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Where is Anwar’s shadow cabinet?

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?

(© Olga Besnard / Dreamstime)

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.

Wayang kulit (© Tikno / Dreamstime)

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”.

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5 Responses to “Where is Anwar’s shadow cabinet?”

  1. I always wondered the same. Where the heck is the shadow cabinet. He has enough MPs on his side to do so.

  2. pywong says:

    Chin Huat’s arguments make perfect sense in a normal democracy. Unfortunately, we are not in a normal democracy. We live in a pseudo-democracy. Look at how journalists are detained for “their own safety” for writing the truth, an MP is detained because an Umno leader told lies about her involvement in a petition on azan, a blogger was detained for writing in his blog. All of them under ISA. Do you think these shadow ministers will feel safe once they are identified?

    Money politics is rampant in Umno. Will they restrict their activities to Umno only and not extend it beyond their borders to subvert Pakatan Rakyat?

    I would suggest a better alternative – shadow cabinet committees that oversee one or more ministries. They can be drawn from the MPs and Aduns of the 3 Pakatan Rakyat component parties and even include the independent parties if they have the desire to participate.

    See here: http://tindakmalaysia.com/tm_forums2008/index.php/topic,397.0.html

  3. Chin Huat says:

    PY Wong’s line of argument is sadly quite common amongst opposition supporters: “Because the BN does not act democratically, therefore PR cannot act democratically.”

    I am sure you are familiar with a similar line amongst many supporters of Umno, MCA and MIC: “Because other races have not given up their racism, we must not give up ours or we will stand to lose.”

    Malaysians must ask themselves: have they unconsciously been enslaved by BN’s propaganda and indoctrination?

    Let us examine the argument that a democratic practice like setting up a shadow cabinet cannot survive a “pseudo-democracy” because the shadow ministers will be either threatened or bought over.

    It would stand only if we have very low confidence in the courage and integrity of people like Azmin Ali, R Sivarasa, Tian Chua, Lim Kit Siang, Karpal Singh, Teresa Kok, Tony Pua, Dr Dzulkefli Ahmad, Dr Lo’ Lo’, and Khalid Samad.

    Why? The shadow cabinet I propose is to choose only the best and not include every parliamentarian, so your fear can be easily addressed by excluding the meek and weak.

    If PR cannot find enough good men and good women who can withstand threat and temptation to form a shadow executive team, what can we hope for in PR? It then deserves to lose to BN because it is no better, even though not worse.

    Let’s be honest about why PR dares not set up a shadow cabinet. It’s not because the BN is evil, but because PR is weak and has no confidence. Someone in Malaysia Today has offered a more convincing reason: “But those who are not chosen, will try their luck with Umno and the BN, resulting in further splits in the PKR even before it has a chance to be the government.”

    Now, if this indeed happens and PR loses a few MPs, can’t PR take it back in next elections? Can’t the people punish them? Wasn’t this possibility used to justify the cross-over scheme? Have PR supporters no faith in the people?

    The deeper question is therefore one about how opposition leaders and supporters perceive politics: is politics fundamentally a gamble and the opposition/”the people” just got lucky on 8 March?

    http://chinhuatw.wordpress.com/2008/11/27/prs-shadow-cabinet-why-opposition-supporters-cannot-treat-politics-like-gamble/

  4. mike says:

    Whatever it is … the rakyat have chosen but if nothing happens then they might go back to the lesser of the 2 devils. Racism in Malaysia can only be toned down if Bumi status is abolished … then we can have a truly MALAYSIAN MALAYSIA.

  5. miwaki says:

    Before you worry about the quality of ministers-in-waiting in Pakatan Rakyat, please look at our current ministers. People like Nazri, Muhammad Muhammad, Najib and Abdullah, etc. Do you still worry about the quality of Pakatan Rakyat’s ministers?

    I just don’t believe Pakatan Rakyat’s ministers would be inferior to the current ones.


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