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Najib Adds Chinese Partners as He Widens Cabinet

Malaysian Chinese Association President Liow Tiong Lai
Malaysian Chinese Association President Liow Tiong Lai. Photographer: How Foo Yeen/Getty Images

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak named six members from his coalition’s Chinese partners to cabinet positions a year after a poor showing in the general elections was attributed to voters from the ethnic group.

Liow Tiong Lai, president of the Malaysian Chinese Association, was named transport minister to replace Hishammuddin Hussein, who oversaw the portfolio in an acting capacity. Hishammuddin, who is defense minister, has been the face of the nation’s probe into the disappearance of a Malaysian Airline System Bhd. plane in March with 239 people on board.

Najib stocked his cabinet with party stalwarts last year after the narrowest election win since independence. Yesterday’s ministerial appointments probably won’t be enough to boost the government’s popularity among an ethnic group that still feels marginalized by the government’s policies, according to political analyst James Chin. Malaysia has a policy of favoring its Malay and indigenous population over other citizens.

“The Chinese are still very angry with the government” and there will be no change in the way they vote in the next election, said Chin, a professor of political science at the Malaysian campus of Australia’s Monash University. “But in terms of administrative issues, it’d be easier for the government to deal with Chinese issues.”

Najib tapped his ruling United Malays National Organisation for key positions last year ahead of party polls that cemented his position as prime minister. Only two of his cabinet then were Chinese, compared with more than a dozen previously.

Defecting Voters

Chinese parties in the government won nine seats in the May 2013 election, compared with 23 in the 2008 polls. At the time, the Malaysian Chinese Association said it wouldn’t take up its allotted cabinet posts. Najib said he would reserve the transport portfolio for the party in case it changed its mind.

Liow said in May that the party was ready to rejoin the cabinet to serve the Chinese community, according to the Bernama state news agency. About a quarter of the population is Chinese, while Malays and indigenous groups make up about 60 percent.

Chinese politicians have done better in recent polls, narrowing the losing margin in one by-election in March and taking a seat from the opposition in another last month.

Najib also named Mah Siew Keong, president of the Gerakan party, and Wee Ka Siong, deputy president of the Malaysian Chinese Association, as ministers in his office yesterday. The cabinet has 35 ministers and 28 deputy ministers, according to a report in The Star newspaper today.

Favored Bumiputeras

“These appointments reflect my desire to ensure that the make-up of the cabinet, and the government, broadly reflects that of our nation,” Najib said yesterday. The “appointments reflect our long-held desire to govern in an inclusive and representative manner,” he said.

Najib, 60, was a teenager when riots erupted between Muslim Malays and ethnic Chinese in Kuala Lumpur in 1969. His father Abdul Razak Hussein became prime minister the following year and responded with a program to reduce Chinese dominance in business by giving preferential treatment to Bumiputeras, which refers to the Malay and indigenous people.

While he dismantled some preferences after taking power in 2009, Najib announced additional steps in September, including a 10 billion-ringgit ($3.1 billion) trust to support training, education and home ownership. Government-linked companies were urged to give more contracts to ethnic Malays on merit, with energy company Petroliam Nasional Bhd. naming more approved Bumiputera contractors in November.

Worst Performer

The benchmark FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI Index has gained 0.9 percent in 2014, the worst performer among Southeast Asia’s stock markets. The yield on five-year local currency government bonds has risen 7 basis points, or 0.07 percentage point, to 3.75 percent this year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The prime minister said yesterday he is in discussions on who will oversee the government’s role in the search for Flight 370, which disappeared while en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. The hunt for the aircraft has become the longest in modern aviation history. No debris from the Boeing wide-body airliner has been retrieved to date.

The other appointments made yesterday were Lee Chee Leong as deputy minister of international trade and industry; Chua Tee Yong as deputy minister of finance; and Chew Mei Fun as deputy minister for women, family and community development.

“Najib was not brave enough to remove some ministers,” Chin said. “What he did was enlarge the cabinet. We know that a couple of UMNO people are really non-performers,” he said, without naming anyone.

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