Malaysian PM unveils cabinet amid race tension

Julia Zappei
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak speaks in Putrajaya on May 15, 2013. Najib on Wednesday unveiled a cabinet line-up which he said would help national reconciliation after a racially divisive election, but which was noticeably light on Chinese faces

Malaysia's premier on Wednesday unveiled a cabinet which he said would foster reconciliation after a racially divisive election, but which was attacked by the opposition as merely the status quo. Prime Minister Najib Razak's team was closely watched for indications of how he would approach the race divide and fulfil promises to invigorate government, amid declining support for the 56-year-old regime he heads. "Over the past months and years, divisions have opened up in Malaysian society. Now it is time for all of us, in government and beyond, to put the bitterness behind us," Najib said in introducing his line-up. "Together we will act to bring about national reconciliation, secure Malaysia's economic future and build a stronger, more harmonious society." But the line-up was panned by the opposition as proof his Barisan Nasional (National Front) government remained averse to real change despite the shock of winning only a minority of the popular vote in the May 5 election. The cabinet features some new faces but key ministries remain in the hands of familiar figures from his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). UMNO, which represents the country's largest ethnic group of Muslim Malays, controls Barisan. The choice of just one ethnic Chinese among 33 ministers looked likely to fuel a debate over race in the multi-ethnic country. Najib fended off the strongest-ever opposition challenge in the elections. But he was abandoned by voters from the economically powerful Chinese minority that makes up 25 percent of the country's 28 million people, weakening his claims to multi-ethnic rule. Chinese and Indians have expressed increasing resentment at Malay political domination and policies favouring Malays in business, education and other spheres. For the first time in decades, the cabinet had no representation from the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), part of the ruling coalition, which suffered declining support from Chinese voters. Its president had vowed to accept no cabinet posts if its support further declined in the polls. The MCA earned just seven seats in the 222-member parliament, down from 31 in 2004 polls. Najib's team has just one ethnic Chinese minister, the president of the local office of anti-graft group Transparency International. The previous cabinet had five. "I don't think (Najib) has any real intention for reconciliation. I think 'reconciliation' is just lip service," said Tian Chua, an ethnic Chinese senior opposition politician. He said the cabinet catered to UMNO power blocs and failed to present "real change". Among other new faces, Najib appointed Khairy Jamaluddin, 37, a telegenic rising UMNO star who heads the party's youth wing. He was named to the youth and sports portfolio. Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia politics researcher with Singapore Management University, said the team did not provide "a clear vision to address the major challenges the country has". "It doesn't engender confidence. From a perspective of reconciliation and transformation, it's very lacklustre," she said. The opposition alliance, led by former UMNO star Anwar Ibrahim, had high hopes of unseating Barisan for the first time since independence in 1957. But Najib retained a solid parliamentary majority, leaving Anwar accusing Barisan of election fraud.