All eyes on the old versus new guard
Emmanuel Samarathisa 

Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is a hard man to please. Those who had worked with him for 22 years during his first stint as PM under the Barisan Nasional (BN) government will attest to that.

So several months into his second stint as PM, this time at the helm of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, it was not surprising that Mahathir expressed dissatisfaction with the performance of his ministers. “I’m not satisfied. If possible, I want (something that has been directed) to be settled yesterday, not today,” he said.

The PM, while admitting that many of the ministers were new, said he needed to work fast. “I need some people who have some experience to sort out things. The new ministers don’t even know the kind of responsibilities they have in the ministries.”

Such acerbic remarks are vintage Mahathir. This is the man who is known to be a stickler for discipline and a workaholic. Despite being 93, he has successfully traipsed across continents, speaking at one meeting after another. His frenetic pace has been the talk of his younger cabinet counterparts such as Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng and Defence Minister Mohammad Sabu, who remarked that keeping up with the nonagenarian is exhausting.

And it’s not only the Cabinet that has seen changes. Several major government-linked investment companies (GLICs), government-linked companies (GLCs) and even regulatory agencies have seen changes at the top (see sidebar).

The demands of policy clarity from market participants as well as an uncertain global economy means having an inexperienced Cabinet is not reassuring. To understand how “green” the Cabinet is, FocusM compares the key members of the current cabinet against the previous one. We list Mahathir’s first 11 ministers appointed based on PH’s manifesto promise.

The data is aggregated into age, qualification and experience. Qualification focuses on academic achievement while experience is divided into a few categories with different weightage. Priority is given to prior ministerial roles followed by parliamentary designations such as opposition leader and party role.

Only if any of those are lacking, the most prominent corporate or academic role will be used. Excluded under “experience” is their tenure as a Member of Parliament (MP) as a minister has to be either be an MP or Senator. Finally, to get a complete picture, these names are compared with the last BN cabinet led by former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak in the run-up to the 14th general election in May.

Some caveats apply for the table above. Firstly, a portfolio-to-portfolio comparison is difficult because the two cabinets are structured differently. Consider the Mahathir cabinet has 28 ministers overall while Najib’s 2018 line-up comprised 35 ministers with a higher concentration of ministers in the prime minister’s department.

Secondly, these are still early days for PH. Its first major policy document, the federal budget, will be published on Nov 2.

Thirdly, the findings are limited to the Pakatan 11. Left out of this list are names such as Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, who at 25, is the youngest Cabinet member in the country’s history.

From our data, PH has a younger cabinet with the average age at 62.7 compared to Najib’s administration at 78.3. That said, it is also definitely inexperienced given that all of Najib’s cabinet members were political elites, holding top jobs in either state or federal government as well as party. This means PH’s cabinet will probable struggle with the ins and outs of ministerial work as well as the bureaucracy.

In terms of academic qualifications, both line-ups are impressive. Except for Mohamad Sabu’s diploma, both administrations had ministers with at least an undergraduate degree.

In an interview with FocusM last month, Prime Minister-in-waiting Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim had said there was a need for ministers to really study about their ministries. “Listen to the civil servants and the experts from the outside, listen to the criticism and then embark on the journey. Don’t just move on without understanding the complexities of working with the ministries. Ministers must realise that people are more observing and critical,” he had said.


1,000 years’ experience

FocusM spoke to several ministers to get their take on Mahathir’s remarks.

Energy, Green Technology, Science, Climate Change and Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin is not disconcerted with Mahathir’s remarks or the apparent lack of experience of the PH camp. Having new “inexperienced” ministers may be advantageous, Yeo opines. “As new ministers, we are more open-minded. We bring in more drive, something that is new and better for Malaysia,” she says. “Because everything is possible.

“As a minister, I am not here to decide by myself. That is why I reactivated our electricity reform plan as well as MyPower, which will be manned by experienced people in the industry,” she tells FocusM.

MyPower is a special-purpose unit that will be reactivated for three years to push the Malaysia Energy Supply Industry (MESI) 2.0 initiative, which aims to accomplish a series of goals, among others, to decentralise the electricity supply industry.

According to Yeo, aiding her in decision making is an advisory panel as well as experts in the Energy Commission and the various agencies. “As a minister, what we need is not so much of the knowledge and experience because you will never beat the experts, but to open up a platform to be able to gather everyone’s thoughts and experience.

“This is a 1,000 years’ experience in policy making because you accumulate everyone’s views right? So the challenge is not so much on not having the experience, but how to filter and leverage on people’s passion towards real change.”

Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister Datuk Salahuddin Ayub sees Mahathir’s comments as a chance for him and his colleagues to strive for better results. “I’m glad to receive criticism. Any advice will help me continuously improve,” he says. Salahuddin, as he is new to the office, believes he has to pick up ministerial tasks quickly. “I must be a fast learner,” he adds. “So, at this juncture, it is okay to receive criticism or advice from anyone.”

A sobering reality

Minister of International Trade and Industry (MITI) Datuk Darell Leiking notes that the learning curve is steep and demanding. “In my case, I haven’t gotten a free day since being MITI minister,” he says. Leiking’s schedule is divided into receiving visits from ambassadors and business leaders at his office and conducting field visits to factories to understand how business operates from the ground up.

“My time in the ministry has just passed 100 days but I’ve been to five countries to negotiate for business opportunities for local industries and also to reassure foreign investors that Malaysia is still the preferred regional investment destination,” he adds.

Ditto his deputy Dr Ong Kian Ming, whom Leiking says has been to China to strengthen bilateral trade ties. “This month (October), I will be heading to Japan and Korea with local business delegations to broker trade deals and encourage more investors to partake in the new Malaysian economic landscape,” says Leiking.

“This is what the government wants because the Cabinet in the New Malaysia works hard not only to restore the confidence of the people in their own country, but also the world’s confidence in Malaysia.”

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (legal affairs) Datuk Liew Vui Keong modestly scores himself 5.5 out of 10 when asked to evaluate his performance some three months into the job. “I took office on July 2. So far it is a 5.5 and work has been intense and requires many inputs/studies from various stakeholders, especially on the law and institutional reforms,” he says.

The challenges are many, says Liew, “but foremost are the reforms that I’m tasked to do. I will have to deal with complex political and social contexts including corruption, patronage and political capture left by the previous administration.”

To deal with these issues, he has to prioritise which reforms to tackle first. “And then deal with the relevant stakeholders,” he adds. “Fundamental changes to certain institutions such as parliament, the anti-corruption agency, police, election commission and others will take time.”


Missing the mark?

These are still early days for PH but “we are on the right track,” says Prof Dr James Chin, director, Asia Institute, University of Tasmania, Australia. “We have seen significant change in policies compared to the BN, eg, appointment of non-Malays as Chief Justice and Attorney-General. There’s total change in the Election Commission, etc. I expect more changes to come in after the budget has passed, but so far so good.”

All eyes are on Budget 2019 as many are expecting clear policies from the government. But Mahathir has sounded the alarm bell early on that the budget will be one of “sacrifice”.

Chin also sees the “inexperience” highlighted by Mahathir as “not a bad thing.” Despite the Cabinet consisting of a number of young people, they could impart new ideas, which if given time will benefit Malaysia, he says. “For Yeo Bee Yin and (Education Minister) Maszlee Malik, for example, we need to give them time to push through changes. Their ministries are huge and change takes time but you can see clearly that what they are doing is almost a complete break from the BN,” he adds. FocusM

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 303.