Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak yesterday shook up his Cabinet, removing detractors, including his deputy, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who had openly criticised the government's handling of allegations of abuse of public funds by state investor 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Datuk Seri Najib replaced Mr Muhyiddin with Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, an Umno vice-president who is popular in the party. The move was seen as an attempt to ease any potential fallout within Umno over the removal of its deputy president.
The government also removed Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail as Attorney-General, citing the ill health of the lawyer who had led a high-level probe into allegations that money linked to 1MDB was deposited in Mr Najib's personal accounts.
"I can accept differences of opinion and criticism as part of the decision-making process. But as a Cabinet minister, differing views and opinions should not be aired in public forums that can negatively impact the perception of the government and nation. It is also contrary to the concept of collective responsibility," Mr Najib said during a live telecast on the Cabinet reshuffle.
"The decision to replace Tan Sri Muhyiddin was a difficult one, but I was forced to do so to ensure the Cabinet is a united team," he added.
Dramatic day in Kuala Lumpur
10.45am: Attorney-General Abdul Gani Patail is removed.
1pm: New Police Special Branch director named.
1.45pm: Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and four other ministers sacked. Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is made Deputy PM.
3.30pm: Public Accounts Comm-ittee probe into 1MDB suspended.
4pm: Mr Muhyiddin defends his criticism on 1MDB issue.
Mr Najib also dropped Rural and Regional Development Minister Mohd Shafie Apdal, an Umno vice-president whose public statements have been aligned to those of Mr Muhyiddin.
Mr Muhyiddin has repeatedly called for stronger action concerning 1MDB, and on Sunday delivered a scathing speech at an Umno divisional meet, saying the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition would lose an election if it were called now due to 1MDB, which has racked up RM42 billion (S$15 billion) in debt in its first five years of operations. He had also called on Mr Najib to explain the issues clearly, instead of asking the public to wait for investigations to be completed.
Chief Secretary to the Government Ali Hamsa said in a statement that Federal Court judge Mohamed Apandi Ali is now the country's top lawyer. When contacted by The Straits Times, Mr Abdul Gani, who has been battling a kidney ailment, said: "I can't speak right now, I have matters to sort out."
Mr Najib also dropped three other ministers and appointed seven new faces in his mid-term reshuffle - which had been widely expected for weeks - making the 37-member team the largest.
Just hours after he was dropped from Cabinet and with newsmen camped outside his residence in the leafy upscale suburb of Damansara Heights, Mr Muhyiddin issued a brief statement, insisting that he had always been loyal to Mr Najib and that it was the Prime Minister's prerogative to choose his own Cabinet. But he defended his critical comments about 1MDB.
"In the 1MDB issue, I have principles and my own stand in defending the rights of the public, the good name of the party, and the national interest. If my stand in this issue has caused me to be sacked from Cabinet, then I accept it," he said.
In another major move, Mr Najib yesterday appointed Parliament's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) chief Nur Jazlan Mohamed as the new Deputy Home Minister. He had led the bipartisan panel probing 1MDB and was to interview the company's top executives next month. His appointment, along with two other members of the PAC as deputy ministers and one as a minister, will result in a temporary halt to the committee's probe on 1MDB, he said.
The Home Ministry, led by new Deputy Prime Minister Zahid, also replaced the director of the police's Special Branch, which is in charge of intelligence gathering.
Coupled with the dropping of Mr Abdul Gani, these changes are likely to have a major impact on a Special Task Force investigating the 1MDB allegations.
The moves yesterday were widely condemned by government critics, with some questioning whether Mr Abdul Gani was dropped because he was on the verge of filing charges over the 1MDB case.
A group of 17 opposition MPs said they would move a vote of no-confidence against Mr Najib, but set no timeframe. Prominent civil activist Ambiga Sreenevasan - who led reform group Bersih in street rallies - said Mr Najib's changes compounded the political crisis and warned demonstrations could follow.
Developments yesterday also dominated social media in the country with most comments generally critical of Mr Najib. One analyst expected some respite for the Prime Minister but not for long.
Pollster Ibrahim Suffian from the Merdeka Centre said: "In the short term, this has thwarted the intentions of those trying to unseat him. However, it is a long road to regain the political capital (lost) by the economic issues, GST (goods and services tax) and the 1MDB saga."
NEWS ANALYSIS by Reme Ahmad: Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak has struck a hammer blow against his critics... But in doing so, he has likely started a bigger war that he can barely afford
Muhyiddin defends remarks on 1MDB