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Najib reshuffles Cabinet; analysts see general election in 12 months

New Cabinet mostly a recycling of faces and is one of biggest with about 35 ministers, 30-plus deputies

Mr Najib addressing the media at his office in Putrajaya yesterday following the Cabinet reshuffle. The reshuffle is the third since he retained his position as prime minister after the general election in 2013.

Kuala Lumpur

MALAYSIAN Prime Minister Najib Razak has tweaked his Cabinet by promoting a number of party leaders tasked with coming through for the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) in the next general election, which some analysts expect to be called within the next 12 months.

Even so, the minor Cabinet reshuffle - the third since he retained his position as prime minister after the 13th general election in 2013 - was mostly a recycling of faces and unlikely to wow Malaysians already numb by constant politicking and struggling with rising costs.

As expected, Mr Najib - also the finance minister and embroiled in the global financial scandal of state-owned 1MDB - held tight to the finance portfolio.

But Deputy Finance Minister Johari Abdul Ghani was promoted to second finance minister to replace Ahmad Husni Hanadzlah who opted to resign for personal reasons, Mr Najib announced in Putrajaya on Monday.

Former agriculture minister Noh Omar made a return to Cabinet as housing minister in what analysts say is an incentive for the Selangor Umno chairman to put his shoulder to the wheel to help BN retake the country's wealthiest state back from the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat in the next general election.

Mr Noh replaces Abdul Rahman Dahman who will head the Economic Planning Unit at the Prime Minister's Department, a position previously held by technocrat banker Wahid Omar.

Mr Wahid declined a second term and has not said what he plans to do after leaving the government where he was said to have brought his private sector experience to good use.

Gerakan president Mah Siew Keong - one of about 10 ministers in the bloated PM's Department - will now have his own ministerial portfolio as plantation industries and commodities minister, replacing Douglas Uggah Embas who resigned to contest in the May Sarawak elections and was later appointed one of three deputy chief ministers of the state.

Gerakan is one of the 13 component parties in BN which is spearheaded by the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), flanked by the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC).

Political analyst Khoo Kay Peng saw Mr Mah's appointment as full minister as Mr Najib's attempt to bring back the previous ministerial allocation to component parties under the BN's so-called power sharing concept. "It's a carrot for Chinese support," he said in reference to two parliamentary by-elections held in the middle of the month that saw some Chinese voters returning to the BN.

One of the by-elections was in Selangor; and as the BN managed to retain the seat with a bigger majority, analysts expect Mr Najib to capitalise on the momentum and call for snap polls even though he can wait until about May 2018. Moreover, the opposition remains fractured and would need time to negotiate a truce.

"BN is the obvious winner in three-cornered fights," Mr Khoo observed. Still, he said that Mr Noh would have his work cut out given that the opposition won an even bigger majority of state seats in 2013 despite the BN's best efforts to retake the plum state.

He sees a "30 per cent chance" of elections this year, but noted that the new appointees lacked a "wow factor", adding that Mr Najib would also be hard-pressed to outline his plans for the new Cabinet - incidentally one of the biggest with about 35 ministers (and 30-plus deputies). "People don't see the government bringing betterment or improvement to their lives, but politicking as the first consideration."

In terms of deputy ministers, Lee Chee Leng - previously deputy minister of international trade and an MCA vice-president - is the new deputy finance minister along with Othman Aziz, thus ensuring two finance ministers and two deputies in the ministry.

Another MCA vice-president Chua Tee Yong replaces Mr Lee in trade, while the other two new deputies are Henry Sum Agong (domestic trade) and SK Devamany (PM's Department).