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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

READYING FOR ELECTIONS?

No date yet, but the PM changes his team

By Tim Healy and Santha Oorjitham/Kuala Lumpur


IN EVALUATING THE LATEST cabinet shuffle by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, it is easy to picture a football coach fine-tuning his squad in advance of the big match. Newly installed as central defender, er, information minister, is Khalil Yaacob. He impressed recently in the Sabah election, helping to guide the ruling Mahathir-led coalition to victory in hotly contested polls. He also becomes secretary-general of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which is the dominant partner in the political coalition that rules Malaysia. And then there is Abdul Kadir Sheikh Fadzir, who has now been moved twice in less than five months. He is known for his urbane demeanor and ability to stay cool under fire. Abdul Kadir has become minister for culture, arts and tourism.

What big contest is Mahathir preparing for? National elections. They must be called before next June but could come as early as August or September because of a desire to take advantage of good economic news. And like any good team manager, the PM aims to field his best team when the contest finally comes. This may account for the resignation two weeks ago of former information minister Mohamed Rahmat, 61. Mohamed had reportedly criticized Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, wife of jailed former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, for not being qualified to lead Malays because she was ethnically Chinese. Bad move? Wan Azizah is broadly respected for her steadfast courage and dignity as her husband has been convicted of abusing his power while he was deputy PM. He recently filed an appeal that cited 29 grounds for overturning the conviction, though he still faces the first of five potential sodomy charges in a trial that starts June 7.

Wan Azizah has been quoted as saying her grandfather was a peranakan (Straits Chinese) descendant but she was raised Malay and Muslim. For his part, Mohamed claims that Anwar himself is the one who told him Wan Azizah was Chinese. No matter. Such issues are sensitive in Malaysia, and the information minister appeared to stumble as he first made the charge and then scrambled to support it. Says Rustam Sani, an academic with the University of Malaya and an Anwar ally: "This need to bring back the old ethnic approach to Malaysian politics shows desperation." The head of a government-linked think tank says Mohamed's comment, unsurprisingly, was not received well by Malaysia's ethnic-Chinese community. "But it was not a factor in his being removed," he contends. "The information ministry had been somewhat lacking in the dissemination of the government perspective on key issues." Mohamed has alienated many in K.L. over the years and has been rumored to be on shaky ground since at least 1997.

Mahathir's decision to appoint Khalil as Mohamed's replacement probably stems from the success of the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, in the Sabah elections in March. The coalition had always anticipated a dogfight. Thus, its victory in 31 out of 48 elected assembly seats was an upset. Khalil, the election operations chief for UMNO in Sabah who stayed out of the limelight while Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi received credit for the result, has now been paid his due. His willingness to keep a low profile may reflect his background as a skilled diplomat. Following his diplomatic career, he spent the last 13 years as chief minister of Pahang state.

The importance of the Sabah victory cannot be underestimated in evaluating the latest cabinet moves: two Sabahans, Pandikar Amin Mulia and Mohamed Shafie Apdal, figure in the promotions. Another defining characteristic: Former Anwar allies are in some cases elevated and in others simply left in peace. Abdul Kadir, 60, is a onetime Anwar ally. He replaces Sabbaruddin Chik, 58, who announced his resignation at the same time as Mohamed. Sabbaruddin denies that his resignation is connected to health problems, though he is known to need frequent dialysis. Khalil, 61, also was linked to Anwar - at least while the former deputy PM was still favored by his boss. Khalil organized Anwar's successful 1993 bid to become UMNO deputy president. Analysts say the strategy to treat former Anwar allies lightly sprung from the Sabah election, where all but a few former Anwar allies were UMNO candidates in a move that seemed to successfully co-opt a potential source of disruption.

Taken together, the recent cabinet moves represent more of a consolidation than a bold attempt to inject new blood into the cabinet. The head of securities research for a Kuala Lumpur brokerage says: "When most of us heard about the departures of Mohamed and Sabbaruddin, we thought much younger faces would move up. There had been pressure to give leeway to the younger politicians so that the younger voters would be represented. We were surprised it didn't happen. Instead, most of the new faces are about the same age as the old ones." With elections possibly only a few months away, the prime minister may not have felt it was the right time to start a youth side in the upper echelons of government.


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