By M Santhananaban
After a year in office, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim seems to have heard some of the misgivings about his first set of ministers.
His cabinet reshuffle, which includes the dismissal of one minister and the reinstatement of two outstanding ministers from the 2018 Pakatan Harapan cabinet, appears encouraging.
The addition of Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad and Gobind Singh Deo will boost the government’s health and digitalisation efforts.
Placing Steven Sim at the helm of the Ministry of Human Resources also inspires confidence.
Mohamad Hasan’s appointment as foreign minister is timely as Malaysia gets ready to assume the Asean chair.
The return of Johari Abdul Ghani to the cabinet suggests some ‘recycling’ which could help the “unity government”. He takes on the plantations and commodities portfolio. A qualified accountant, Johari was a sound second minister of finance in 2016-18. Even then, he foresaw challenges posed by the large allocations for salaries and emoluments in the federal budget.
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The appointment of Amir Hamzah Azizan, the CEO of the Employees Provident Fund (EPF), as second finance minister, is interesting. It suggests the PM wants to delegate some key responsibilities to someone accustomed to managing the nation’s largest public fund.
The difference for Amir Hamzah is that the government has to boost its revenue base to keep up with its rising salaries, pensions and debt servicing bill – almost a third of the annual budget. This is not sustainable in the medium or long term. The prime minister must listen to him.
The PM appears to appreciate the capable, non-controversial roles played by his key ministers – Rafizi Ramli, Mohamad Sabu, Ewon Benedick, Hannah Yeoh, Anthony Loke, Nancy Shukri and Tiong King Sing.
It is commendable that M Kula Segaran made a big sacrifice by accepting to serve in a lower capacity as deputy minister after serving as full minister.
Unity minister’s essential, expanded role
The Ministry of National Unity is undoubtedly the most important in this unity government. National unity is essential for the country to succeed.
Malaysia is in a state of crisis over its national unity and financial position. The country has to not only survive but prosper and progress. But when the problems of the fiscal deficit, federal government debt and strains to national unity are combined, a dismal and disturbing picture emerges.
Many of our brothers and sisters in Sabah and Sarawak feel alienated, even left out. They look at the Klang Valley, which has first world infrastructure. And then they contrast that with the shabby basic infrastructure in certain regions of the two Borneo territories.
This is an inherited problem from decades of misallocated public funds. What grates is that a sizeable chunk of these public funds comes from the oil and gas resources of Sarawak and Sabah.
Aaron Ago Dagang, who retains the national unity portfolio, has a new deputy. This ministry should assume a higher profile: it has a key role to play in enhancing national unity through new and imaginative projects.
The minister has to win back the confidence of the people of Sabah and Sarawak, reduce their sense of alienation and foster national unity.
For this, the minister should be made the chair of a new trusteeship council on oil and gas revenue, which should include the second finance minister and the minister for the economy.
This trusteeship council must aim to administer oil and gas revenue in a reasonable and transparent manner. One quarter of the revenue should go directly to Sabah and Sarawak, one quarter should be invested in a national sovereign equity fund, one quarter should be applied to settle the huge public debt and a quarter retained for annual budgetary purposes.
In this way, the PM would have initiated a process to build a proper sovereign wealth fund while addressing the trillion-ringgit debt issue. This would signal a clean departure from the excesses and murkiness of the four previous decades.
The Ministry of National Unity must also initiate dialogue with the various service commissions to recruit more Sabahans, Sarawakians and other minorities into the public service establishment.
This would allay apprehensions that the public service is dominated by a particular ethnic group. Confidence in the unity government would soar. It would also forestall the hopes of extremist religious groups to make headway in seizing national leadership.
Public service is about providing equal, efficient, effective and impartial service. So corruption, inefficiency and ‘leaks’ within the public service system must be addressed.
Malaysia’s 1.7 million public sector workforce is often regarded as the world’s largest in relation to the country’s population. It has one public sector employee for every 19-20 citizens.
When pension recipients are included, about 2.5 million Malaysians benefit from salaries, perks and pensions. This is a mammoth, mandatory and inescapable obligation for the government.
The government has to honour and meet this obligation the way it meets debt servicing requirements. The current impasse on pensioners being shortchanged has to be addressed quickly.
We must trust this politically savvy and stable government with an energised cabinet to steer the country into the next general election due by 2027.
The opposition has a role to play as well. It must provide positive parliamentary checks and balances instead of trying to unseat the government through back channels.
M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience