By Raman Letchumanan

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--On 29th November, I wrote this article captioned ‘Unity government: Will ‘rakyat’ be sacrificed for political expediency’. 

Among others, I said we need a stable government of reforms, not compromises. In this respect, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s first challenge would be his cabinet line-up.

However, generally there seems to be a sense of disappointment, despite the daily inspiring and hard hitting speeches about reforms he will execute since his appointment on 24th November.

Anwar said cabinet appointments shall not be made in exchange for support, and will drastically reduce its size. Yet, even his first call has reached 28 ministers, closer to the earlier bloated regimes.

Looking at the line-up, it seems Anwar has just accepted what was demanded by his unity government partners without any intervention. On the other hand, he was hard on DAP giving them relatively junior ministries. 
There is not even one DAP Malay minister. Indian ministers have been reduced from four previously to just one. Will this appease Perikatan Nasional’s racial and religious rhetoric, if that was the intention?

There seems to be a troubling demarcation in ministerial appointments with mainly inexperienced newbies on the Pakatan Harapan side, and battle-hardened veterans on the other side. 
Will Anwar be able to exert leadership in cabinet with support from his side, when there is contestation on reforms and policies, like the scandal-ridden Littoral Combat Ships. 
One of the reasons cited for the fall of the 22-month Harapan government were young ministers with no experience as ministers. Now the cabinet of the ruling coalition is made up of wolves and sheep!

The key question moving forward as Anwar rolls out his promised reforms is whether his unity government and cabinet will be with him, especially those who were in the previous regimes and affected by the reforms.      

The most criticized appointment was of Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, now named as deputy prime minister 1. Zahid is facing record-breaking criminal charges. 
While helming his dual portfolio as minister, he will have to attend to his court cases, which takes precedence over government business. In court, the prosecutors will be merciless in vilifying an accused to extract a conviction. 
At the same time, Zahid will be revered, obeyed without question, and celebrated outside court as the 2nd most powerful man in the country.

This appointment seems premised on the fact that Zahid was instrumental in making Anwar the prime minister. Wouldn’t a possible court conviction or losing the UMNO presidency at the next party elections break that bond between them, and unwind Anwar’s position. 
It’s a high-stake gamble, and not good for them and the country.

Another surprise but widely expected dark horse was Tengku Zafrul Aziz. He was the chosen poster boy for UMNO to win big for Putrajaya and wrestle Selangor from Harapan. But he lost. For all his financial wizardry, he didn’t realize his goodies packed 2023 budget will be thrown back at his face by the voters. 
During his three-year reign as finance minister, he oversaw record debts, spending, borrowing and the largest deficit budgets. 
Furthermore, many suspected financial scandals lead to the finance ministry. 
Now Anwar as finance minister would have to take on that burden and unravel all that.

Zafrul’s earlier appointment as finance minister through a senatorship was based on his expertise as a banker. 
But why bend over backwards to appoint him as international trade and industry minister, for which he has no proven expertise nor experience.

Anwar is reported to have said he took on the finance portfolio because he wanted “to foster confidence in the country’s economy with the local businesses and foreign investors”. 
But that job primarily comes under the purview of the economy, and international trade and industry minister.

However, I do see some good appointments. Mohd Na’im Mokhtar is named as a Religious Minister. He is a distinguished scholar, jurist, has an impressive CV, and has done stints at Harvard and Oxford. He is best placed to moderate the race and religious rhetoric used by the opposition.  

Rafizi Ramli as economy minister has the job cut out for him, exactly what he was fighting for. As minister in the prime minister’s office he would be in charge of the Economic Planning Unit, and the huge development budget for projects and contracts. 
Rather than whistle-blowing post-graft, he will have to ensure there is no room for corruption and leakages ex-ante. 
He has to take very hard decisions to promote free market enterprise and ensure government businesses in the market operate on a truly competitive basis. Rafizi’s skill in stepping on others’ toes comes in handy, but I hope he doesn’t slip when it matters.

Saifuddin Nasution who is named minister for the powerful home affairs ministry is the direct opposite of Rafizi in terms of character. He is calm and measured and in many ways likened to a typical obedient bureaucrat. 
But that is suited for this role, unlike his hawkish predecessor, and would do well to be firm but not meddle with the work of the enforcement authorities.  

If anyone feels I am uninspired, let me say I am being generous here.

It is understandable that Anwar prioritizes political stability and his position as prime minister to carry out the reforms. On that score, reform minded citizens will have to support the cabinet, as they say Rome is not built in a day.

My prescription is the same as I said in the above opinion piece to adhere to principles and good policy without any compromise. Do not sacrifice the rakyat for political expediency. 
Win over the rakyat, it will be a long and bumpy road, but they will be your true friends and come to your defense from the machinations of politicians.

*Raman Letchumanan is a former senior fellow at the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore, a former director at the Minister of Science, Technology and Environment, and a former head of environment/disaster management at the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta.*