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Malaysia in transition

Malaysian reforms give economy ministry new powers

Some prime ministerial authority transferred to parliament for better balance

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad chose to shift some of the authority from his office to the Ministry of Economic Affairs. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

KUALA LUMPUR -- The Malaysian government announced the full list of its cabinet ministers on Monday along with sweeping changes to the bureaucracy, including the transfer of some of the prime minister's decision-making power to the Ministry of Economic Affairs and parliament.

As part of the ruling party's election promise to make institutional reforms, the Prime Minister's Department -- a powerful bureaucracy of more than 80 agencies -- has been reorganized with an independent parliament taking over some of its functions. 

The department, which comes directly under the purview of the prime minister, who is being assisted by two ministers, has seen more than 60 of its agencies merged, transfered or scrapped effective Sunday. 

Among the agencies gaining independence are the offices for anti-graft, election, judicial appointment and human rights. These offices will now report directly to parliament, a move intended to ensure their competence and freedom from political influence. When they were in the opposition, some lawmakers in the current government, including Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, complained about political influence over the anti-graft and election agencies. 

The Ministry of Economic Affairs, a new portfolio created by Mahathir, has been given a wider role, overseeing the important Economic Planning Unit which is responsible for short and long-term development planning. Headed by Azmin Ali, a former provincial leader and an ally of Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister, the ministry also looks after state fund Ekuiti Nasional and state agricultural land development body FELDA. 

Some of these agencies, including the one responsible for Malaysia's Bumiputra affirmative action policy that favors the majority ethnic Malays, were previously parked either in the Prime Minister's Department or the Ministry of Finance but are now being absorbed into the Ministry of Economic Affairs. The move illustrates a shift in the balance of power to prevent a single ministry from morphing into a mammoth bureaucracy with power concentrated under its minister.

Former Prime Minister Najib Razak oversaw the Prime Minister's Department and headed the Ministry of Finance, giving him control over a wide range of agencies under these two portfolios, including the appointment of bureaucrats.

Among the new cabinet appointments, 13 ministers were sworn in by the country's monarch on Monday, bringing the total number of ministers in the Mahathir government to 27. This is eight fewer than the previous government, in line with Mahathir's plan for a leaner cabinet and more efficient processes as the budget is tightened.

The new ministers, some of whom are lawyers and engineers, were selected from parties within the Pakatan Harapan, or the Alliance of Hope, which won the May 9 election. They include former deputy minister Saifuddin Abdullah, who heads the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Saifuddin, known as a progressive politician, advocates youth empowerment and social entrepreneurship. 

Saifuddin Abdullah was appointed to Minister of Foreign Affairs on July 2. (Photo by Ying Xian Wong)

Meanwhile, Darell Leiking, a lawyer by training, takes over the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. The cabinet also includes young politicians including the 25-year-old Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman who is taking the helm at the Ministry of Youth and Sports, and 35-year-old Yeo Bee Yin who heads the Ministry of Energy, Technology, Science, Climate Change and Environment.

"On the whole, Mahathir's cabinet has among the strongest credentials of professionals in Malaysia's history and represents the diversity of the coalition," said Bridget Welsh, a political scientist at John Cabot University in Italy.

James Chin, a professor at the University of Tasmania, said that although the government consists of ministers without prior experience, he is hopeful this new talent will generate new ideas.

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