KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 25 — Deciding on a lineup of Cabinet members who are up to the job and appeasing his political “supporters” at the same time would be the first administrative challenge for Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob as the new prime minister, political pundits said.
More importantly, they said Ismail Sabri would need to navigate the demands of his own party Umno and its president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi to ensure the new government remains stable with the backing of his party colleagues.
The pundits also stressed that Ismail Sabri’s lineup of ministers should include experienced and tactful leaders to keep conflict at a minimum, seeing as he only has a limited amount of time to govern before an election has to be called.
Keeping the peace
Universiti Utara Malaysia political analyst Md Shukri Shuib told Malay Mail that Ismail Sabri must first consolidate his position within Umno after obvious factions emerged within the party during Perikatan Nasional’s reign.
“That is why the first task is to tackle Umno leaders, especially the president, deputy president, and the supreme council, where even though they consist of not many MPs, they still have a strong voice in ruling Umno.
“So now Ismail faces the difficult task of first needing to accommodate Umno itself,” he said.
Md Shukri said Ismail Sabri would next need to arrange a discourse with all the other ruling party heads to consolidate everyone’s support and ensure all are kept abreast of the government’s direction.
He suggested that the other political parties would be easier to approach, claiming that things would fall in place once Ismail passes the hurdle that is Umno.
“I think other party presidents, they are very professional where even the likes of PAS and Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) can accept the reality that they have smaller numbers, and even Muhyiddin, who led PN and heads Bersatu (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia), can understand the situation,” he said.
Md Shukri explained the consolidation among ruling parties must take place to ensure Ismail Sabri’s Cabinet is united its objectives on combating Covid-19, while also working to boost the government’s waning popularity.
“If not, if they are very conservative like how it was under Muhyiddin, then all the baggage and problems will be brought up and emerge again,” he said.
Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) geostrategist Prof Azmi Hassan agreed that Ismail Sabri would unlikely to be the envy of many as he has to juggle between appointing capable ministers while pleasing the demands from the two main Malay parties, Umno and Bersatu.
“Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri needs to juggle between the capabilities of each MP to be appointed as a minister and which party the MP represents because there is internal squabbling within the parties that want their MPs to be appointed to certain critical ministries and portfolios,” he told Malay Mail.
UKM political analyst Jamaie Hamil agreed with Azmi, saying conditions like Bersatu’s demand to exclude Umno leaders facing trials in court, and Umno asking that no Bersatu ministers labelled as failures of the PN government be reappointed would all have to be factored in by Ismail Sabri, which further complicates the process.
Jamaie said Ismail Sabri would have to play his cards right to make the correct moves in his lineup so it triggers the least amount of conflict.
“We might see Ismail prioritising new candidates, besides those who were in the previous Cabinet, but he has to be careful when making his decision due to these underlying conditions from Umno and Bersatu.
“However, in my opinion, whatever decision made by the prime minister will not be able to appease every party within the government, a government whose name we are still unsure about,” he said.
Jamaie pointed out that Ismail Sabri’s other allies in PAS and GPS would also have to be considered for Cabinet positions; some, he said, had leaders who were perhaps better candidates compared to those in the previous Cabinet.
UTM’s Azmi underlined the hazards of Ismail Sabri having to work under such conditions, suggesting it would be virtually impossible to achieve both the political and administrative objectives being set out.
“Ismail needs a capable team whom he can rely and depend on, and this cannot be done when parties are demanding their people be selected for specific portfolios.
“This is the most challenging part as Ismail also needs their support, and as such, the parties are not giving a free hand to the prime minister to pick his team,” said Azmi.
Ismail Sabri, who was sworn in last Saturday, has said his Cabinet lineup would be revealed by this week while confirming that Opposition lawmakers would not be included, quashing prospects of a unity government.
Get to work quick
Upon deciding his Cabinet, Ismail Sabri is next faced with the need to rapidly address the many issues faced by the nation because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Azmi said the new prime minister would have to hit the ground running and would do well to not reappoint ministers deemed failures under the previous PN administration.
He said this would prevent Ismail Sabri’s government from repeating costly mistakes which were committed by Muhyiddin’s PN government.
“This is where certain ministries that were critical in handling the pandemic had a minister that seemed to be incapable of discharging his duties as expected, and this was because the minister was appointed not because of his abilities but because it was pushed for by his or her respective parties.
“What we need now are policies and strategies which are different from the previous ones in handling the pandemic, especially due to the emerging Covid-19 variants like Delta and Kappa,” said Azmi.
UKM’s Jamaie said there were, however, standout ministers from the previous administration whom he said performed well enough to be considered this time around.
“In my view, ministers like Khairy Jamaluddin and Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein at the Foreign Affairs Ministry can probably be retained, or maybe named for another ministry portfolio,” he suggested.
Md Shukri said Ismail Sabri should form a compact Cabinet, one smaller than that of PN’s, to avoid redundancy and overlapping functions, and that managing a smaller group of ministers would be easier when it comes to consolidating support.
However, independent political analyst Datuk M. Periasamy said that despite these calls for a smaller Cabinet, a sufficient number of portfolios must be created to cater to the multi-faceted needs of the mixed communities here.
“Even though countries which have a larger population than Malaysia have a Cabinet smaller in size, Malaysia’s Cabinet is larger as it has to accommodate the needs of a multi-racial population, given how Malaysia is not a homogenous country like the US, the United Kingdom, Indonesia or China,” he told Malay Mail.
But Periasamy agreed on the need to streamline functions by possibly integrating certain existing ministries.
“The prime minister also has to consider the wishes of various multiracial parties and appoint ministers proportionately so that no race feels they are left out,” he added.
Md Shukri pointed out how Ismail Sabri has just around 21 months to govern before a general election is due. This probably means he would most likely continue policies implemented under Muhyiddin, he added.
“I don’t think Ismail will stretch it until 21 months (before calling elections), so that is the limitation that he has… the timeframe for Ismail to work is not long, not much can be done.
“He has to work progressively with the administrative and diplomatic officers and the bureaucrats to make things work, but please reduce the size of the Cabinet,” he said.
Speculation over supposed Cabinet lineups has surfaced since Ismail Sabri’s swearing-in, with GPS calling for a deputy PM to be appointed from among their ranks.
Speculation has been rife that Bersatu’s Datuk Seri Azmin Ali and Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainuddin are possible deputy PM and finance minister candidates.
Ismail Sabri has however denied all these supposed appointments, saying he will announce his Cabinet lineup once it has been received and consented to by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.