Malaysia PM aims to rebuild trust with major cabinet reshuffle

Anwar Ibrahim spent almost a decade in jail after being convicted of sodomising a young male aide, allegations that supporters say were aimed at ruining his political career. (Photo: AFP/Roslan RAHMAN). Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 12, 2023, Reuters. Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim made major changes to his cabinet on Tuesday, appointing the chief of the country’s largest state pension fund as second finance minister in an effort to rebuild trust after a year in office, Reuters reported.

Anwar, who suffered a dip in public opinion polls in recent months amid concerns over the economy, inflation and the slow pace of promised reforms, said the economy, health and education were his government’s top priority.

“The ministry of finance, other than being headed by me, must have a strong professional team to ensure we are on the right track and focus on the economy,” Anwar, who is also finance minister, told a televised press conference.

He brought back the position of second finance minister, appointing to the job Amir Hamzah Azizan, the chief executive of the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF).

Taking over the foreign ministry from his former position at defence is Mohamad Hasan, a deputy president of one of Anwar’s allies, the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO).

Tuesday’s reshuffle split the energy transition and digital portfolios into separate ministries, taking the number of cabinet members to 31 from 28 previously.

A reshuffle was politically necessary and long overdue, said Adib Zalkapli, director of strategic adviser BowerGroupAsia, after a cabinet vacancy left by the death of a minister in July.

“By appointing the EPF CEO, (Anwar) is addressing the perception that the ministry has been neglected due to his other responsibilities as the prime minister,” he added.

Malaysia’s economic growth has slowed sharply this year from 8.7% in 2022 amid lower exports. While inflation has moderated, concerns remain over rising consumer costs, as the ringgit is one of Asia’s worst performing currencies this year.

Anwar heads a government formed of his progressive coalition, one-time rival UMNO, East Malaysian parties, and a number of smaller parties.

The latest survey by independent polling group Merdeka Center published last month saw Anwar’s approval rating drop to 50% from 68% in December last year, while approval of the government dipped to 41% from 54%.

Sentiment was largely driven by concerns over the economy, the Merdeka Center said.

The reshuffle moved Fadillah Yusof, a deputy prime minister, to the newly-created energy transition and public utilities portfolio from the commodities ministry.

Taking over as commodities minister is former finance minister Johari Abdul Ghani, who leads the government’s taskforce on matters related to a multibillion-dollar scandal at defunct state fund 1MDB.

Popular lawmaker Dzulkefly Ahmad returns to the post of health minister, in which he served from 2018 to 2020, amid a reported rise in COVID-19 infections in recent weeks.

The only cabinet minister dropped entirely was Human Resources Minister V. Sivakumar, who was replaced by Steven Sim, a former deputy finance minister.

But Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is co-deputy prime minister along with Fadillah, stays on.

In September, state prosecutors dropped 47 corruption charges against Ahmad Zahid, prompting some critics to voice concern over Anwar’s commitment to fighting graft.

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