SINCE the 8 March elections, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has been dubbed a prime minister-in-waiting by many. This never happened with Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, Lim Kit Siang, Datuk Fadzil Noor, Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang, or Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah. Such recognition shows how far Malaysia has come in readying for an end to Umno’s 53-year rule.
However, if Anwar is a prime minister-in-waiting, where are his ministers-in-waiting? He can’t rule the country by himself, right? He needs not only the numbers to form a sustainable parliamentary majority, but also a quality team to form a competent cabinet.
No one is suggesting that the Pakatan Rakyat lacks old hands and young blood who can do a better ministerial job than their Barisan Nasional (BN) counterparts. The question is, who, and for which ministry?
Mismatch of talents can cause havoc, and Malaysians deserve to know that this will not happen. Appointing shadow ministers will in fact provide potential future ministers with on-the-job training before they actually take over.
An announcement of a shadow cabinet line-up is therefore the most basic thing to do for the sake of competence, accountability and transparency.
So why is there no shadow cabinet nearly nine months after the elections? Will there be one before the next elections, after which Malaysia may actually see a new government? If yes, why can’t we just have it now?
The case for a shadow cabinet
A shadow cabinet is a common feature in mature parliamentary democracies. It exists because, in theory, a government can easily collapse by losing the confidence of Parliament.
So, if any new government is to be installed immediately without having fresh polls, it is only responsible of and reasonable for any party intending to replace the existing government to prepare its lineup.
Now, isn’t replacing the existing government what the Pakatan Rakyat has focused its energies on in the past nine months?
There are many good reasons why building a shadow cabinet — which has never happened in Malaysia at the federal level — is important for both the opposition coalition and the nation.
Firstly, it results in division of labour and specialisation. For many years, Malaysia’s parliamentary opposition leaders acted as if they were all-rounders who knew about each and every ministry while none of their colleagues knew authoritatively about any.
While the age of a one-person shadow cabinet is gone, it is not enough to have several opposition parliamentarians who are able to speak on many things. They need to speak well, on behalf of their coalition, on only one thing each. Specialisation will make them do a better job, both as watchdogs and as alternatives to the ministers they shadow.
Secondly, based on the principle of collective responsibility, a shadow cabinet helps build a cohesive coalition. After all, you can only have one policy on one matter or issue. This will force the different opposition parties to settle for minimum common denominators when spelling out the practical details of policies, instead of emphasising differences through abstract ideological principles and dogmas.
What does this mean for citizens, businesses, and foreign players? Well, you’d be able to know which politician from which party will handle which ministry on what position. Whether or not you like the portfolio holders, it reduces uncertainty. In other words, the opposition’s preparation to rule increases political stability. Isn’t this of utmost importance in present trying circumstances?
Thirdly, while this may not bode well in relaxing the overcentralised federation in the future, a shadow cabinet can be the Pakatan Rakyat’s tool at this stage to coordinate the five state governments.
A Pakatan Rakyat federal government would need to deal with conflicts of interest between, for example, Kedah and Penang, or to synchronise policies on land titles or freedom of information. Similarly, a Pakatan Rakyat shadow cabinet can start doing this now. As the Pakatan Rakyat state governments are currently heading in increasingly different directions, the need for a shadow cabinet to function as a forum to sort out interparty and interstate conflicts is greater than ever. No irregular powwows of chief ministers or lawmakers can fill that void.
Fourthly, a shadow cabinet creates a career path within the opposition parliamentary contingent. Opposition frontbenchers must be separate from opposition backbenchers like leagues A and B in sports or the main board and second board in share markets.
In other words, frontbench positions must be the prizes sought, with real prospects to become ministers in the event of governmental change. This may in fact strengthen the Pakatan Rakyat — the shadow ministers would need to persuade their party colleagues to support the coalition’s common positions. Otherwise they would have to resign, or the coalition has to collapse.
Meanwhile, opposition backbenchers would need to learn their roles in both supporting their frontbenchers and competing with them in the hope of replacing them in the future. A shadow administration must therefore not include every opposition parliamentarian, despite strong temptation to appease factions and individuals.
Currently, it has been claimed that the three Pakatan Rakyat component parties have assigned their parliamentarians to oversee one or more ministries. Hence there are three “shadow ministers” for each ministry, with no opposition parliamentarians left over as backbenchers. This is lame and mocks the idea of a shadow cabinet. A working shadow cabinet must facilitate competition between the government and opposition, and within the opposition.
What’s holding Anwar back?
It is unlikely that Anwar, his advisors or aides do not know the benefits of a shadow cabinet. But he could be held back by two considerations: the need to bait defectors, and the worry of interethnic and interparty backlash.
The first concern, if it indeed exists, is flawed. Like cabinets, shadow cabinets can be reshuffled from time to time. True, not forming a shadow cabinet may prevent the possible defectors from feeling that all positions have already been taken. But it may also prevent potential defectors from imagining their places in the shadow minister line-up. In other words, a shadow cabinet may help persuade the opportunists that the game is real and they must act fast.
In contrast, the second concern appears to be real. There are potential shadow ministers who could be appointed based on competence, such as Tony Pua (DAP–Petaling Jaya Utara), one of the main persons behind the shadow budget, as shadow second finance minister; and R Sivarasa (Parti Keadilan Rakyat–Subang) as shadow law minister. However, these appointments may invite attacks from Umno or even from PAS.
On the other hand, allocating portfolios on pure ethnic and party quotas would make the Pakatan Rakyat a mere BN lookalike.
Anwar will face attacks from at least one side, if not both, for not doing enough either way. This may even trigger power struggles within the Pakatan Rakyat component parties.
Party alternation or regime change?
If this is the case, why should Anwar court trouble now? Doesn’t the saying go, “Don’t trouble trouble until trouble troubles you”?
The answer is simple: Anwar cannot be a good prime minister-in-waiting without having good ministers-in-waiting. How long can he run away from the task? If he cannot present an alternative team to run the country before the next elections, can we really trust him to lead the country? By the way, the DAP predicts that elections will be called within a year after Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s succession as prime minister.
Trapped in the idiom of Umno’s wayang kulit politics, many Malaysians believe political change is all about schemes, conspiracies, and behind-the-scenes negotiation; change has no room for upholding democratic norms.
This is plain wrong. You can bring “change of government” — like dynastic changes in Chinese and European empires — through political deals in smoke-filled rooms, or shows of strengths in the barracks or the streets. But you can’t bring “party alternation” — what “two-coalition politics” is really about — and genuine democratisation along with that. By definition, democracy is so public that it cannot be delivered through private dealings.
So why should we tell Anwar to deliver Malaysians his shadow cabinet before any more calendar games? To borrow from an advertisement for cosmetics: “Because we’re worth it.”
A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat uses the Federal Constitution as his “bible” to fend off the increasingly intolerable evil called “state”.