-standing personal friendship between Anwar Ibrahim and UMNO party president Zahid Hamidi enabled PH and BN – formerly the bitterest of rivals – to jointly secure 112 out of a total 222 MPs. This razor-thin majority, bolstered by lots of cajoling, as well as backing by the Monarch resulted in a total of 148 parliamentarians supporting Anwar’s self-styled Unity Government.
While this is, in theory, a two-thirds majority, it is a qualitatively different political alliance from those that Barisan Nasional used to enjoy in its heyday. At present, the country is not led by a single coalition but, rather, a coalition of coalitions, namely Pakatan Harapan, Barisan Nasional, Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), and Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS), as well as smaller parties and independents (Appendix One). In this sense, Anwar’s coalition has more in common with the Muhyiddin Yassin and Ismail Sabri administrations, which also relied on multiple coalitions to achieve a majority. Furthermore, all three groupings were reliant upon backing by the Monarch to secure power.
This, then, makes things difficult for aspiring national leaders. Instead of a two-level game, where leaders needed to keep their party intact and then deal with their allies, they now need to operate on three levels. At present, they need to: satisfy their parties; attend to coalition partners; and then reach out and secure partner coalitions. This means that, more than most of his predecessors, Anwar must make alliances and policies in circumstances not of his choosing.
As to his leadership, the new prime minister gave some insight into his thinking in a Bloomberg interview in February. There, he likened himself to Cordelia, King Lear’s third daughter. Despite being last in succession to the throne, Cordelia gained valuable experience observing how her two elder siblings fared when tested by their father. Similarly, Anwar has watched Muhyiddin Yassin abdicate and Ismail Sabri accept premature polls – largely caused by their questioned legitimacy and disputed majorities.
Anwar thus begins his administration keenly aware of the need to establish a firm grasp on power and has therefore moved rapidly to cement his position in his first 100 days. Key steps include: signing the Memorandum of Understanding with coalition partners to lock in their support; calling for a motion of confidence in parliament to establish his majority; and unveiling a new policy framework ‘Malaysia Madani’ to control the narrative. However, while these measures secured his grip on power, they don’t shed much light on Anwar’s thinking or priorities. To date, the best insight into these issues remains the composition of his cabinet.
Anwar was sworn in as Malaysia’s tenth prime minister on the 24th of November. A mere eight days later, he announced his ministerial line-up, which was then followed by deputy ministers a week later. The full line-up comprising 28 ministers and 27 deputy ministers was a tad smaller than Ismail Sabri’s complement of 31 ministers and 37 deputies. The rationale for a leaner cabinet was to save costs, which was further bolstered by a temporary 20 percent reduction in salaries and allowances.
The complexity inherent in satisfying the nineteen parties and two independents in the Unity Government was belied by its rapidity. The new line-up contained many relatively unknown people, some high-profile policymakers were skipped over, and there are tales of MPs being informed of their appointment mere minutes before the public was. However, when seen in aggregate, there was clear method to the madness. Indeed, these decisions may well have been facilitated by regular communication between Anwar and UMNO party president Zahid Hamidi over the past months.
There are important structural differences between Anwar’s cabinet and that of his two immediate predecessors, Muhyiddin and Ismail Sabri. Both studiously avoided naming a deputy prime minister to lower the risks of being toppled by an ambitious rival. In contrast, Anwar named not one deputy, but two. The first, Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu’s (PBB) Fadillah Yusof was uncontroversial, as this nomination cemented that party’s coalition Gabungan Parti Sarawak in the Unity Government. It also fulfilled a PH’s campaign pledge to name a deputy prime minister from East Malaysia.
However, the second deputy was much more controversial. Zahid Hamidi, the UMNO party president has long been the bête noire of urban voters. He faces charges of corruption, money laundering and criminal breach of trust, and is arguably the source of much of Malaysia’s recent political turmoil. Yet, this position is clearly part of the pact between Anwar and Zahid and binds the Unity Government’s largest and second-largest coalitions together. It also provides grist for Zahid’s argument to his party that UMNO is better-placed in Anwar’s grouping as the sole outfit representing Malay voters. Despite their long-standing rivalry, this partnership is preferable to being outshone by the Islamic party PAS and Muhyiddin Yassin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) should BN throw in their lot with Perikatan Nasional.
