LOOKS like the main thing that bothered Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob when he pondered the cabinet was who to make his deputy, given the threat hanging over him from Senior International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali, who reportedly threatened to pull support if he was not given the position.
A puzzling new appointment to a recycled cabinet with hardly any new faces was that of – surprise, surprise – Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim, a person who faced molestation charges against an underaged girl, who was made Federal Territories minister. More on that later. First, back to the issue of the deputy prime minister, or the lack of one.
If Ismail Sabri did not appoint anyone from Bersatu as deputy prime minister, then not just Azmin and his cohorts would pull out, but possibly, all Bersatu MPs, which would leave the prime minister high, dry and stranded. He was in quite a pickle for if he did not appoint anyone from Umno, offence would be taken from that quarter.
The only consolation and saving grace for that was main opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan had offered to support him in a confidence vote, which is a big thing because that amounts to 88 seats from PKR, DAP and Amanah, the three PH partners.
Even if Bersatu pulled out its 31 MPs, PH’s votes would pull him through. Why, even if part of Umno/Barisan Nasional with 42 seats withdrew, he could potentially swing it easily if PH supported him – and if Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) with 18 stood by him.
What would that make Ismail Sabri? A toothless tiger without a base from his own party, a tiger without a hill – no domain. That just won’t do. But that non-binding pact with the opposition was just about enough to keep Azmin in his place, and the potential challengers from Umno to just stay put. For the time being at least. Smart.
Thus, Ismail Sabri, like his predecessor Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin when he first became prime minister, did not name a deputy prime minister, but chose to name four senior ministers.
The first among equals was of course Azmin, and his name was the first on the cabinet list. Azmin has to be satisfied with this – his threat to pull himself, and perhaps, 10 to 12 others out is not likely to result in the fall of the government.
For Ismail Sabri, it would serve him best if he did not appoint a deputy prime minister now – remember what happened to Muhyiddin when he appointed Ismail Sabri as his deputy? Forty-five days, later, he became prime minister. Also, delaying the deputy prime minister announcement will give him more choice further down the line.
Tellingly, next on the senior minister’s list is newly promoted Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, who switched back to defence. He has been strategically placed to become Umno or Ismail Sabri’s possible candidate for future prime minister, the way Ismail Sabri pipped Azmin for the deputy prime minister’s post to become prime minister after.
The other two senior ministers are GPS’ Datuk Seri Fadillah Yusof (works) and Bersatu’s Datuk Mohd Radzi Md Jidin (a senator, education). They do not really figure in the fight for the deputy prime minister’s post, not least because they are not from Umno.
If Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was not destined to become prime minister after coming close twice, his one-time good friend who betrayed him and is now his sworn enemy, Azmin, is perhaps not destined to be deputy prime minister after being twice so close. How fate plays its cards!
But, the sum total is that Ismail Sabri is firmly ensconced in the prime minister’s seat. He was not in any danger given PH’s support for him, provided he focuses on fighting Covid-19, and ensures economic recovery, judicial independence and institutional reforms.
Perhaps, Ismail Sabri wanted more insurance, and was not comfortable with the hold that PH would have over him if he relied on the coalition for his survival as prime minister.
He could have been braver and gone for a greater cabinet mix, but a good politician seldom takes risks that he really does not have to take, which makes him less of a statesman, often – a detriment to the nation. But, survival is the name of the game when the numbers are poised delicately on the edge of a blade.
It is a rather inane cabinet, with almost all ministers retained and some minor reshuffles. The one notable entry is a bad one: Shahidan into the powerful Federal Territories Ministry.
In November 2018, he was charged in court with molesting a 15-year-old girl. The report said he was charged under Section 14(a) of the Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017 (physical sexual assault on a child by touching any part of the child’s body). If convicted, he faced a jail sentence of not more than 10 years and whipping.
However, in April 2019, the charges were dropped when the victim withdrew her complaint.
Berita Harian reported that the decision by Kangar sessions court judge Ainul Shahrin Mohamad was made behind closed doors after hearing three witnesses, including the alleged victim.
“This case is over… There is no issue of appealing, and there were supposed to be six witnesses called in to give their statements,” the Arau MP’s lawyer Zamri Ibrahim was quoted as saying.
Meanwhile, Shahidan refused to comment on the decision then, saying: “I am fasting, I am a Muslim, and I abide by the decision.”
An inane cabinet aside, Ismail Sabri has made his first major gaffe as prime minister – why, oh why does he have to appoint Shahidan as head of an influential ministry where there are plenty of opportunities to grant favours? This ministry needs to be led by someone who is known to be incorruptible and competent.
There is nothing else earth-shattering in the cabinet announcement. Some shuffling has taken place here and there, and another new arrival is Umno vice-president Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid as head of the Rural Development Ministry, which controls Majlis Amanah Rakyat. A former Kedah chief minister, he previously served in the cabinet of Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
As a concession to Muhyiddin, Ismail Sabri let in the former’s adviser with ministerial status (appointed only on August 6) Datuk Seri Ahmad Faizal Azumu as youth and sports minister, another puzzling appointment.
Overall, it is largely a cabinet of appeasement of all parties, which does not upset anyone’s apple (durian?) cart, and for that reason, it is not likely to be effective unless Ismail Sabri can shake and stir things up.
That’s not his style. – The Vibes, August 27, 2021
P. Gunasegaram is fast losing whatever optimism he had for the new government. He is chief executive of Sekhar Institute and editorial consultant of The Vibes