SALIM OSMAN SENIOR WRITER
This is full content from the SPH. To view the article on the SPH's website visit: http://www.straitstimes.com/premium/opinion/story/anwar-should-fulfil-promise-shadow-cabinet-20121029
THE talk of a shadow Cabinet in Malaysia is in vogue these days, started by the opposition.
A shadow Cabinet is defined as a senior group of politicians in the Westminster system of government who, together with the leader of the opposition, forms an alternative to the government's Cabinet ministers.
Its members would shadow or mark each individual Cabinet member, passing criticisms on the current government and its respective policies and offering alternative programmes. If the opposition forms the next government, the shadow ministers would have had experience in drafting policies and defending them.
Such a system, found mainly in Britain and Australia, does not exist in Malaysia.
But opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim ignited interest in a shadow Cabinet soon after the 2008 elections that almost toppled the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN), when he promised to form such a Cabinet "so that the rakyat could have transparency".
He argued that the people would be able to see who from the individual parties in the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) would be in the Cabinet line-up, in the event that the opposition were to win Putrajaya, the seat of the federal government.
Datuk Seri Anwar repeated the promise in 2010, last year and in January this year before the PR convention, saying that a shadow Cabinet would be a sign of the maturity of his opposition pact.
But he has failed to announce his shadow Cabinet line-up, led by him as the prime minister-designate in a PR government.
Mr Anwar could only explain recently that a shadow Cabinet was suitable for countries like Britain and Australia, but not for Malaysia.
His colleagues said that such a Cabinet would be announced only when PR took power.
Mr Anwar and his opposition partners will have to wriggle their way out of a challenge by Prime Minister Najib Razak, who said PR should name its shadow Cabinet before it talks about forming the next federal government.
Why the about-turn, after the promise of a shadow Cabinet in April 2009 generated so much interest among the public?
The opposition either has no shadow Cabinet on its agenda, or has only a rough idea of what the Cabinet should be. But PR would not want to reveal it at this stage, because that would make it vulnerable to BN attacks.
For the opposition, forming a shadow Cabinet and announcing it in public are not without problems and risks.
First, it is not easy to reach a consensus on a power-sharing formula among three disparate parties, namely the Malay-based Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the secular Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Islamist Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).
A supposed leak of its Cabinet list by the Umno-owned Utusan Malaysia recently revealed the distribution of Cabinet posts, with 13 seats for PKR, 10 for the DAP and eight for PAS. The list was denounced by both the DAP and PAS as a fabrication because the opposition coalition has yet to firm up such a list.
Second, there is a racial dimension to the Cabinet seat distribution. For instance, if the Cabinet is seen to be too multiracial or if non-Malays are given important portfolios like finance, trade and industry, or even defence, there will be a hue and cry, with BN warning the Malay electorate that they would lose political power if the opposition took over Putrajaya.
This can undermine the vote for the opposition, because Mr Anwar would be branded a traitor who sold out his race. Meanwhile, PAS would lose support as it would be accused of being a puppet that gives in to the influence of the "infidels". The opposition may also lose Chinese support if the DAP is seen as playing second fiddle in this Cabinet.
Third is the position of Mr Anwar himself as prime minister-designate. There appears to be no other candidate for the job.
But the current campaign by the DAP, to push for a probe on the alleged scandal involving the loss of RM30 billion (S$12.1 billion) of Bank Negara's reserves through foreign exchange speculation in 1994, may drag down Mr Anwar. Even though the probe's target is Tun Mahathir Mohamad, the then Prime Minister, Mr Anwar was the then Finance Minister. What will happen if Mr Anwar is implicated in the probe? Hence, a potential problem in the Cabinet line-up.
It appears that PR has more to lose than gain if it discloses its shadow Cabinet line-up, hence the about-turn on the issue.
Datuk Seri Najib's pressure on the opposition is part of the ruling party's political manoeuvring. But Mr Anwar's promise of a shadow Cabinet has aroused interest among the electorate, who want to size up the opposition in the coming general election, due by April next year.
"All talk of capturing Putrajaya is hollow if PR can't even show to Malaysians that it can share ministerial portfolios on merit," said news portal The Malaysian Insider. "This would be helpful to evaluate the kind of options Malaysians have before they vote in either coalition."
There are other reasons for having a shadow Cabinet.
The burden of criticising the government in Parliament need not be shouldered by one opposition representative. In the old days, it would have been the then opposition leader Lim Kit Siang, who spoke out on all and sundry. Now the shadow ministers could speak out on their respective portfolios.
With PR's intention to spread its influence far and wide in the country, a shadow Cabinet is timely and signals to Malaysians that the opposition has enough people and expertise to be in federal government.
It will also notify investors that they do not need to worry should there be regime change.
The talk of a shadow Cabinet appears to be taking Malaysia to a new stage of its political development, where two groups of political actors face off in a contest.
The ruling group, represented by BN, and the opposition, as embodied by PR, are slowly showing Malaysians that there will eventually be two groups of actors to run the country. It will be up to them to choose.