The depth and breadth of the Anwar-Zahid agreement is further seen in the allocation of the ten largest ministries by budget (Figure Two). The distribution of the key portfolios shows that at the centre of the Unity Government constellation lies a binary system with a smaller planet in their orbit. Anwar’s PKR and Zahid’s UMNO occupy nine out of the ten largest ministries and GPS’s PBB holds the tenth. This is the clearest indication that, rhetoric notwithstanding, principles have had to, for the moment at least, cede ground to securing power.
Figure 2: Ministries by Budget (2023)
Source: data from the Malaysian Ministry of Finance
Turning first to the followers, Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat did the best of all Unity Government members – netting eight cabinet positions – of which six are among the ten biggest ministries – and five deputy ministerships. The biggest of them all, finance, is held by Anwar himself, who also helms an expanded prime minister’s department which has absorbed what used to be the ministry of federal territories.
For much of PH’s vote base, the retention of the finance portfolio by the prime minister brings back memories of the first Mahathir administration and, more recently, the Najib Razak era. In addition to these unwelcome associations, this moonlighting has practical implications. With a budget of more than RM 65 billion and a bevy of government-linked investment companies such as Khazanah, the Employees’ Provident Fund, and Permodalan Nasional Berhad under the purview of the ministry of finance, covering all bases will be demanding to say the least. This then implies a greater role for the two deputy ministers or, more likely, external advisors for policy inputs.
Education, health, and home affairs were awarded to established PKR members and Anwar loyalists. Fadhlina Sidek, the minister of education is a first-time MP and the head of the PKR women’s wing. She is also the daughter of Siddiq Fadzil, the founder of ABIM – the Islamic student movement which Anwar once led. The minister of health, Zaliha Mustafa, is also a first-time MP. She is a medical doctor and is seen as being close to Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah. Saifuddin Nasution is, arguably, Anwar’s most trusted ally dating back to his time in UMNO. He is the Secretary-General of PKR and despite serving in various state and federal seats over the years, lost his parliamentary contest in 2022. Appointed as a senator, Saifuddin now helms the Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees the police, prisons, as well as the Registrar of Societies. The Registrar is charged with monitoring the governance of guilds, associations, and political parties. Most recently, it approved UMNO’s decision that the positions of president and deputy president would not be contested in that party’s ongoing internal election.
Turning to the remaining ministries, Nik Nazmi is a PKR vice president and holds the newly-formed natural resources, environment, and climate change ministry. Part of the younger generation of leaders, Nik has a long association with Anwar, including once being his assistant. Two other smaller, yet quite strategic, ministries are: communication and digital, headed by PKR communications chief Fahmi Fadzil, who is Nurul Izzah’s former political secretary; and science, technology, and innovation, now helmed by Chang Lih Kang, who as PKR vice-president is the party’s highest-ranking non-Malay.
Yet, while observing party hierarchy is evident in most of these choices, there are exceptions. An accountant by training and gifted at sniffing out graft and corruption, PKR deputy president Rafizi Ramli was a contender for the finance portfolio. However, as minister of economy, he has a high-profile but very constrained position. While the ministry is responsible for long-term planning through the Economic Planning Unit, it has a very small budget and does not have the means to compel other ministries to follow its recommendations. Unlike Azmin Ali, who served in the same capacity during the first Pakatan Harapan administration, the economy ministry has relinquished ownership and oversight of government-linked corporations to the ministry of finance.
The official reason for retaining the finance portfolio is that naming anyone else would alienate PH’s coalition partners. But this is an unusual argument as inter-coalition squabbles are over which grouping gets the ministry in question, not which person. It is more likely, then, that Rafizi is being placed there to cool his heels. This nomination is the clearest indication that Anwar is planning on sticking around for a good while yet.
