Journalists who had privileged access to cabinet news conferences in the `bad ol’ days’ were often blown away by the plus size of furniture separating them from ministers from across the table whenever they ventured into the dens of power in Putrajaya.
Not known for penny-pinching tendencies when it comes to the handling of public purse, we were once precariously tethered on the brink of financial Armageddon under the stress of kleptocratic chicanery, facilitated by crony connivance.
We could only sigh in askance at gluttony writ large within the portals of the bloated Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Critics foamed in the mouth trying to reign in the penchant to create prime ministerial fiefdoms which were then backed by spineless and compliant chorus line.
One thing we can expect from this crop of new ministers is sympathy, and no doubt a whole lot of empathy borne of personal experience
Each time there was a cabinet reshuffle, expect the need at the very least, for an A3-size poster and wall space big enough to fit in all the ministerial mugshots in one go.
This cavalier attitude turned off voters at the polls on May 9 in droves, persuading them to tick the Pakatan box on the ballot paper.
So, nearly a month after the fall of the Barisan Nasional (BN), the Pakatan coalition government has finally installed its own, more modestly-sized cabinet. Even with the three more pending appointments to be installed in due course, this is still smaller than the 36 ministers in 26 ministries of the previous BN.
In amongst the appointments are ministers who know first-hand, what it is like to be incarcerated under the Internal Security Act (ISA). At least three lost their liberty under detention without trial at the once notorious `ideological correctional centre’ in Kamunting, Taiping. One thing we can expect from this crop of new ministers is sympathy, and no doubt a whole lot of empathy borne of personal experience.
How many cabinet members can reminisce, with conviction – pun intended – and speak about the bitter experience of hearing that knock at the door at midnight and being given a free trip, taking a circuitous route being driven generally in a northerly direction for an indeterminate period of detention.
You have Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng, Defence Minister Mohd Sabu and Federal Territory Minister Khalid Samad who were all `graduates’ of what A. Samad Ismail described – in his documented recollection of ISA detention in his autobiography – as his `Universiti Kedua’ (his Second University, of the time spent under detention without trial as if putting him through a second stint at university).
But when it comes to sweet comeuppance, Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah) will have reason to gloat, while PAS can only afford to mope; at what could have been.
Amanah was rewarded with three ministers and eight deputy ministers in the cabinet line-up. PAS, driven by unbridled aversion for Amanah took the decision to be BN-friendly in GE14, can now only watch with envy from across the party divide.
When the 14th parliament convenes in the middle of this month, just imagine the covetous glances thrown from across the opposition benches by PAS MPs to their erstwhile colleagues. Not only are the likes of Mat Sabu, Khalid Samad Mujahid Yusof Rawa leading from the Government front benches, the party PAS scorned now wields power with MPs in their roles as cabinet ministers.
What is refreshing about this cabinet line-up is the spirit-lifting and inspirational stories of individuals who, by dint of sheer hard work and tenacity, rose above all manner of disadvantages to succeed in life.
For an example of triumph over adversity, deprived kids can look at the rousing life story of Human Resources minister M Kulasegaran
For an example of triumph over adversity, deprived kids can look at the rousing life story of Human Resources minister M Kulasegaran. Growing up in Sitiawan, his family eked out a living in a rubber estate and reared animals to supplement their income. This was the straightened springboard from which the young Kula was able to lift off and make it all the way to Lincoln’s Inn and achieve his goal of becoming a barrister.
Pakatan ministers do not need to do much to endear themselves to the masses, as many easily display the common touch. Mat Sabu is at home in the role of khatib (deliverer of the obligatory sermon from the imam’s pulpit) during Friday prayers while Maszlee Malik leads the zuhor prayers during lunch break at the education ministry.
Amid all the hoopla over excessive hoarding of Birkins, newly-minted Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development Hannah Yeoh came to the AWANI studio for an interview recently. She created waves that evening by her choice of a faded yellow tote bag without any pressure to make any fashion statement.
Fashionistas quickly commented on her choice as a cross between a purse and a handbag which can be picked up for under RM30 anywhere in Petaling Street. She could have taken note of Tun Dr Mahathir’s previous pithy comment that someone clutching a thirty thousand dollar handbag could well only have thirty ringgit stashed within its deepest recesses when struggling to hunt for cash to pay for parking.
At a time when Tun Mahathir’s age was made an issue to illustrate his unsuitability by the opposition during campaigning, what stronger message could be delivered with the appointment of babe-in-arms Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman as Sports and Youth minister.
Syed Saddiq’s challenge during campaigning was dismissed by his BN opponents who described him, at the tender age of 25; as a mere pussycat who will find for himself what it would be like to be mauled by lions. Look who’s cowing and who’s roaring now!
If one were to look for brains in the cabinet, then speak to Bakri MP Yeo Bee Yin whose Cambridge credentials in Chemical Engineering makes her the ideal choice for Minister for Energy, Technology, Science, Climate Change and Environment. Equally bright colleagues define this cabinet packed with polyglots at home with third language ability including Mandarin and Arabic at least.
Interestingly, Syed Sadiq who has a first degree in Law turned down the offer to go to Oxford, to pursue further studies when GE14 intervened.
While our academic credentials still pale in comparison to the string of Oxbridge Double Firsts that ministers from across the causeway can boast in their CV, at least this gives the right signals that education is key.
With this line-up, parliament is expected to play a more relevant role as MPs come to the august house bursting the energy and capacity of well-informed and technically-capable lawmakers.
For so long, the arrogance of power made parliamentarians – especially those on the government benches – object of derision and subjected to scorn from afar.
The YBs (Yang Berhormats) then were blissfully blind to their true role that they became no more than bouncy rubber stamp.
Welcome Class of 2018, Mat Sabu et al.
YB titles you may carry, but Yang Berkhidmat (One Who Serves) is what we expect Malaysia Cabinet 2018 to be.