A reshuffle of the Cabinet has been rather overdue but a mere tweak here and there would be meaningless when what is needed is a ‘transition Cabinet’.
JUST a reorganisation of Cabinet portfolios – that was how the Prime Minister put it.
It was probably meant to soothe the anxiety of his ministers, some of whom are wondering whether they would soon be sitting in a new office.
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has also avoided referring to it as a reshuffle but whichever way one looks at it, it is a reshuffle.
From the hints dropped so far, it sounds like a mini reshuffle in the making because a major one would be too disruptive for the government.
Besides, Dr Mahathir is rather short of new material to work with – he was already scraping the bottom of the barrel when he formed the Cabinet and he will basically be shuffling from the same pack of cards, some of which have turned out to be rather mediocre.
“He has been able to evaluate the ministers who have had ample time to learn about their portfolio.
“Their performance, except for a handful, has been below the expectations of the public. Many have been a disappointment. There’s only so much the PM can do in carrying the slack and something needs to be done, ” said KRA strategy director Amir Fareed Rahim.
Amir said the reshuffle is also symbolic of the halfway mark of Dr Mahathir’s premiership, going by his two to three-year timeline.
“He needs a more focused Cabinet and a stronger team to tick all the boxes on his checklist, especially in fixing the economy, ” said Amir.
Another reason Dr Mahathir is not in a position to make more sweeping changes is because his hands are somewhat tied.
According to political commentator Khaw Veon Szu, Dr Mahathir’s party does not have the numbers for him to do as he likes.
The fact that he had to inform his partners of the impending changes says a lot.
Some call it power-sharing, others see it as a limited ability to call the shots.
For instance, Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng’s claim that there would be no changes to the DAP ministers was seen as a pre-emptive move against any changes to DAP’s place in the Cabinet.
It was also perceived as a signal that DAP would not agree to any changes to its team even though a number of its ministers and deputy ministers has been below par.
“Party leaders understand the Cabinet reshuffle is the PM’s prerogative but I understand they have insisted that the number of seats for each party be maintained as agreed upon during the formation of the Cabinet, ” said Amir.
Khaw stressed that changes to the Cabinet have to be meaningful or else “people will laugh at the cosmetic changes”.
No matter how government leaders spin the figures, the economy is in trouble.
“Drastic and meaningful changes are needed to restore confidence in the business and financial sectors and stabilise the political base, ” said Khaw.
Former DAP parliamentarian Jeff Ooi put it more bluntly in his widely-read Sin Chew Daily column: “Mahathir has to make chess moves. If it is reduced to just re-organising posts, he would merely be shifting furniture on the Titanic.”
Ooi said the ruling coalition is heading towards a one-term conclusion unless significant measures are taken.
This may explain why Jeli MP Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed’s name keeps popping up.
The Kelantan-born technocrat, known for his workaholic habit, joined Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia last year and there seems to be influential hands behind the scenes lobbying on his behalf.
There has been a flurry of speculative stories in the Chinese vernacular media of Mustapa’s comeback, and that he will take over Datuk Seri Azmin Ali’s Economic Affairs portfolio while Azmin is moved to Education.
“There’s a push from Bersatu for more Cabinet posts. Their number of MPs has doubled since the formation of the Cabinet but it’s a delicate matter given the mixed performance of their ministers and the question of whether defectors should be rewarded, ” said Amir.
This is despite the fact that Mustapa’s experience and economic expertise would be an asset to the Mahathir government.
But even more delicate than the question of bringing in Mustapa is the question of what to do with Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, or PM8 (the 8th Prime Minister) as his party now refers to him.
It will be super awkward to lay the welcome mat for Mustapa while Anwar is out in the cold.
The perception is that those around Anwar are growing impatient, especially after the much-viralled picture of the famous birthday cake depicting Anwar, who turned 72 recently, seated outside the green-domed prime minister’s office.
But Anwar loyalist Prof Datuk Dr Redzuan Othman insisted Anwar is “very relaxed” about the issue.
“He told us that if it is written that he becomes PM, then he will be the PM, ” said Redzuan.
The transition remains ultra sensitive.
“This is the tricky part. Will the reshuffle be about strengthening Mahathir’s grip on power or will it be seen as blocking Anwar?” said Khaw.
Dr Mahathir has said so many times that Anwar will take over from him, yet people do not seem convinced.
Would-be investors and fund managers do not like the uncertainty at all. It is only another eight more months before the sensitive two-year deadline.
In that sense, the reshuffle should also be about ushering in a transition Cabinet and sending a signal that the transition will be smooth and there will be no power struggle.
But knowing Dr Mahathir, he will do it his way.