FORBIDDEN FRIENDS AND FORMER FOES
Turning now to PH’s forbidden friends, Barisan Nasional got six ministerial portfolios of which three are particularly key. Defence went to UMNO deputy president Mohamad Hasan. In addition to commanding Malaysia’s most prestigious institution, the popular former menteri besar of Negri Sembilan will be charged with managing the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) scandal. Involving some RM 9.2 billion to procure six ships which have yet to appear, the affair implicates both former prime minister Najib Razak and Zahid Hamidi who oversaw the project during their respective tenures as minister of defence.
Khaled Nordin, the former menteri besar of Johor and UMNO vice president was appointed to the higher education portfolio – a position he held from 2008 to 2013. Rounding out the top three is Zahid Hamidi himself, who was named to the rural and regional development ministry. This portfolio will stand UMNO in good stead as it seeks to bolster its profile in its rural Malay-majority heartland.
Azalina Othman, the longstanding MP for Penggerang and UMNO Supreme Council member was named law and institutional reform minister. She is one of only a handful of female ministers, and as deputy speaker during the Muhyiddin Yassin administration acquired a name for speaking her mind. BN secretary-general Zambry Abdul Kadir was named minister of foreign affairs, and former minister of finance Tengku Zafrul was moved to international trade and industry.
When seen through the lens of UMNO’s hierarchy, these appointments were very strategic and foreshadowed the party purge that took place the following month. The party’s apex took the largest portfolios on offer, with the president (Zahid), the deputy president (Mohamad Hasan), and one vice president (Khaled Nordin) being awarded the choicest portfolios.
Conversely, party members that had cabinet positions under Ismail Sabri were bypassed. Thus, the other two vice presidents, Mahadzir Khalid and Ismail Sabri were left out, as were Hishammuddin Hussein, Khairy Jamaluddin, and former minister of higher education Noraini Ahmad. Furthermore, none of the other new ministers – Azalina, Zambry, Zafrul – are themselves powerful enough to constitute an alternative centre of power. Of note is that both Zambry and Zafrul lost their parliamentary contests and were named as senators to enable them to join cabinet.
The third largest coalition in the Unity Government is Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS). It is comprised of four parties, of which the largest and most influential is Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB). PBB was a plank of Barisan Nasional until 2018, when it left the coalition and formed GPS with three other parties. During the first Pakatan Harapan administration, relations with GPS were rocky, outlined by public disagreements between then-minister of finance Lim Guan Eng and Sarawak premier Abang Johari.
GPS’ performance in the state has solidified, with the coalition securing a total of 23 out of Sarawak’s 31 MPs in the general election. In the days following the polls, it seemed likely that GPS would join the Perikatan Nasional grouping. However, while PBB’s leadership was disposed to this, its other coalition members were not, asserting that Sarawak’s more mixed ethnic and religious composition would be ill-served in PN. Following considerable lobbying and apologies by PH leaders, GPS agreed to let bygones be bygones.
In addition to the deputy prime ministership, three senior PBB leaders secured cabinet portfolios. Thus, Fadillah Yusof, senior vice president, Alexander Nanta Linggi, secretary-general, and Nancy Shukri, women’s vice-chief, were named minister of plantations & commodities, works, and women, family & community development, respectively. GPS as a whole also secured six deputy ministerships, including several strategic nominations, including natural resources and rural & regional development – which are key to the sprawling state’s economic progress. In addition, the portfolios of transport and health also map onto areas where Sarawak is pushing for greater autonomy.
What can be said about the other members of Anwar’s cabinet?
Despite the need to bring the Unity Government’s sprawling membership to the table, one appointment was decidedly non-partisan. Na’im Mokhtar is former Chief Judge of the Syariah Court, the apex of Malaysia’s religious judiciary. An established scholar and law lecturer, Na’im has served in Syariah courts in different parts of the country for more than two decades. Given the centrality of religious issues in Malaysia’s political context, this move was strategic and avoided internal tension.
