2024 will be a watershed for Anwar

Kenneth Cheng Chee Kin

Having presided over a reshuffle so early in his term, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim will have to scrape by with the current cabinet line-up for the next four years. – Facebook pic, December 31, 2023.

TO me, it has always been a political myth that a “successful” cabinet reshuffle could arrest the drift of the government’s popularity.

Even in the most ideal case where Anwar Ibrahim was courageous enough to sack Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and remove him from cabinet, there will not be an immediate mass conversion in the east coast where Perikatan Nasional (PN) supporters will begin to show support to the prime minister, never mind throwing the vote for the government in the next election.

In fact, some cabinet reshuffles may unintentionally damage the government.

A change in minister in any ministry will affect policy implementation and surely result in wastage of public funds.

Moreover, while reshuffling the cabinet offers the chance for the prime minister to recruit new allies with ministerial promotion or relegating non-performing ministers to the backbenches, the move could also potentially backfire if the sacked ministers decided to rebel internally because of the demotion.

Most importantly, the cabinet rejig will always leave the impression that there are issues within the highest level of the executive branch that need addressing; after all, if all is well and good, why does the prime minister need to take an unnecessary political risk to change course?

Most political pundits would opine that reshuffles are rarely about ministerial performance but for this time, it could be argued that some of the reshuffling was made based on merit.

It is an open secret that the Madani government’s Health Ministry had been underperforming and the now former minister and first-time lawmaker, Dr Zaliha Mustafa, was viewed as a figure that had been overwhelmed by her ministerial responsibilities and appeared to be indecisive in policy decisions.

Some would even argue the removal of Zaliha from the Health Ministry was one of the best decisions out of the myriad of shifts of ministerial positions.

The same could also be applied to Fahmi Fadzil who still retains a ministerial post, but his authority has been severely weakened due to the ministry being split into two.

Perhaps the pundits were right about reshuffling being more about political considerations than performance.

Strangely enough, the two ministers that could be considered as losers in the cabinet reshuffle were not sacked and still allowed to stay in cabinet.

Though shifted to a ministry directly under the Prime Minister’s Office, Zaliha is lucky enough to remain in cabinet as the Federal Territories minister, a ministry that was previously managed by the prime minister himself.

Anwar has essentially created a ministry to accommodate the former health minister.

Critics may argue that the FT Ministry is not a brand-new ministry which is being revived for patronage purposes, but equally this was a ministry that the current prime minister saw fit to abolish and absorb into his own department when he first held office a year ago.

Something is amiss that it has only been a year and Anwar was forced into a volte-face merely to accommodate an under-performing minister.

The same could be applied to Fahmi where the separation of the Communications and Digital Ministry may well lead to a wastage of public resources as mentioned previously, since an entirely new ministry had to be created.

Though Fahmi has explained the separation is to give extra weight for the Digital Ministry to expand the digital economy sector and not be encumbered by communications matters.

However, it is likely a skilful and competent minister could juggle with the expansion of digital economy and communications matters without having the unnecessary fuss of splitting the ministry.

Furthermore, Gobind Singh Deo did have experience being a minister of the two portfolios and was deemed to be a more capable minister than Fahmi.

There is always a risk when a government decides to reshuffle its cabinet and sometimes things could go very wrong if those who had suffered the humiliation of sacking decide to poison the prime minister’s standing from the backbenches.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was forced to face down a sizable number of his own MPs after having removed the former home secretary who was a darling of the right-wing faction of his party.

Unlike Sunak, Anwar will not have the problem of internal rebellion given that he has the grip of the coalition party.

But having presided over a reshuffle so early, he will have to scrape by with this cabinet for four years.

And there is no guarantee that the likes of Zaliha and Fahmi would suddenly exceed expectations in the future and prove that they are indeed man and woman of government.

If the cabinet continues to underachieve, Anwar would surely be culpable and worse, does not even have the luxury to exercise a reshuffle.

This is because a second reshuffle would almost be politically unimaginable and would undoubtedly leave him politically vulnerable of which the stability of the government will be questioned once again.

With the reshuffle, the prime minister has basically boxed himself out of any excuses for an ineffective cabinet and that is why the cabinet’s performance in 2024 would most likely determine Anwar’s fate as prime minister. – December 31, 2023.

* Kenneth Cheng has always been interested in the interplay between human rights and government but more importantly he is a father of two cats, Tangyuan and Toufu. When he is not attending to his feline matters, he is most likely reading books about politics and human rights or playing video games. He is a firm believer in the dictum “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will”.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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