In Umno pushback over Cabinet, a flash point for Muhyiddin to avoid

Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin during the announcement of the new Cabinet ministers at Perdana Putra in Putrajaya, March 9, 2020. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin during the announcement of the new Cabinet ministers at Perdana Putra in Putrajaya, March 9, 2020. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

KUALA LUMPUR, March 15 — Political observers see the pushback from Umno over the prime minister’s Cabinet selection as the first signs of trouble in Perikatan Nasional (PN) between the party and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.

Bersatu, which itself was founded by former Umno members, is the smallest party within the PN coalition and yet three of the five major ministries are helmed by Bersatu ministers.  

The sidelining of the party has expectedly ruffled the feathers of those within Umno, with the most recent comments coming from party leaders following their supreme council meeting on Thursday. 

Malay Mail spoke to several political analysts who agreed unanimously the relationship between Umno and Bersatu will be decidedly prickly in the future.

Universiti Teknologi Malaysia geostrategist Azmi Hassan said coalition partners were right to feel disgruntled with what he described as a disproportionate allocation of Cabinet positions to the biggest two parties, Umno and PAS, who came as an alliance together under the Muafakat Nasional (MN) banner. 

The professor pointed out that although Umno and PAS were also given important portfolios to placate and secure their loyalty, he questioned how long such measures would last. 

He also pointed out that the professional attitude of party members from both sides saw them “toe the line” and adhere to the PN leadership without major outcries.

“But again the question is, for how long Umno and PAS leaders can withstand disgruntled voices like Azalina and Bung?” he asked. 

Among those from Umno who have been vocal over the Cabinet posts are Kinabatangan MP Datuk Bung Moktar Radin and Umno Supreme Council member Datuk Seri Azalina Othman, who both questioned the allocations given to the party. 

Citing arithmetic, Azalina said Bersatu MPs only made up 28 per cent of Perikatan Nasional (PN), but gets one prime minister and two senior ministers, referring to Datuk Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali and Mohd Radzi Md Jidin.

Meanwhile, she said Umno only has one senior minister — Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri — despite making up 35 per cent.

Umno’s Pasir Salak MP Datuk Seri Tajuddin Abdul Rahman had said earlier this week that the appointment of Azmin as a senior minister in the new Cabinet makes him and others uncomfortable.

Yesterday, Umno vice-president Datuk Khaled Noordin expressed discontent with the party’s role in Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s Cabinet, saying it was not “subordinate” to Bersatu in the PN coalition.

Former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak also joined the chorus of discontent yesterday, clarifying that the PN government is not a Muafakat Nasional and Barisan Nasional (BN) government.

He said this therefore limits Umno’s support for the PN government.

“Many don’t understand that PN is not a Muafakat Nasional or Barisan National government.

“Therefore, our support for the PN government has limits,” he said in a Facebook posting.

Universiti Putra Malaysia political scientist Jayum Jawan warned that further tilting away from Umno could spell disaster. 

The professor said despite his best efforts, Muhyiddin’s attempt at placating all co-partners with Cabinet positions did not please everyone and may have instead caused disillusionment among coalition members. 

He said evidence that the coalition has yet to gel together can be seen from those complaining after being excluded from the Cabinet, and from the refusal to co-operate from some, with Jayum referring to Datuk Seri Tiong King Sing who turned down the position of deputy minister of national unity. 

“These are what PM-8 has to balance and consider as he juggles competing factors within the ruling coalition,” said Jayum, referring to Muhyiddin.

But senior fellow of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, Oh Ei Sun feels Umno is out to unsettle everyone until they reign supreme again, using their partnership in PN as leverage. 

He spoke of a certain level of confidence floating among Umno and PAS members to demand for themselves what was deemed as appropriate, only because of their alliance and strength in numbers under PN. 

“[Umno] would just keep on trying until they are at the captain’s seat. 

“They always have that option, because they, in combination with PAS would likely win such an election,” Oh said when asked if he sees Umno potentially rebelling to the point of demanding for a snap poll. 

Despite the repeated show of strength and pressure from Umno, Azmi believes Umno will not abandon PN as they, together with PAS, theoretically have the biggest influence in the local political scene. 

He said abandoning PN would only be detrimental to Umno as a party and its partnership with PAS, as both parties still have a point to prove that their PN coalition is one for all Malaysians and not only the Bumiputeras. 

“Umno needs to stamp their mark first in the PN government to demonstrate that Umno and PN are for all and not for the Malays only, since to govern Malaysia the PN mould is not strong enough to attract voters other than the Malays,” said Azmi. 

Jayum said in order to avoid PN disbanding, Muhyiddin as prime minister would have to clear several hurdles in the near future before, beginning with the vote of no-confidence intended to be tabled soon by the Opposition. 

“If he passes that, then he has the Budget to deal with, where he has to push through a Budget and if that fails, it means his leadership may also fall. 

“Assuming he survives both, PRU15 will be a major test of whether he will be returned,” he said. 

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