Despite being the party with the most MPs (40), the Democratic Action Party (DAP) only secured four ministerial portfolios. The cohort of ministers and deputy ministers is, on aggregate, younger than that of the first PH administration, and several high-profile personalities were left out. Of the four: DAP secretary-general Anthony Loke was named to transport, which he held during the first PH administration; Perak State Chairman Nga Kor Min is minister for local government and development; deputy secretary general V Sivakumar has the human resources portfolio; and assistant national publicity secretary Hannah Yeoh is minister for youth and sports. The relatively small haul of ministries for the DAP is partially compensated by six strategic deputy ministerships. These include finance, trade and industry, education, communication, law and institutional reform and – somewhat surprisingly for the largely urban party – agriculture.
Given its relatively scant haul of 8 MPs, PH’s third component party Amanah did relatively well –– securing two ministries and two deputy ministerships. Party president Mohamad Sabu was named minister of agriculture, and deputy president Salahuddin Ayub is in charge of the domestic trade and cost of living portfolio. Amanah members were also awarded the deputy ministerships for defence and women, family & community development. Surprisingly, the well-regarded Dzulkefly Ahmad was not invited to return to the ministry of health – probably because awarding a third ministry to Amanah would have raised the hackles of other coalition members.
This favourable treatment can be seen in relation to Gabungan Rakyat Sabah, the fourth coalition partner of the Unity Government. Despite contributing six MPs to Anwar’s majority, the coalition was awarded only one (albeit strategic) ministerial portfolio – that of Sabah and Sarawak affairs – and a deputy ministership of the relatively small-budget tourism, arts, and culture portfolio.
Other component parties that did less well out of the deal include Warisan and the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA). Sabah-based Warisan has three MPs and is led by Shafie Apdal, the high-profile former menteri besar of Sabah. Despite being one of the five signatories to the Memorandum of Agreement to support Anwar’s Unity Government, it only received a deputy ministership, that for higher education. This was most likely due to the breakdown in relations with Pakatan Harapan in the GE15 campaign, which led Warisan to directly compete against Anwar’s coalition. Furthermore, Shafie Apdal was seriously considered as an alternative prime ministerial candidate for PH in 2020 and 2021. MUDA, led by charismatic MP Syed Saddiq also came home empty-handed. The youth-focused party underperformed in GE15, and also has had a fractious relationship with PKR.
Despite backtracking on key PH reform items, Anwar’s position within his own coalition is relatively secure. Despite its penchant for internal factionalism, PKR looks relatively cohesive for now. Its waves of high-profile and unseemly departures have ebbed, and Rafizi is unlikely to rock the boat in the near term. Similarly, the DAP and Amanah are unlikely to cause trouble, as this is the best deal on offer for them.
However, the price to pay for forging a sprawling multi-party bloc is that Anwar can now be affected by internal turmoil within other parties and partner coalitions. At present, the biggest issue for Anwar is, paradoxically, UMNO – the erstwhile most disciplined of organizations. UMNO is still dealing with the fallout from its 2018 loss and, while many party dissenters have been purged, Zahid’s position is not entirely secure. His opponents may yet secure a majority in either the Supreme Council or the vice-presidencies in the party elections. In addition, Anwar’s support of Zahid may become untenable in the event the latter is convicted in his ongoing court case.
Looking elsewhere in the Unity Government, GRS has also had its moments of instability and tension. GRS and BN, which both are active in Sabah, have had deep disagreements over cabinet positions in the Sabah state government. This led to a short-lived attempt by the UMNO branch in Sabah to topple the state administration. While this has died down, relations still remain fraught between BN in Sabah and GRS.
