KUALA LUMPUR - The absence of Malaysia’s newly appointed International Trade and Industry Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz from Monday’s special Cabinet meeting has added to controversy surrounding his appointment, after a social media post speculated he was in Qatar to watch the World Cup.
Datuk Seri Zafrul, 49, has however clarified that he was in the United Arab Emirates for a business-related event. In an Instagram post on Tuesday, he said he was in Abu Dhabi accompanying Malaysia’s King, Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah to witness a signing ceremony involving national oil company Petronas and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.
The former finance minister from Umno has been in the spotlight since his controversial appointment to Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s Cabinet, despite failing to win a parliamentary seat in the November general election.
The well-connected Mr Zafrul, who is married to a member of a royal family, lost the Kuala Selangor seat to Datuk Seri Dzulkefly Ahmad, who is from the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition that PM Anwar leads. But Mr Dzulkefly, a former health minister, did not make it to the Cabinet.
“The inclusion of Zafrul despite the defeat should be separated, as his appointment does not come from the Umno quota. His nomination suggests that he may be nominated by a powerful unelected institution,” Professor Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist at Sunway University, Malaysia, told The Straits Times.
He was referring to the quota for allocating ministerial posts amongst the four key coalitions forming Mr Anwar’s unity government - PH, the Umno-led Barisan Nasional, Gabungan Parti Sarawak and Gabungan Rakyat Sabah.
Not being an elected lawmaker, Mr Zafrul had to be appointed a senator in order to serve as minister.
“As Malaysians have experienced four peaceful changes of government, and the public becomes more critical and vocal on government’s performance, Zafrul, whose tenure would end by December 2025 with the end of his senatorial second term, may lose his job early in a Cabinet reshuffle if he fails to deliver,” added Prof Wong.
Professor James Chin of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania said Mr Zafrul did not perform well in the last government as finance minister, and may not do well with another economy-related portfolio.
While this new appointment could be a second chance to prove himself, critics continue to focus on his lack of political legitimacy. “There are just so many question marks surrounding his appointment,” said Prof Chin.
Before joining politics, Mr Zafrul was the chief executive of Malaysian banking group CIMB. He was handpicked by Perikatan Nasional chief Muhyiddin Yassin in March 2020 to become finance minister.
Netizens have also questioned why the International Trade and Industry portfolio was given to Mr Zafrul instead of former health minister Khairy Jamaluddin, who also lost his parliamentary seat in November, but is regarded as a more capable minister for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and a promising Umno leader.
“What is the whole point of appointing someone who lost? I understand that this is a unity government, but the guy has already proven himself unworthy of a ministerial post, he truly underperformed,” said Facebook user Aisya Razak.
Another social media user Jessie Koh posted on Facebook: “I’m starting to have doubts in Anwar. He could have chosen KJ due to his performance as a health minister but instead, he chose this guy (Mr Zafrul).”
Mr Anwar has been mum on the issue, but Parti Keadilan Rakyat deputy president Rafizi Ramli defended the action of appointing certain individuals, including Mr Anwar as finance minister, saying it was a tough call to make and part of “extraordinary circumstances”.