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Sunday, March 22, 2009

> Mission Impossible

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has set an impossible benchmark for incoming premier Datuk Seri Najib Razak by telling him to pack his Cabinet with ministers who are clean and beyond suspicion.

It would have been easier if the former prime minister had simply told Najib to complete a marathon under three hours or scale Everest without Sherpa guides.

Let’s face it. Only a clutch of ministers in the past 20 years would have been able to pass the public scrutiny test of living beyond their means.

Nearly every minister in the Mahathir and Abdullah administrations live in posh bungalow houses in tony neighbourhoods and their garages are packed with Mercedes Benz, Lexus, Range Rovers and BMWs.

Their children attend RM30,000-a-year private schools, their spouses have enough bling to offer Habib Jewellers stiff competition and they have multimillion ringgit holiday homes in Kensington.

Their official salaries: between RM15,000 and RM25,000 a month. Not surprising then that there was a revolt when Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said after Election 2008 that his ministers will have to declare their assets.

Several ministers, including one who is contesting a senior position at next week’s Umno elections, threatened to resign if they were forced to divulge their income and properties owned. They argued that their family members could be subject to security threats if their assets were made public.

Abdullah, weakened by Barisan Nasional’s poor showing in the general election and needing support from Umno ministers, relented and the plan for ministers to declare their assets was filed away in the no further action cabinet.

Abdullah inherited his Cabinet from Dr Mahathir. He stunned his supporters after the landslide victory in 2004 by sticking to the same tired faces who had served in the Mahathir administration.

Many of them came with baggage and, in the eyes of public, were guilty of corruption and abuse of power. Yet Abdullah persisted with them. He told his supporters that he did not want to upset Dr Mahathir by making wholesale changes to the Cabinet.

A more likely reason for sticking to the status quo was that he was a prisoner of the formula of rewarding powerful Umno warlords and of allowing the BN component parties to pick their representatives to the Cabinet.

Little thought was given to whether his choices would have passed the “living beyond your means’’ test.

Instead of making seismic changes to his Cabinet after March 8, he tweaked here and there. Initially, Abdullah considered appointing five or six credible names as senators and making them Cabinet ministers.

But concerned over possible backlash from Umno, he only chose Datuk Zaid Ibrahim and Tan Sri Amirsham Aziz. By and large, he stuck with the same group of ministers who underperformed in his first term as prime minister and whom he inherited from Dr Mahathir.

Dr Mahathir is being slammed now for even having the temerity to advise Najib on picking a “clean’’ Cabinet.

Perception is everything and his team of ministers failed miserably on that score. He knew that many of his ministers amassed wealth way beyond their pay scale but he did not banish them to Siberia.

Instead, he protected them and mollycoddled them.

Perhaps he had to face the reality that Abdullah faced in 2004 and Najib will confront in a week or so: finding lawmakers within Barisan Nasional who can stand up to public scrutiny and who are beyond suspicion.

Dr Mahathir failed. Abdullah failed. Najib is bound to fail if he is going to limit his Cabinet choices to only BN politicians or those who are victorious next week.

In the eyes of Malaysians, that pool of candidates has already failed the clean test - The Malaysian Insider.