Mar 19th 2008 | BANGKOK
From The Economist print edition
TEN days after suffering heavy losses in a general election, Malaysia's prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, shuffled his cabinet on March 18th, hoping to stave off calls for his resignation from within his party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). The removal of some scandal-tainted ministers and the elevation of a judicial reformer showed he is at least trying to get to grips with his problems. But Mr Badawi still seems to be shuffling deckchairs on a personal Titanic.
The National Front coalition, led by UMNO, won this election, as it has every one since independence from Britain in 1957. But it scraped barely half of the vote at national level and, most importantly, lost the two-thirds parliamentary majority it had held since 1974, which had allowed it to change the constitution at will.
Straight after the election, Mr Badawi's embittered predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, called on him to resign. The retired leader's son, Mukhriz Mahathir, became the first UMNO official to echo his father's call. Another party figure, Razaleigh Hamzah, a former finance minister, called for an emergency party congress and later offered to stand against Mr Badawi if enough members supported him. Even if not, the knives may come out at the party's annual congress in August.
So Mr Badawi's survival rests on how his new ministerial line-up is received and how well it performs. His first change was to cut the cabinet list from a bloated 90 to a still excessive 68, merging several ministries. Some ministers were easy to cull, having crashed to defeat in the election. One such was Samy Vellu, the only representative of Malaysia's ethnic Indians (8% of the population) in the cabinet. He bore the brunt of Indian anger at discrimination in favour of the Malay majority.
The most notable sacking was that of Rafidah Aziz, believed to be the world's longest-serving trade minister, with over 20 years in the job. Ms Rafidah faced criticism over alleged corruption in her ministry's granting of car-import licences. The most noticeable absence was Khairy Jamaluddin, Mr Badawi's ambitious (and disliked) son-in-law, who might have expected a post after winning his seat (he was also once an intern at The Economist).
The most promising appointment was that of Zaid Ibrahim, a prominent lawyer, who will join the prime minister's office to oversee reforms of the justice system. Mr Zaid has criticised the government's sluggishness in investigating allegations of judge-bribing and his calls for a royal inquiry into the accusations were reluctantly accepted by Mr Badawi late last year. The inquiry, still going on, has heard damning testimony against Eusoff Chin, the chief justice from 1994 to 2000.
Another welcome move by Mr Badawi, if followed through, is that ministers will be required to disclose their assets. Such declarations could make interesting reading. One disclosure statement likely to be perused closely will be that of Muhammad Taib, one of the cabinet's not-so-new “new faces”. He resigned as chief minister of Selangor state in 1997, after being arrested at Brisbane airport in Australia for failing to declare a suitcase of money he had with him. Both the Australian and Malaysian courts acquitted him, but he was an odd choice for a prime minister seeking to project a cleaner image.
Of course, Mr Badawi did not have a free hand. He must satisfy factions within his coalition while finding seats for some token ethnic Chinese and Indians to disguise its increasingly Malay-dominated profile. Nevertheless, by dropping several big-hitters he may have created fresh enemies. The shuffle has not, overall, dispelled speculation that he may have to stand down, perhaps in favour of his deputy, Najib Razak. Mr Najib, however, has challenges of his own: his political adviser and two officers from a police unit that reports to him are on trial for the murder of a Mongolian fashion model. Though not accused himself, Mr Najib's prospects may be fatally damaged by the case.