Malaysia's Perikatan Nasional tightens grip on govt agencies

In power for a month, it is now replacing people in key positions appointed by ousted Pakatan govt

Malaysia's month-old Perikatan Nasional (PN) government has ordered a raft of changes at various state agencies in recent weeks, dumping those appointed during the 21-month term of its predecessor Pakatan Harapan (PH).

The changes come amid the Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin-led alliance's fight against the coronavirus crisis even as it is battling for political control, having come to power after a week-long saga at the end of February when the virus outbreak was still in its infancy.

Sources familiar with the changes told The Straits Times they were necessary to appease supporters from a wide range of political bases whose factions were not rewarded with ministerial posts. The PN government has taken flak for having 70 ministers and deputy ministers, far more than the 55 under PH.

"They have to prepare for the Bersatu party election and a confidence vote in Parliament," said a source. A parliamentary sitting has been slated for May 18.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin, the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia president, is locked in a battle with former premier Mahathir Mohamad for control of the party, although the polls have been postponed until after June due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

He is being challenged for the party presidency by Kedah chief minister Mukhriz Mahathir, whose father Tun Dr Mahathir was returned unopposed as chairman during nominations last month. The party structure divides decision-making power between the chairman and president.

PN was formed after most Bersatu lawmakers and a faction from Parti Keadilan Rakyat joined forces with parties from the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition - which was ousted at the 2018 election - and Islamist outfit PAS.

Many of those who rose up the ranks at state agencies and government-linked companies during the Najib Razak administration from 2009 to 2018 are now expected to make a comeback.

Official sources said Khazanah Research Institute (KRI) chairman Nungsari Ahmad Radhi was told to leave the think-tank - run by sovereign wealth fund Khazanah - after penning an open letter along with Dr Muhammed Abdul Khalid, the economic adviser to Dr Mahathir, criticising the government's approach in handling the pandemic.

Former economic and finance minister Nor Mohamed Yakcop is to replace Dr Nungsari and return to the role he gave up in 2017 after taking responsibility for the central bank's RM31.5 billion foreign exchange losses in the 1990s during a politically charged Royal Commission of Inquiry into the issue.

ST also understands that Tan Sri Bakke Salleh was asked to vacate the chairmanship of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB).

Sources familiar with the changes told The Straits Times that they were necessary to appease supporters from a wide range of political bases whose factions were not rewarded with ministerial posts. The PN government has taken flak for having 70 as ministers or deputies, far more than the 55 under PH.

Mr Bakke was one of the few figures to emerge from the 1MDB debacle with credibility, having resigned as chairman of the state investment firm after US$700 million (S$1 billion) was diverted from its accounts in a dubious joint-venture with PetroSaudi in 2009.

KRI, Khazanah, MPOB and Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Khairuddin Razali did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, Tan Sri Muhyiddin and new Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz were appointed Khazanah directors on Wednesday, along with Datuk Azlan Hashim, who was part of the en bloc resignation of the sovereign wealth fund's board in 2018 after coming under pressure from the Mahathir administration to step down.

Mr Azlan was one of six members of the investment panel of Kumpulan Wang Persaraan or Kwap - an asset manager tasked with easing the government's pension burden - which approved RM4 billion in loans to a former 1MDB subsidiary SRC International amid alleged pressure by then Premier Najib.

Najib is now facing trial over allegations that RM42 million was siphoned from SRC.

Prior to the Movement Control Order on March 18, the Cabinet decided to sack Majlis Amanah Rakyat or Mara chairman Hasnita Hashim, a respected banker who chairs Maybank's asset management arm.

The entire council of corporate figures put in place by PH to restructure the agency tasked with aiding the Malay majority and Malaysia's indigenous tribes in business and industry was also sacked.

It had been mired in questionable dealings under BN when led by Umno MP Annuar Musa, who is now Federal Territories Minister.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2020, with the headline 'Malaysia's Perikatan Nasional tightens grip on govt agencies'. Subscribe