KUALA LUMPUR (Aug 24): Ahead of the announcement of the new Cabinet line-up later this week, speculation is rife on the possible names that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob will announce to help him steer the nation out of the current health crisis that has led to an economic downturn.

In particular, much attention is focused on who will be tasked with the Finance Minister's job. UMNO Youth chief Datuk Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki on Monday proposed UMNO deputy president Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan as a candidate.

According to Asyraf, the new finance minister must be someone who understands the issues faced by the rakyat, and “who can realise the public’s demand on current support measures such as loan moratorium, i-Citra (EPF withdrawal facility) and additional assistance packages”.

Mohamad, who was previously the Menteri Besar of Negeri Sembilan, is known to have started his career in the banking sector, where he held positions like manager at Arab Malaysian Merchant Bank Bhd and then general manager of Bank Bumiputera London (1988-1992), before moving into the corporate sector, where he led Cold Storage Malaysia Bhd as its chief executive officer, and then Cycle and Carriage Bintang Bhd as its managing director. He also previously chaired FIMA Group Bhd and was a member of Khazanah Nasional Bhd's board of directors.

Another name that has been touted is Datuk Seri Johari Abdul Ghani, who was Finance Minister II between 2016 and 2018.

While some quarters may think it is natural to have an UMNO member manage the country’s treasury, considering the political party has been entrusted with the premiership, others begged to differ, on account of proper check and balance.  

What happened at the controversial investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) under the administration of former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who also appointed himself as the finance minister then, is a stark reminder of what the absence or lapse of that check and balance can lead to. The fund, which issued billions of dollars worth of government-guaranteed debts, had huge sums stolen from it.

“It is less assuring for investors and market confidence for the prime minister and the finance minister to be from the same political party. This is given that the financial scandals associated with the party remain unresolved,” Dr Yeah Kim Leng, senior fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute of Southeast Asia told The Edge when contacted.

“Moreover, given that Budget 2022 is around the corner, it is desirable to have the previous finance minister [Tengku Datuk Seri Zafrul Aziz] see through the budget process that he had been intimately involved in.

“As a technocrat, the former finance minister is also more acceptable to ensure alignment to national rather than party interest, in some sense,” Dr Yeah added.

Socio-Economic Research Centre executive director Lee Heng Guie, however, thinks the ministerial candidate’s political party does not matter as much as his or her competency and experience.

“Regardless of which party that the new minister of finance comes from, he must have the competency and experiences in the fields of finance, economics, industry that he is responsible for. The minister of finance can also come from the corporate sector,” Lee said.

Transparency International Malaysia president Dr Muhammad Mohan also does not see political party affiliation as an issue.

“There is nothing wrong with this suggestion, as long as the person is eminently qualified and most importantly, he must demonstrate a high level of integrity. What is the point of having a finance minister from another coalition party if he cannot be transparent, lacks integrity and lacks accountability?” Dr Muhammad said.

“What is most important is to put efficient ministers who are clean with no pending court cases, and they should be accountable for what they do and with high integrity. Getting a clean and efficient team is important for the prime minister to start well,” he added.

The bigger concern is for the new finance minister to ensure there is no political appointment in the government-linked companies (GLCs), and to appoint technocrats instead, he said.

“There are many qualified technocrats available to lead our GLCs. The finance minister should stand firm on this issue, even if he has to go against the PM if this government is serious about reforms,” Dr Muhammad said.

Additionally, Dr Muhammad said Transparency International hopes that the prime minister will downsize the previously bloated Cabinet.

Likewise, Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) external relations director Dr Zokhri Idris said "there is no proven conflict of interest" if a prime minister and finance minister comes from the same party. What matters, he said, is the capability and fitness of the incoming finance minister in steering the country through the twin pandemic crises involving public health and the economy.  

Dr Zokhri is also of the view that stability of the new government is a key priority when it comes to the new Cabinet appointments. "The prime minister should manifest his coalition’s stability when leading the Cabinet. Stability is key for the government to rule and to implement policies. If the Cabinet’s formation shakes the stability of the coalition, we might face another political impasse," he said.

Dr Zokhri further pointed to the capabilities and synergy of the wider Cabinet line-up as a determinant to the quality of delivery.

"The flaw of [former prime minister] Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin's Cabinet is the disconnect between the size of the Cabinet and the quality that it can deliver. There was no synergy between the ministers, which led to poor coordination during the national crises.

"We agree that the abnormality of national circumstances is still going on, needing extraordinary measures from the Cabinet to weather the pandemic. All ministries share an equal role to handle the pandemic, based on each portfolio. Each minister should chair a task force within each ministry to oversee issues of the people on a daily basis," he added.

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