The last time a Minister with Special Functions was appointed in Malaysia was in 1998, when then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed picked Daim Zainuddin, months before the PM sacked his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim.
So when Prime Minister Najib Razak appointed Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein – who is also his cousin - as Minister with Special Functions last week, it set tongues wagging.
The move fuelled speculation of a growing rift between Mr Najib and his deputy, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who was reportedly caught by surprise with the appointment.
It is debatable whether Mr Najib’s move was part of a power play within the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Even more ludicrous are suggestions that Mr Najib is making plans to step down.
In all likelihood, Mr Hishammuddin’s new job is part of the Umno President’s plan to gear up for a general election, which while not due until mid-2018, is coming sooner rather than later.
As Minister with Special Functions, Mr Hishammuddin will be expected to tackle international issues while maintaining his current duties as Defence Minister.
He is no novice in diplomacy, having engaged with regional partners in Southeast Asia in his previous roles as Minister in charge of education, transport, youth and sports.
Having being involved in bringing in foreign investments through companies such as the Saudi Arabian oil company Aramco, his international duties will likely include strengthening economic and security ties with Saudi Arabia.
Deploying Mr Hishammuddin on the global stage will allow Mr Najib and his deputy to focus on domestic matters, with the Prime Minister apparently only scheduling a few international trips this year.
Mr Najib – having bolstered his position at the Umno general assembly late last year despite the 1MDB scandal – has already dropped heavy hints that early polls could be called.
“We have sharpened the sword,” he said over the weekend at the launch of a new platform that aims to draw the election machineries of Umno and its ruling Barisan Nasional coalition partners closer.
Mr Hishammuddin’s new appointment will be a timely boost to his political standing. Although the Defence Minister is a key post, his additional duties show the trust the Prime Minister has in him. Clearly, Mr Najib wants to surround himself with his most trusted allies, and few are as trusted as his cousin.
Additionally, both Mr Hishammuddin and Mr Zahid are Vice Presidents in UMNO. However Mr Zahid has also acting as a de factor party Deputy President, since the sacking of Muhyiddin Yassin over his questioning of Mr Najib’s role in 1MDB.
Mr Hishammuddin’s new appointment clearly marks him as the number three man within the UMNO hierarchy. After more than a year of infighting and power struggles within the party, Mr Najib has finally consolidated a strong position at the top while clearly defining party seniority.
The Malaysian opposition parties were quick to jump on this appointment as an indication that Mr Najib is sidelining his deputy Mr Zahid by elevating Mr Hishammuddin with a view to making him the Deputy Prime Minister.
However, the position of Minister with Special Functions hardly guarantees a top government position as previous postings indicate.
Daim Zainuddin did not go on to become PM or even DPM. In the history of the position, no minister has made it to the top positions in government.
The position however, is not without prestige. Ghazali Shafie, the first appointed minister in the position, held the post alongside his position as Information Minister and was responsible for drawing up the New Economic Policy.
The aforementioned Daim Zainuddin went on to become finance minister. Mohamed Affendi Norwawi, appointed in 2004, was later appointed as special officer at the Higher Education Ministry and later as a minister in the Prime Minister’s department, where he coordinated the Ninth Malaysia Plan. The Minister with Special Functions position has been a useful tool in revitalising political careers.
Mr Zahid has publicly welcomed Mr Hishammuddin’s appointment. While such a statement is expected, it appears increasingly likely that the pair are expected to work in tandem to support the Prime Minister.
For Mr Zahid and his supporters, Mr Hishammuddin’s appointment is a timely reminder that the PM retains a tight grip of the party and the issue of succession is not as clear cut at it appears.
Mr Najib has again shown that he is capable of fulfilling or breaking the political ambitions of others, and it would be wise in an election year for those who wish to survive and remain politically relevant to side with him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Rashaad Ali is a research analyst at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.