Spotlight - Malaysia: December 21, 2023

On December 12, just over a year into his government, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim reshuffled his cabinet, switching portfolios, creating new positions and ministries, and bringing in familiar faces from the 2018 Pakatan Harapan (PH) government in the hopes of regaining popularity and forging a more effective government.

Anwar’s popular stance on the conflict in Gaza has not proven to be sufficient in softening critics, with Malaysian voters remaining confused over the government’s messaging and doubtful of its actions. The country’s growth has descended abruptly from 8.7 percent in 2022 due to lower exports. Meanwhile, concerns remain regarding rising costs, with inflation up more 2 percent this past quarter, and poor currency performance.

The new cabinet counts 31 ministers, up from 28. The Ministry of Communications and Digital has been restructured into the Ministry of Communications and the Ministry of Digital. Gobind Singh Deo, a high-profile defense lawyer from the Democratic Action Party (DAP), will lead the former. Meanwhile, Fahmi Fadzil will focus only on digital communications after having stirred several controversies involving the censorship of opposition-friendly media, and the creation of a “kill switch” to cut off electricity during concerts if artists do not comply with Malaysia’s moral values.

The Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment, and Climate Change has been divided into the Ministry of Energy Transition and Public Utilities and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Sustainability. Nik Nazmi will remain as minister of natural resources and sustainability. Former minister of foreign affairs Zambry Abddul Kadir, a leading figure in the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and former state minister of Perak, will move to the newly formed Ministry of Higher Education, an offshoot of the Ministry of Education. 

Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the UMNO president recently cleared of his 47 charges of corruption and abuse of power, has now also become director of the National Disaster Management Agency (NADMA), in addition to already holding the Ministry of Rural Development portfolio. The efficiency of NADMA has been questioned recurrently over its failure to adequately deliver help during major floods. The Ministry of Rural Development is a huge political boon for UMNO, as it traditionally serves as a base for disseminating party ideology in rural areas through the primary school system and other institutions managed by the ministry.

Fadillah Yussof, also a deputy prime minister, will now concurrently serve as the minister of energy transition and public utilities. He is also now the minister in charge of Sabah and Sarawak affairs, in a context where Sarawak is claiming more and more autonomy and where the seats of both states could make the government majority tip at any time.

Johari Abdul Ghani has become minister of plantation and commodities, to the surprise of many observers who expected to see him taking on the finance portfolio. The UMNO vice president also sits on the Malaysia Economic Council, has held a number of finance or business-related positions in the corporate and public sectors, and is known for his experience in the finance portfolio under previous administrations.  Johari could be a future candidate for prime minister, and a positive performance at the Ministry of Finance would further highlight Anwar’s own failures in managing the portfolio. Johari is also the second largest shareholder of Media Prima, the country’s largest media company and owner of several print and television outlets.

Finally, this new cabinet sees the return of Dzulkefly Ahmad, former minister of health during the 2018 Mahathir administration. He will return to lead the same ministry, while Zaliha Mustafa has been moved to the Federal Territories portfolio in the Prime Minister’s Department. Dzulkefly will have to face strong critics of the recent delisting of liquid nicotine as a scheduled poison under the Poison Act (1952).

Sophie Lemière is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.