On March 9, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced his cabinet after emerging as the country’s leader following a series of dizzying political realignments and developments. While the cabinet lineup suggests a focus on reassurance and continuity, it remains unclear if it will help the country overcome the more fundamental political and economic uncertainties that it continues to face.
As I have been noting in these pages, Malaysia has been plunged into political uncertainty over the past few weeks following a series of political realignments that effectively ended the Pakatan Harapan (PH) ruling coalition. PH came to power in a shock election in May 2018 following its unprecedented ouster of the Barisan Nasional, which had essentially governed the country since its independence. The recent developments saw Muhyiddin, a former deputy prime minister under the government of former Prime Minister Najib Razak of the BN, emerge as the country’s new premier with approval from the Malaysian king amid cries of foul play among ousted premier Mahathir Mohamad, former PH leaders such as Anwar Ibrahim, and segments of the Malaysian population.
On Monday, we saw Muhyiddin take another step as new premier with the announcement of his cabinet. The cabinet consisted of 31 new ministers within the coalition’s various parties in a development that was closely watched for a sense of how the current government is managing political dynamics as well as wider uncertainties about the country’s political future.
Unsurprisingly, the cabinet lineup suggested a mix of reassurance and continuity. In terms of domestic policy, the cabinet’s structure – which forgoes a single deputy prime minister in favor of several super ministers – as well as the presence of individuals such as former trade minister Mustapa Mohamed and CIMB chief Tengku Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz speaks to Muhyiddin’s effort to reassure those at home and abroad about where Malaysia is headed politically and economically. And while things may be less clear in terms of foreign policy, the selection of Hishammuddin Hussein, who previously served as defense minister under Najib, suggests a return to the pre-PH days while raising questions about the future prospects for official documents that have been released, including the foreign policy framework and the defense white paper.
Whether or not this reassurance and continuity will be sufficient, however, is uncertain. While the cabinet lineup may provide some measure of temporary reassurance, it cannot in and of itself eliminate wider political uncertainty within Malaysia, with Muhyiddin having pushed back parliament’s sitting until May and continued discontent among some quarters about the collapse of the PH coalition. Until the dust settles on this front, some measure of uncertainty will continue to persist.
Furthermore, while a cabinet lineup can play more of a role in helping ease some domestic political concerns, it has much less of an influence on external developments that play into uncertainties about Malaysia’s future direction. Economically, for instance, it is worth noting that Malaysia’s political crisis has only deepened anxieties in place even before it occurred, with GDP growth having slowed to its lowest level in a decade last year and the central bank warning of economic concerns emerging from the coronavirus and falling oil prices.
Of course, all this is not to dismiss the attempt at reassurance that Malaysia’s new cabinet signals. But it does mean that even as we see the new Malaysian government continue to do its best to stabilize the country’s political and economic situation through a series of measures, their significance should be evaluated in line with broader developments and dynamics beyond periodic announcements and headlines.