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All eyes on second most powerful position, and it's not the deputy prime minister

Whoever Anwar names as finance minister will decide whether his 'unity government' can live up to its name.

3 minute read
PKR deputy president Rafizi Ramli with party president Anwar Ibrahim, and Umno's Mohamad Hasan and Johari Abdul Ghani.
PKR deputy president Rafizi Ramli with party president Anwar Ibrahim, and Umno's Mohamad Hasan and Johari Abdul Ghani.

There are signs that the "unity government" led by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim may soon struggle to live up to its name, as speculation mounts over who will be named to helm the finance ministry – arguably the second most important portfolio in the Cabinet, MalaysiaNow has learnt, based on conversations with several Umno and PKR leaders.

This comes as an online campaign using various social media platforms slowly gathers steam among the supporters of PKR number two, Rafizi Ramli, who was thought to be eyeing the post if Pakatan Harapan (PH) came to power.

But for Umno, the lifeline that the party appears to have received by agreeing to join a PH-led coalition government could end if Anwar decides that the finance portfolio will not go to any of its 28 MPs. 

"Now, having ignored its 'No Anwar, no DAP' stand, the least that Umno could do in order to salvage whatever credibility it has among its members is to be in the driver's seat of the government. 

"In Malaysia, that seat is either the prime minister's or the finance minister's," an Umno MP told MalaysiaNow.

He was likely alluding to Mohamad Hasan's speech at the Umno general assembly in March last year, where the Umno deputy president insisted that the Malay party must be in the driver’s seat in any future cooperation.

"What is important is, any party that wants to work with us must believe in Umno’s ability to be in the driver’s seat. Not a second player who is simply picked up to fulfil the quota, or the number of seats required," Mohamad had said at the party's congress which, among others, decided that it would not make any deal with either Anwar or DAP, the party that currently has the biggest share of seats in PH.

"There is no party or individual who can tell or direct Umno how and with whom we should negotiate to form a government."

Mohamad, better known as Tok Mat, is himself seen as among the top contenders for the finance portfolio, alongside newly elected Titiwangsa MP Johari Abdul Ghani.

Tok Mat was also said to be among the favourites to replace Tengku Zafrul Aziz in 2021, following a coup which saw Umno man Ismail Sabri Yaakob named as prime minister. Zafrul was however retained.

Tok Mat and Johari, the former once a corporate figure and the latter having served as the second finance minister in Najib Razak's government, carry with them decades of financial and corporate experience, dwarfing that of the 45-year-old Rafizi, a former accountant with Petronas.

Long before the election, critics had already begun comparing Rafizi to Johari, with an extract from a TV3 panel discussion on the 2023 budget making the rounds to show how the latter was more articulate in matters of finance and economy.

The footage showed Johari giving an in-depth explanation when asked about the the ringgit's declining value, as compared to Rafizi, whom critics said avoided the question after remarking that it was something that even the finance minister would not be able to answer.

Johari Abdul Ghani and Rafizi Ramli speak in a TV3 panel discussion on the 2023 budget.

Since the early 90s, the finance portfolio has been seen as the last stepping stone towards the prime minister's post.

In 1991, then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad appointed Anwar as finance minister in what was seen as preparation for him to take over the government after serving five years as the education minister – another job seen as a stepping stone to the top  office. 

Two years later, Anwar was named the deputy prime minister in the clearest sign that he was Mahathir's annointed successor. But the succession failed to materialise following Anwar's sacking in 1998, as well as his arrest and conviction of sodomy.

Since the Asian economic crisis of the late 90s, the finance minister has been viewed as a position more powerful than that of the deputy prime minister.

"In fact, there is no point getting the deputy prime minister's post if Umno does not head the finance ministry," said a BN MP who wanted to remain anonymous.

"A government can run without a deputy prime minister," he added. 

The finance portfolio is one of several crucial posts in Malaysia's government structure. For the better half of BN's six-decade rule, the position was given to Umno.

At the heart of its power is its stranglehold on a plethora of critical institutions such as the dozens of Malay economic powerhouses, as well as lucrative government-linked companies.

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