What good is a Malaysian prime minister who isn’t also the finance minister?

It may be the norm the world over for the two prime political positions to be divvied up between separate individuals – even in Xi Jinping’s “one-man rule” China – but in Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Malaysia, the premier and finance minister are one and the same.

The practice was first established by his former mentor and now rival Mahathir Mohamad, and there are no signs that Najib is contemplating giving up the roles.

The premier is expected to dissolve parliament within weeks to hold a national vote that will pit him against Mahathir. While esoteric compared with other hot-button issues, such as the rising cost of living, the dual role of the country’s premier is expected to be a key talking point at the hustings.

Mahathir, who held the reins as premier from 1981 to 2003, has said he will not repeat his two brief stints as a dual prime minister-finance minister if given the mantle of power once again.

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The 92-year-old in 2016 quit the United Malay National Organisation (Umno), the linchpin of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, because of Najib’s handling of 1MDB, the state fund that lost billions of dollars and is the subject of money-laundering investigations in at least six countries.

Critics of Najib’s economic management have seized on the pre-election buzz to shine the spotlight on the pitfalls of a premier holding the finance minister portfolio, even amid quiet acceptance that he is poised to keep both portfolios.

In a 2017 book analysing the prime minister’s vast economic clout, the country’s top political economist Edmund Terence Gomez wrote that the current governance structure “lays itself open to checks and balances being deeply undermined” and made space for the abuse of power.

This month, the Hong Kong-based financial magazine FinanceAsia ranked Najib second last among the finance ministers of Asia’s top 12 economies.

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Najib, the magazine said, was a “prime example” of a finance minister who had “through their actions or speeches detracted from the credibility and prestige of the institutions they represent”.

For Gomez and others, the 1MDB losses are a prime example of why Najib must let go of the country’s purse strings if he wants to stay in power.

As chairman of the fund’s advisory board, he held sway over its board of directors.

Najib and the government have blamed the losses on the fund’s managers, accusing them of “weak governance”.

However, the international investigations suggest otherwise. A civil suit filed by the US justice department said more than US$3.5 billion was “misappropriated” from the fund, and described the losses as “kleptocracy at its worst”.

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“How can anyone expect the company to be governed properly when the board of directors, the body that is supposed to hold all the legal and fiduciary responsibilities, is effectively subservient to the chairman of the advisory board?” said the local political scientist Wan Saiful Wan Jan in the foreword of Gomez’s book Minister of Finance Incorporated: Ownership and Control of Corporate Malaysia.

Najib has direct control over Minister of Finance Incorporated, one of seven government-linked investment companies. The book offers a forensic analysis of Najib’s varying degree of control over all seven entities. Najib’s government, by one estimate, owned an eye-watering 47.1 per cent of the total market value in 2015.

“1MDB is illuminating proof why this concentration of power is bad and wrong, and I can’t see any positive points,” Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist at the opposition-funded Penang Institute think tank, told This Week in Asia.

NO ILLUSIONS

Political watchers say they are under no illusion that Najib can be forced to give up the finance ministry if he wins the polls.

“If he wins the coming election, Najib would be emboldened to retain the finance portfolio as he would argue that he has the legitimate mandate to do so,” said the Singapore-based Malaysian politics researcher Mustafa Izzuddin.

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Apart from the “unresolved 1MDB scandal”, the strong link in voters’ minds between economic performance and political legitimacy gives the premier little incentive to hand over the prized ministry, Mustafa said.

Gomez meanwhile says he is not holding out hope that the opposition will capitalise on the issue on the campaign trail.

The Pakatan Harapan coalition is made up of Mahathir’s Bersatu, a party he formed after he quit Umno, as well as other non-government parties he assailed during his time as premier. Among them is the Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the party of the jailed democracy icon Anwar Ibrahim.

In 1998, Anwar was sacked as finance and deputy prime minister by the then premier Mahathir, who subsequently stepped in briefly as the economic tsar.

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This set the precedent of the premier serving as the concurrent finance minister.

Mahathir’s immediate successor, Abdullah Badawi, was finance minister throughout his tenure from 2003 to 2009. Anwar, currently serving his second jail stint for sodomy in two decades, maintains both convictions are due to trumped up charges, first by Mahathir, and then by Najib.

He has, however, reconciled with Mahathir in their current bid to topple Najib.

Gomez is bearish on the prospect of the Mahathir-Anwar pairing implementing the reforms he advocates in his book – including the set-up of independent, non-partisan regulatory control over government-linked companies. In the Selangor and Penang states controlled by the opposition coalition, the component parties have “stuffed” the boards of government-linked companies with politicians, he said.

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“These elected parliamentarians and state assemblymen are getting paid directors’ fees which are being channelled back to the party or to cover expenses incurred by these politicians in their constituencies.

“The opposition, in other words, are also abusing the government-linked companies under their control.

“They are no different from Umno, a point that Barisan Nasional leaders will definitely point out if the issues in my book are raised by Pakatan Harapan members.”