September 6, 2018
Malaysia: Prime Minister’s Prerogative, Good Governance or Sycophancy?
by A. Kathirasen
The word “prerogative” has got a roar in its very pronunciation and exudes gravitas, as it should, for it holds a distinctive place in our socio-political life. And the new ministers, it appears, have taken a liking to this word.
In forming his cabinet, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad gave both PKR and the DAP proportionately fewer places, even though these two Pakatan Harapan coalition partners won way more parliamentary seats than his own PPBM and Amanah. But everyone accepted it, at least in public, saying that it was the prerogative of the Prime Minister to appoint anyone to his cabinet.
On July 31, Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said, in talking about the life-span of the Council of Eminent Persons (CEP) that it was the prerogative of Dr Mahathir to extend the services of the CEP. The five-member CEP was formed by Dr Mahathir almost immediately after he was sworn in as Prime Minister on May 10 to advise him and his cabinet during the first 100 days of the new government.
The CEP has been meeting top civil servants, corporate leaders and NGO heads to get briefings so as to offer advice to the cabinet on the direction to take, particularly with regard to economic and institutional reforms. The first 13 members of the cabinet were only sworn in about two weeks after the May 9 general election, with the last member of the cabinet, P Waythamoorthy, sworn in after being appointed a senator on July 18.
On July 27, the Prime Minister’s Office said, in a statement regarding the resignation of the entire Khazanah board, including its managing director: “It is the Prime Minister’s prerogative to appoint the fund’s new board members, re-designation to other entities and retain some of them to allow for continuity.” Dr Mahathir said “the action of clearing the deck will allow restructuring as our policies are now different.”
On July 10, in talking about the appointment of a new executive chairman for the Malaysian Aviation Commission (Mavcom), Transport Minister Anthony Loke said: “I’ve recommended a name to the Prime Minister. It’s the prerogative of the Prime Minister to make the appointment.”
In June, several people, including PKR de facto head Anwar Ibrahim, said the choice of Tommy Thomas as the Attorney-general (AG) had to be respected as it was the prime minister’s prerogative.
I have some questions: Who gave the Prime Minister the prerogative to do all these things? Isn’t it a bad idea to give too much power to one individual, even if he is an experienced old hand like Dr Mahathir?
If such decisions are the prerogative of the Prime Minister, what role does the cabinet play? Isn’t the cabinet the main policy making body? Shouldn’t such vital decisions as to who should sit on the board of Khazanah or become the AG be collective decisions of the cabinet?
Here’s another example of the Prime Minister’s prerogative, which I think is taking things a bit too far. Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng said in June that the new government had decided that the Tun Razak Exchange project, initiated by the previous government, would continue. Asked if the name of the project would be changed, Lim replied that it was the prerogative of the Prime Minister, adding that he himself felt the name Tun Razak Exchange should be retained.
Didn’t the PH promise in its election manifesto to curtail the power of the Prime Minister and the government itself if it were to take over Putrajaya? Didn’t it say it wanted to limit the Prime minister’s tenure in office to two terms?
On the eve of polling day, in Langkawi on May 8, Dr Mahathir himself, in calling on voters to “save Malaysia”, said PH would limit the powers of government to ensure there was no abuse. He said Najib Razak had abused the vast powers.
Has there been a decrease in the power of the Prime Minister, almost 100 days into governance by PH? If anything, the powers appear more than intact. It appears as if coalition partners – including those vocal guys in the DAP and PKR – are silent on this. Perhaps they are happy to let him make the tough decisions or don’t want to rock the boat so early in the day.
What about the vocal NGOs? I know some individuals who were vocal previously have since joined PH, but what about the others?
It appears that only the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism is making noise in public. Its Executive Director Cynthia Gabriel questioned Dr Mahathir for appointing himself Khazanah Chairman and deciding who should sit on the board. She said such appointments should be left to an independent committee which could vet those proposed for positions to ensure there would be no conflict of interest. A logical argument, surely.
And although former finance minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah had no problem with Dr Mahathir as chairman when he said “the government has the prerogative to restructure the organisations which are under its control”, I thought he chose his words well. See, he did not say “prime minister”, he said “the government”.
The question arises then: Is the Prime Minister the government? I would like to think Dr Mahathir is making certain decisions on his own because PH has to deliver on its “within 100 days” promises to win the confidence and support of the people. Anyway, he is the only one who can pull off unpopular decisions with negligible or no fallout.
But Dr Mahathir himself has described how the previous government abused its powers to stifle dissent – it even prosecuted cartoonists – and to go after political opponents using instruments of government, including the Police and the tax official.
Do we want that to happen again? Dr Mahathir probably has good intentions; and certainly Prime Ministers may use their prerogatives wisely (?). But power has a way of seducing people. Who knows what this or the next Prime Minister or next government would do if there is no proper separation of powers and if too much power remains in the hands of a single individual or a coterie?
Another question: Was the decision to have another national car made by the cabinet or just Dr Mahathir? I hope no one says it is the prerogative of the Prime Minister.
A Kathirasen is executive editor at FMT.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.