Malaysia PM’s new cabinet excludes scandal-tainted UMNO colleagues

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, seen during his inauguration on Aug. 21, says his new cabinet will work to rebuild public confidence in the government.   © Reuters

P PREM KUMAR, Nikkei staff writer | Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob on Friday unveiled a cabinet that leaves out key figures from his party who have been accused or found guilty of corruption.

Nearly a week after being sworn in as leader, Ismail Sabri selected a team of 31 ministers with no surprises, retaining much of the previous cabinet led by Muhyiddin Yassin.

Notably absent were powerful members of his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) such as former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is appealing convictions on seven graft and abuse of power charges connected to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal, and party President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who faces separate allegations.

The new premier had little choice but to try to distance his government from UMNO’s shady past. Muhyiddin had thrown his coalition’s support behind Ismail Sabri’s nomination on the condition that no “court cluster” lawmakers facing criminal charges would be anywhere near the administration.

In a televised address, Ismail Sabri framed his picks as being aimed at stability amid the ongoing COVID-19 and economic crises, after months of serious political turmoil.

Ismail Sabri said, “This would be a results-oriented cabinet, where each ministry would have to present their achievements in the first 100 days, and they have to fulfill three areas of concern: adhering to the people’s current needs, being a responsible and honest government as well as re-securing the people’s confidence in the government.”

The cabinet is expected to be sworn in on Monday in an audience with King Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin. The ministers will immediately confront what Muhyiddin’s cabinet left behind when it resigned en masse earlier this month: one of Asia’s worst coronavirus emergencies.

The country reported a record 24,599 new infections on Thursday, with 393 new deaths — also the highest number yet. Overall cases have surpassed 1.6 million.

Muhyiddin was forced to quit after losing his parliamentary majority when some UMNO lawmakers withdrew support, but his Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu) still features prominently in the prime minister’s circle.

Including Ismail Sabri, UMNO will have 10 ministers while Bersatu will also have 10. Four ministers from Muhyiddin’s cabinet did not make Friday’s list, while five new ministers were announced. All five, however, have served as ministers in previous cabinets.

One decision that may raise some eyebrows is that while Muhyiddin had made Ismail Sabri his deputy prime minister, Ismail Sabri did not name a deputy premier.

In terms of internal UMNO politics, Ismail Sabri’s minister and deputy picks rewarded those who stood by him in a recent tussle with Ahmad Zahid.

Before the previous government’s collapse, a rift had opened up within the party. Ahmad Zahid’s faction turned against Muhyiddin, while Ismail Sabri’s cohort continued to back him. Except for Noraini Ahmad, the new higher education minister, the other eight UMNO cabinet members all stayed loyal to Ismail Sabri and Muhyiddin.

After Muhyiddin stepped down, Ismail Sabri’s supporters lobbied hard for him to win UMNO’s endorsement to become prime minister.

Key ministers retaining their previous portfolios include Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz, a banker turned finance minister. Khairy Jamaluddin, who was heading Malaysia’s vaccination committee, was made health minister rather than returning as minister of science, technology and innovation.

Saifuddin Abdullah, who served as communications minister, was named the new foreign minister.

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