Malaysia PM shuffles pack to appease Muslims


KUALA LUMPUR, Reuters

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad appointed two new ministers to oversee religious and women’s affairs on Wednesday in a move analysts say is aimed at shoring up support for elections three years away.

Speculation of a cabinet reshuffle had swirled for the past few weeks and investors were relieved Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin kept his job, though it barely moved the market.

Malaysia’s benchmark stock index, depressed since last week without upbeat news, ended flat just under 680 points.

“The market had expected a more senior position to be replaced, so this news doesn’t really connect,” said Lynn Cheah, fund manager at Apex Unit Trusts.

The inroads made by Islamic parties worried Mahathir’s Barisan Nasional coalition, despite obtaining a two-thirds majority at a general election in November 1999.

The opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), which posed little threat before, won control of two states by capitalising on disenchantment among many Malays with the treatment meted out to former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim.

Anwar is serving 15 years in jail on corruption and sodomy charges he says were concocted to forestall a challenge to Mahathir’s leadership.

While PAS has grown stronger on the back of support for Anwar, it has also become bolder in pushing its Islamic agenda.

Evidence of ebbing support for Mahathir’s own United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party was manifest in its by-election defeat last November at the hands of Parti Keadilan Nasional, headed by Anwar’s wife, with the help of PAS.

That loss appears to have precipitated the government’s first cabinet reshuffle since winning the general election. The previous religious affairs minister resigned earlier this month in the wake of the by election defeat in Mahathir’s northern home state of Kedah.

His successor — a retired brigadier-general who used to head the armed forces Islamic corp — was named on Wednesday.

But more importantly, Mahathir’s office created a new ministry for women’s affairs, which analysts read as a clear attempt to endear himself to an increasingly important vote bank.