THE Pakatan Rakyat (PR)’s plan to set up special panels to “shadow” each of Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s cabinet ministries has stirred up debate over whether such a move would serve a real purpose. This arrangement appears superficially similar to the idea of an opposition shadow government that certain quarters have been clamouring for the PR to establish.
Predictably, Barisan Nasional (BN) leaders have been dismissive about the move, with Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin saying it was a power-grab plan. In an editorial on 14 April titled Pembangkang terus berkhayal, Utusan Malaysia editor Zulkiflee Bakar even called it an attempt by Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim to “drag the people into his fantasy realm.”
Is a shadow cabinet merely the dream of a power-hungry opposition? How important is it for a mature democracy?
According to political analyst Ong Kian Ming, the concept of a shadow cabinet first emerged from the United Kingdom — after whose parliamentary democracy Malaysia’s own is modelled — in the 18th century.
“It was in recognition of the right of members of parliament (MPs), who were not part of the ruling coalition, to oppose the policies of the government of the day, and still remain loyal to the institutions of power,” Ong explains.
Hence the term “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition”. “The opposition is still loyal to the monarch; and more importantly, to the institutions of power, the most important of which is the parliament,” Ong says in an e-mail interview with The Nut Graph.
“The concept is pretty entrenched among some of the better-known Westminster-style democracies including the UK, Canada and Australia,” Ong continues. A shadow cabinet line-up is official — a list of shadow ministers are even published on the parliament websites of some of these countries.
“By allocating specific portfolios to key opposition leaders, these leaders can focus on specific policy areas to give their input and their criticism,” Ong says.
Mirroring the government
“Basically, the UK opposition has appointed spokespersons in charge of particular issues. So you’d have a spokesperson for transport, or defence, or foreign affairs,” explains lawyer Andrew Khoo.
“These are meant to mirror the government ministers. When the press wants an alternative view on a particular subject, they will look for the relevant shadow minister,” Khoo continues, adding that it would be up to such individuals to question or respond to their opposite numbers in parliamentary debates.
Khoo stresses the importance of such a system for Malaysia. “In the days when the opposition was much smaller, only one representative would speak out. So we saw (former Opposition Leader) Lim Kit Siang commenting on everything,” he says.
Now, however, with the PR’s nascent influence, a shadow cabinet would signal to Malaysians that the opposition has enough people and expertise to be in government.
“It would show that the opposition does have its own policies on any particular issue, and is able to articulate these policies,” Khoo explains in a phone interview with The Nut Graph.
Informing the public
According to Monash University political scientist Wong Chin Huat, keeping Malaysians informed will translate into economic advantage. “It will create confidence in investors. If, somehow, Malaysian politics goes through a regime change, a shadow cabinet will make any change more predictable.”
Wong believes that a shadow cabinet would be advantageous to the Pakatan Rakyat.
“It will encourage the opposition to be specialists, instead of generalists,” Wong says.
It will also provide healthy competition within the opposition coalition. “A shadow cabinet will allow politicians to visualise their future [within the PR hierarchy]. This will create motivation for people to do well,” Wong affirms.
Ong concurs. “It will help direct the focus of individual MPs towards key areas of government policy,” he says.
While this is already happening to a certain extent, as individual opposition representatives carve out certain policy areas for themselves, Ong maintains that having a proper shadow cabinet will only concretise things. It would prepare these leaders for the possibility of taking over real cabinet positions, he notes.
Commenting on Anwar’s special panel idea, Khoo hazards that it is a necessary compromise, given the new and loose nature of the PR coalition. “While it would be better if one person can speak on behalf of the entire opposition, this (the special panel) will still allow them to develop policies.”
Fielding the reserves
Wong, however, sees the special panels — made up of representatives from Parti Keadilan Rakyat, DAP and PAS — and its attendant lack of focus as problematic. “It is making the whole idea of a shadow cabinet a joke.
“A two-party system, with a cabinet and its shadow, is like a football match. A set number of players on one side mark a set number of players on the other side. Having panels, however, is like having all your reserves on the field facing the opposing team, all at once.”
To date, a list of who will sit on the panels has yet to materialise, and attempts by The Nut Graph to reach opposition politicians for comment on the delay have failed. Wong speculates that this reluctance to name names, since defections are such a risk in the current political climate, may be Anwar’s way of avoiding discontent in the PR stable.
“Maybe the thinking is that the people who are not chosen to sit in a shadow cabinet will get jealous and defect,” Wong says. “If this is so, they are seeing things in a shallow way.
“Now, the message they are sending [by not announcing the list] is that they don’t really believe that they can come into power,” Wong says.
One question remains: if the PR formed a shadow cabinet, could it benefit the BN?
“It would benefit the ruling government in two ways,” Ong believes. “Firstly, it would keep the ministers on their toes knowing that someone from the opposition bench is tasked with ‘following’ him or her explicitly.
“Secondly, it actually makes sense for the ruling government to try to institutionalise a shadow cabinet,” Ong continues. “This is for the possibility that they may find themselves on the opposition bench sometime in the future.”