Saturday, September 25, 2021

Focus on next finance minister and ‘sensitive’ 1MDB-linked role as Ismail prepares to announce his Cabinet today

There is strong pressure from Umno for the post despite sensitivities over the finance minister's role in matters related to the 1MDB scandal.

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Focus has shifted to who will be the finance minister in Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s government, as the prime minister prepares to announce his Cabinet line-up today after a series of private discussions with close associates including his predecessor Muhyiddin Yassin, MalaysiaNow understands.

A source privy to recent discussions said Ismail’s “biggest headache” seemed to be the powerful position of the finance minister, adding that there was strong pressure from Umno for the portfolio which had been significant in the party’s fall from power in 2018.

“It was the same position that got the last finance minister from Umno into trouble,” said the source who is close to top leaders in Umno and Bersatu, referring to former prime minister Najib Razak.

Najib, who was also the finance minister in charge of 1MDB, is currently facing multiple charges involving billions of ringgit in stolen funds related to the troubled state company.

Under Muhyiddin, the post of finance minister was held by a non-politician, former banker Tengku Zafrul Aziz, said to be a compromise to balance anxiety among Umno leaders close to Najib when the latter was still supportive of the Perikatan Nasional government.

“But as the finance ministry is also in charge of the recovery of hundreds of millions of stolen 1MDB funds, Zafrul inevitably became a target of attacks from Najib’s loyalists in Umno,” the source said.

Zafrul was also in charge of 1MDB’s debt repayments as well as the Assets Recovery Trust Account, formed by the previous Pakatan Harapan government to channel stolen monies from 1MDB returned to the government.

With the return of the first tranche of US$57.04 million by the US, the recovered fund has grown to over RM18 billion, the last payment being RM1.8 billion from AmBank, part of the commercial bank’s agreement in settling funds embezzled from 1MDB.

Being in charge of the fund inevitably led Zafrul to a public spat with Najib, who for months had targeted the former top banker over various efforts to help the public cushion the impact of the Covid-19 crisis.

In May, Zafrul who had resisted taking on politicians, shot back at Najib’s claims about the state of the government’s debt, and reminded the former leader of the losses related to the 1MDB scandal, saying the country was still burdened by it.

“Imagine, if this amount of nearly RM58 billion could have been used, how many of our people could we have helped during this pandemic?” Zafrul asked.

“This is not to leverage the situation, but the issue is very relevant to that of the country’s debts and the government’s fiscal ability to help the people.”

Sensitive position

The finance minister’s newfound role in matters related to the 1MDB scandal makes the portfolio a sensitive one for Umno.

As such, there were concerns when Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki, the Umno Youth leader who is also a staunch Najib loyalist, proposed the party’s deputy president Mohamad Hasan for the finance portfolio.

In public statements, Mohamad, the former Negeri Sembilan menteri besar better known as Tok Mat, has declined any federal role since Umno’s historic defeat in the general election.

He is seen as among a group of Umno leaders who were not keen on the party’s return to power in 2020.

In the past, he had said he preferred to work to strengthen the party in order to win elections, and also claimed that he had declined positions offered to him to helm government-linked companies.

Tok Mat has so far refused to comment on his name being mentioned as the next finance minister.

“It is up to the PM’s wisdom how to form his Cabinet,” he told MalaysiaNow.

When asked whether such a role could pose a conflict of interest for him as an Umno leader since the finance ministry in the post-1MDB era is tied to the role of managing funds related to a company in which Najib was involved, Tok Mat replied: “The 1MDB case is in court. So the question of conflict of interest does not arise.”

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