BERSIH 2.0 Chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah takes issue with the PM’s cabinet ‘reshuffle’.
Prime Minister Najib Razak’s further expansion – “reshuffle” would be completely misinformation — of his already bloated cabinet demonstrates a serious malaise in Malaysian politics: public offices are treated as private spoils, to be shamelessly shared and used as instruments to purchase and reward loyalty.
With the six new additions, Najib’s frontbench now has a total of 62 members, namely 35 ministers (with PM and DPM each holding another portfolio) and 27 deputy ministers running 24 ministries.
Deducting six senators amongst them, Najib’s 56 frontbenchers make up a quarter of Dewan Rakyat, meaning every one out of four elected parliamentarians is on the government payroll.
Considering that the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional has only 134 parliamentarians, every two out of five BN parliamentarians is enjoying the power and perks of an executive office!
This is perhaps the worst record of ministerial office packing in Malaysia’s history.
While Abdullah’s administration in 2004 was larger, with a total of 75 ministers, deputy ministers and parliamentary secretaries, the BN then had 199 parliamentarians in the 219-member Dewan Rakyat, which means only one of three BN federal lawmakers was given a frontbench job.
This raises question whether the government is using executive offices to buy off its own parliamentarians to prevent backbench revolt.
That Najib’s supposed “cabinet reshuffle” ending up as “cabinet inflation”, with none of the underperforming ministers being dropped as rumuored, suggests that Najib is perhaps so weak within his party and coalition that he has no power to sack any minister or deputy minister.
Najib’s argument that his bloated cabinet is “unavoidable” is completely an insult to the public’s intelligence. Thanks to malapportionment and gerrymandering, Najib has controversially obtained a 47% mandate only to run the government, not to treat the government as his private property.
Cabinet bloating is not only avoidable, but it in fact must be avoided at all cost.
Ministers are appointed to serve the nation, not at the whim of the Prime Minister to pack his loyalists.
Every frontbench position must therefore have a justification, because they cost public money, and proliferation of ministries and ministerial positions may only burden the civil servants and decrease their efficiency.
Every Malaysian has every right to ask: why does Malaysia with a population of 30 million need 35 ministers to run 24 ministries (excluding PM and his Deputy), costing us RM5.9 million a year in their total pay?
When India with more than 1 billion people can do with 23 ministers, US with 317 million people can live by also 23 ministers, UK with 63 million people can go with also just 23 ministers, and Australia with 24 million can be run by just 18 ministers, why do we need 35 ministers (nearly twice the Australian size)?
Specifically, why do we need 10 ministers in the PM’s Department? With one more addition, they can even form a soccer team!
It’s time to break up and downsize the PM’s Department. If there are so many important portfolios to be managed, why aren’t they made ministries so that the ministers can run their own department? And why are there 10 ministers and 1 deputy minister?
The PM’s Department ministers now look like assistants to the PM and DPM, who place many important agencies under the Department and under their direct control. In fact, the expansion of the PM’s Department has weakened many ministries and the power of balance in Cabinet.
For example, the Transport Minister (incidentally just filled in this round of expansion) does not control land public transport from rails to buses because this is under the Suruhanjaya Pengangkutan Awam Darat (SPAD) which is under the PM’s Department.
It’s time to put a cap on the frontbench’s size. Why do we need two ministers in the Finance and Education ministries? Most of all, why should the PM double as the Finance Minister? In the Westminster system, the Finance Minister is supposed to provide a healthy check and balance on the PM by controlling the purse string of the government.
And it’s time to not just put a cap on, but also perhaps to cut, the size of Parliament.
Do we really need 222 parliamentarians when India with some 40 times our population can manage with 543 parliamentarians, US with some 10 times our population does well with 435 Representatives and Indonesia with some 8 times our population with 560 members of Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat?
Maybe we need. Maybe we don’t. We will need a debate on this – when were we last asked on how big the Parliament should be?
Certainly we need no further increase of parliamentary seats riding on electoral redelineation – which, without parliamentary reform, will only mean shorter time for each parliamentarian to speak and worse dysfunction as a legislature.
Politicians – whether in the ruling coalition or in the opposition, whether at federal or state level – must stop thinking that their mandate is a blank cheque to create jobs of ministers and parliamentarians for their party loyalists.
The business of bloating political institutions – whether it is the PM’s Department, the Cabinet or the Parliament – must stop.
Elected politicians are paid to run the countries, not to create jobs for their loyalists so that they can stay in power.
Even if legal, institution bloating is but another form of political corruption. Let’s not forget this malaise in our pursuit for free and fair elections and democracy for Malaysia.
Maria Chin Abdullah is the Chairperson for the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections 2.0 (BERSIH 2.0) and the Executive Director of Empower. She believes politicians are bad masters if not made good servants through free, fair and competitive elections.