KUALA LUMPUR, June 28 ― Changes Datuk Seri Najib Razak made to his Cabinet indicate that the prime minister has shifted his attention to the next general election, after having overcome recent challenges to his leadership.
According to political observers, the new appointments showed that the prime minister was both rewarding loyalists who stood firmly beside him when he faced the height of opposition and shoring up support in key battlegrounds ahead of the coming poll.
Ibrahim Suffian who heads independent pollster Merdeka Center said the biggest clue was the selection of Selangor Umno chief Tan Sri Noh Omar as housing, urban well being, and local government minister, which he said would be a vital portfolio heading into the polls.
“It is clear that Najib is gunning to regain Selangor in the next election,” Ibrahim said.
Yesterday's reshuffle came after Umno sacked Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir who had been openly attacking the prime minister over 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) and related issues.
Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal was also suspended from the party and Umno leaders from his Semporna division yesterday quit en masse in protest.
With the three leaders as well as former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad no longer in Umno, Najib's position as party president — and, by extension, prime minister — is now virtually unassailable from within.
In further clues that the reshuffle was orchestrated to quell dissent over the sackings, Jerlun MP Datuk Othman Aziz was made deputy finance minister while Silam MP Datuk Datu Nasrun Datu Mansur was picked as deputy plantation, industries and commodities minister.
Mukhriz headed the Umno division in Jerlun prior to his sacking while the Silam chapter is led by Shafie's brother, Datuk Yusof Apdal.
One oddity Ibrahim noted in the reshuffle was that the vacancy left by Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah Embas, who became Sarawak deputy chief minister, was not filled by another Barisan Nasional leader from the state.
The possible fallout was also pointed out by Deputy Rural and Regional Development Minister Datuk Alexander Nanta Linggi, initially tipped to replace Uggah, who said Sarawakians were likely to be upset by the omission.
Sarawak overwhelmingly returned BN to power during a state election in May, and is considered a key state for keeping the coalition in Putrajaya.
“It is quite surprising to note that no Sarawakian minister was appointed even to replace Douglas,” Ibrahim added.
Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Professor Dr Sivamurugan Pandian said the current lineup was likely to be Najib's vanguard heading into the 14th general election.
Although the prime minister yesterday declined to say if the reshuffle will be the last before BN heads to the polls, Sivamurugan also took Noh's appointment as a clear indication that further changes were unlikely.
“It is a minor reshuffle but a restructuring of the Cabinet. This is the team that the PM would be taking into the next elections,” he told Malay Mail Online when contacted.
Independent political analyst Khoo Kay Peng told Malay Mail Online that the appointment of Gerakan president Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong as the plantation, industries and commodities minister was Najib's way of rewarding the party for its efforts in the recently concluded by-elections.
He added that Najib was banking on Mah and Gerakan to help foment the return of the Chinese vote to BN, after the community that abandoned the coalition in Election 2013 began showing signs of reconsidering its previous hostility.
“When Mah was given a full ministership, it was Najib trying to help restore Gerakan's influence. He is trying to shore up the Chinese votes ahead of the GE,” Khoo explained.
Other notable changes in yesterday's reshuffle was Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan, who previously held Noh's portfolio, as minister in the Prime Minister's Department and Datuk Johari Abdul Ghani as second finance minister.
The 14th general election is due no later than 2018.