Last, while GPS’ hold on power in Sarawak is unshakable, it has very different interests than the other coalitions. All peninsula-based groupings see state governments as an intermediate step on the way to securing federal power. Sarawak, with its rich natural resource base and more expansive remit of state government responsibilities, is a different proposition altogether. While Fadillah Yusof, Alexander Nanta Linggi, and Nancy Shukri hold important positions in PBB, they are actually not the party’s paramount leaders. The PBB president, Abang Johari, and the two deputy presidents, Douglas Uggah Embas and Awang Tengah Ali Hassan, are the Sarawak premiers and deputy premiers respectively. Consequently, GPS will focus overwhelmingly on more resources and autonomy for Sarawak, and these considerations will outweigh any plum position – barring that of the prime ministership itself – that can be offered by Anwar.
With his first 100 days behind him, Anwar has acted proactively to solidify his hold on power. Adept at backroom negotiations, gifted at understanding the prevailing mood of the times, and an able orator, the nature of the alliance that he has cobbled together will test his formidable capabilities. And, that is in addition to governing the country.
Appendix One – The Unity Government and its Supporters
Appendix Two – Anwar Ibrahim’s Cabinet
|Current Ministry/ Pakatan Harapan Equivalent||Budget RM mil*||Person||Party||Constituency|
|Finance||65,799||Anwar Ibrahim||PKR||Tambun, Perak|
|Education||55,569||Fadhina Sidek||PKR||Nibong Tebal, Penang|
|Health||36,139||Zaliha Mustafa||PKR||Sekijang, Johor|
|Home Affairs||18,307||Saifuddin Nasution||PKR||Senator|
|Defence||17,379||Mohamad Hasan||UMNO||Rembau, Melaka|
|Prime Minister’s Department||15,543*|
|Religious Affairs||Na’im Mokhtar||n/a||Senator|
|Parliament and Laws||Azalina Othman||UMNO||Penggerang|
|Sabah and Sarawak Affairs & Special Duties||Armizan Mohd Ali||Sabah Bersatu||Papar, Sabah|
|Higher Education||15,089||Khaled Nordin||UMNO||Kota Tinggi, Johor|
|Rural and Regional Development||10,931||Zahid Hamidi (also Deputy Prime Minister)||UMNO||Bagan Datuk|
|Natural Resources, Environment, and Climate Change/ Environment and Water & Energy and Natural Resources||10,704||Nik Nazmi||PKR||Setiawangsa, KL Federal Territory|
|Works||8,136||Alexander Nanta Linggi||PBB (GPS)||Kapit, Sarawak|
|Transport||6,093||Anthony Loke||DAP||Seremban, Negri Sembilan|
|Local Government Development||5,409||Nga Kor Ming||DAP||Teluk Intan, Perak|
|Agriculture and Food Security||5,317||Mohamad Sabu||Amanah||Kota Raja, Selangor|
|Women, Family, and Community||3,392||Nancy Shukri||PBB (GPS)||Santubong, Sarawak|
|Communications and Multi-Media||2,737||Fahmi Fadzil||PKR||Lembah Pantai|
|International Trade and Industry||1,557||Tengku Zafrul||UMNO||Senator|
|Human Resources||1,327||V. Sivakumar||DAP||Batu Gajah, Perak|
|Domestic Trade and Cost of Living||1,251||Salahuddin Ayub||Amanah||Pulai, Johor|
|Tourism, Arts, and Culture||1,165||Tiong King Sing||Progressive Democratic Party (GPS)||Bintulu, Sarawak|
|Science, Technology and Innovation||1,062||Chang Lih Kang||PKR||Tanjong Malim, Perak|
|Youth and Sports||977||Hannah Yeoh||DAP||Segambut, KL Federal Territory|
|Foreign Affairs||921||Zambry Abdul Kadir||UMNO||Senator|
|Entrepreneur Development and Cooperatives||668||Ewon Benedick||UPKO||Penampang, Sabah|
|Plantation and Commodities||496||Fadillah Yusof (also Deputy Prime Minister)||PBB (GPS)||Petra Jaya, Sarawak|
|National Unity||461||Aaron Ago Dagang||PRS||Kanowit, Sarawak|
|Economy||265**||Rafizi Ramli||PKR||Pandan, Selangor|
* Including the re-named Department of Federal Territories.
* Including the re-named Department of Federal Territories.
For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.
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