Prime Minister Najib Razak appointed his cousin, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, "Minister with Special Functions" yesterday, a move that immediately set tongues wagging after recent discord between the Malaysian leader and his deputy, Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.
The use of the title is ominous, observers said, noting that the last time it was accorded was in 1998 to Tun Daim Zainuddin, just months before then Premier Mahathir Mohamad sacked his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, in a power struggle that nearly cost the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) an election the following year.
"This appointment will allow Datuk Seri Hishammuddin to execute his duty apart from his responsibilities as defence minister," Datuk Seri Najib said in a brief statement yesterday. He did not say what Mr Hishammuddin's new duty would be.
ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute visiting senior fellow Wan Saiful Wan Jan said: "Some are already suggesting that Najib is indicating to Zahid that the succession is not guaranteed to go his way because Hishammuddin could be a challenger too.
"There are already many ministers and deputy ministers in the Prime Minister's Department. What functions can be so special, such that nobody else can be trusted other than Hishammuddin?"
The appointment of Mr Hishammuddin - who, like Mr Zahid, is an Umno vice-president - comes amid growing talk that the relationship between Mr Najib and his deputy has become uneasy.
But the two would-be rivals were quick to dismiss any such intrigue yesterday, with Mr Hishammuddin noting that "Zahid has made a statement saying he himself accepts this".
Sources told The Straits Times that the deputy premier was aware of the appointment before it was announced and that he also expressed his support for Mr Hishammuddin to colleagues at the Home Ministry, which he leads.
Some Umno officials argued that both Mr Najib and Mr Zahid were trying to bolster Mr Hishammuddin's flagging political standing. He is still very much a trusted lieutenant.
Mr Zahid was elevated to deputy premier just two years ago, after Mr Najib sacked Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin for attacking the government over the scandal-plagued state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad. The move was seen as a bid to shore up Mr Najib's grip on Umno, as Mr Zahid commands widespread support in the party.
The appointment of Mr Hishammuddin - who like, Mr Zahid, is an Umno vice-president - comes amid growing talk that the relationship between Mr Najib and his deputy has become uneasy.
Notably, Mr Zahid's recent claim that the government would sponsor a controversial Bill to increase punishments in Islamic courts was shot down by the premier.