Viewpoint: The Fearless Deputy

This posting was extracted from the blog of KITA president, Datuk Zaid Ibrahim.

Someone asked me if there is a power struggle going on in UMNO right now. I said no, only in the Cabinet.

This poser was perhaps brought about by the way Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has skilfully contradicted Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Razak on several important issues.

When the PM promoted the idea of 1Malaysia, the DPM countered with his now notorious statement: “I am Malay first”. 

It seems the PM didn’t know what to say in reply. Many people know that the PM would have liked Science and Mathematics to continue to be taught in English (as it should be), but his Deputy, who is also Education Minister, decided otherwise.

Najib recently made another sensible decision to accommodate – or at least to recognise – some of the concerns raised by Bersih. He has decided that a Parliamentary Select Committee should look into the many complaints in the way elections are being conducted in our country. Not surprisingly, his Deputy quickly reminded him that very little was wrong with the process. It just needed a little “tweaking”, Muhyiddin said.

Now this is not the first time that a Minister in the Cabinet has openly challenged a PM in Malaysia. It happened even in the most recent administration before this one: when Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was PM (this was soon after the 2008 General Election), Muhyiddin called on him to step down. He used the phrase “peralihan kepimpinan” — change of leadership. And he did so not once but many times. It was a sorry sight to hear Pak Lah telling Muhyiddin “sabar lah”. Be patient.

Muhyiddin was probably emboldened by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed, who joined the fray and openly discredited and ridiculed the man he himself had endorsed to lead the country. I believe had Pak Lah reshuffled his cabinet post 2008 to show that the Cabinet was his, he would still be PM today. Sure enough, they took him out soon after.

In the Westminster system of Government, the PM is always the real power. The Cabinet are his advisors. This is why it’s normal for Prime Ministers in other Westminster-based countries to reshuffle their Cabinets whenever they feel that effective government will be compromised without such a change. The Prime Minister is responsible, as head of the ruling party, to make sure that the right policies are implemented. In an ideal situation, the Ministers serve to advise the PM on how these policies should be executed, and they bear responsibility for this.

When there is a charismatic or strong PM, Cabinets can sometimes become overshadowed and individual Ministers might resemble mere “extensions” of the PM’s will. We have seen it here for many years, and Dr Mahathir practised it to perfection. He would not even allow Tun Musa Hitam (the first of his many deputies) to share in the name of the administration: does anyone remember the “2M” Government?

In many ways Dr Mahathir was right. There can be only one captain of the ship. It is not for the PM to agree with his Ministers, but for the Ministers to carry out the vision of the PM in the form of policy. This is why any Minister who disagrees strongly enough with the PM over a particular decision or policy should resign, as I did. This is the convention practised in all Commonwealth countries.

It is a matter of principle and conviction in more than one way: any Minister worthy of that title should not compromise on his or her personal convictions for the sake of expedience, and at the same time the Minister must recognise that he or she cannot possibly serve the team – the government – in the best possible way if a fundamental disagreement is left to fester. So, when two basic loyalties come into conflict – that is, loyalty to one’s own beliefs, versus loyalty to one’s government-of-the-day – the only acceptable solution that will preserve the honour and integrity of both is for the Minister to resign.

Is history repeating itself? I hope not, but the PM must lead. He must show us clearly who is boss. His Ministers are his subordinates in Government. The Cabinet is not the Politburo of the Central Committee. Party positions are irrelevant in the Cabinet system. Government is about running the country, not paying off political loans.

If the PM wants to be remembered as the leader who transformed Malaysia, he must draw lines in the sand clearly enough for all his Cabinet colleagues to see. And they must all understand that they cross these lines at their peril.

Malaysia today faces many real challenges. The people are looking for leadership. They will not understand – nor will they follow – a leader who is repeatedly refuted, corrected, contradicted or rebuffed publicly by any Minister, for such an individual is no leader at all.

The PM must be resolute and stay the course of change. If he can do this, he will surely be rewarded with the support of the people.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Catholic Lawyers Society Kuala Lumpur. CLS makes no representation concerning, and does not guarantee the source, originality, accuracy, completeness or reliability of any statement, information, data, finding, interpretation, advice, opinion, or view presented.

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