Malaysia's new PM retains finance minister, senior figures in cabinet

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob.
PHOTO: Facebook/ismailsabri60

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob unveiled his cabinet on Friday (Aug 20), re-appointing the finance minister and several others from the previous administration, in the hope of restoring political stability amid a Covid-19 crisis.

Ismail Sabri was sworn in as prime minister last week, succeeding Muhyiddin Yassin who had resigned after failing to cling onto a razor-thin majority in parliament. 

He takes charge as public anger grows over the government's floundering attempts to contain a surge in Covid-19 cases and revive an economy battered by extended lockdowns, with the central bank slashing its 2021 growth forecast twice this year.

Ismail Sabri named as finance minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz, who had held the post in Muhyiddin's administration.

He also named four senior ministers to head the international trade, defence, works and education portfolios, all of whom had served in the previous government.

"The formation of this cabinet is a re-formulation based on the current situation, in order to maintain stability and prioritising the interests and safety of the Malaysian people above all," Ismail Sabri said in a televised address.

He said each ministry will need to prove its early achievements within the first 100 days, adding that the government aimed to reopen economic activities in stages with the coronavirus expected to become endemic.

The Southeast Asian nation has the highest per capita Covid-19 infection rate in the region, with more than 1.6 million reported cases, including 15,211 deaths.

On Thursday, it reported a daily record of 24,599 new coronavirus cases and 393 fatalities.

Vaccination rates, however, have ramped up. Nearly half of Malaysia's 32 million population are fully vaccinated, including 60.2per cent of all adults.

Khairy Jamaluddin, who had spearheaded Malaysia's inoculation programme as science minister, will now be in charge of the health ministry, swapping portfolios with Adham Baba, who will oversee the vaccine roll-out next, Ismail Sabri said.

The presence of familiar figures in the cabinet line-up raised doubts on whether the new administration will be up to the task of avoiding the previous government's mistakes, amid public fury over its flip-flopping lockdown policies and failure to act against politicians who violated rules.

"It's not a reformulated cabinet, it's a sort of mutually reshuffled cabinet in the sense with the same old faces, mutually exchanging some ministerial portfolios," said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with Singapore's Institute of International Affairs.

"I don't keep a lot of hope on this new cabinet being able to perform any better than the last cabinet, because they are the same old people."

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Ismail Sabri's appointment saw the return of his party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), to the top office, after it was toppled in an election three years ago amid widespread corruption allegations.

He is Malaysia's third prime minister since the 2018 polls, after UMNO pulled its backing for Muhyiddin last month, citing his failure to manage the pandemic.

Analysts have said Ismail Sabri could face instability as well, with continued infighting within UMNO while coalition partners such as Muhyiddin's alliance have said its support for the new premier was conditional on him taking a strong stand against graft.

Several UMNO leaders were charged with corruption after the election, including president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and former premier Najib Razak, who remain influential figures within the party. Both deny wrongdoing.