March 9, 2020 / 3:20 AM / a month ago

Malaysia names senior banker to finance post as political turmoil settles

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin named a senior banker as finance minister in his new administration on Monday, looking to calm jitters tied to domestic political turmoil and global recession fears over the coronavirus.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin waves to reporters before his cabinet announcement in Putrajaya, Malaysia March 9, 2020. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng

Sworn in a week ago, Muhyiddin emerged at the head of a new coalition after days of political chaos following the abrupt resignation of veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad last month.

While Mahathir had led a multi-ethnic coalition, Muhyiddin’s new pact is dominated by conservative, ethnic Malay parties, notably the former ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) which was ousted in the 2018 election, and the Islamist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS).

The appointment of CIMB Group chief executive Tengku Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz is the first time a non-politician has been made finance minister.

Muhyiddin said the decision to name Zafrul, who has led CIMB since 2015 and is an avid cyclist and Ironman competitor, was part of the goal of creating “a cabinet that delivers”.

CIMB announced Zafrul’s resignation from all positions with the bank with immediate effect.

“Perhaps the government wants to ride on his relationship with foreign fund managers and bankers - they are important stakeholders in attracting investments into the country,” said Adib Zalkapli, a Malaysia director with Bower Group Asia.

Muhyiddin’s new Perikatan Nasional or National Alliance coalition is expected to steer policies in favor of the country’s ethnic Malay majority, but the government’s immediate task will be to protect the export-focused economy from the impact of the coronavirus.

Malaysia has so far reported 99 infections.

SLOWING ECONOMY

The government has cut its growth forecast for this year and announced a 20 billion ringgit ($4.76 billion) stimulus package. The economy grew at its slowest pace in a decade in the fourth quarter.

The sharp fall in world oil prices, which intensified on Monday, will also be a drag on the country, the world’s third-biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas. Another worry is its diplomatic row with India, the biggest buyer of Malaysian palm oil.

Muhyiddin also announced four new senior minister portfolios to oversee the economy, security, infrastructure development and education. They were split between his party, UMNO and those supportive of his new coalition.

“With these senior ministers, there is no need for the time being for a deputy prime minister to be appointed,” Muhyiddin said at a news conference.

The four senior ministers include Azmin Ali, who was seen as an important figure behind the government change. He will oversee the international trade and industry portfolio.

Earlier on Monday, the prime minister’s office announced the appointment of Azam Baki as the new chief commissioner of the Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission, after the resignation of Latheefa Koya last week following Mahathir’s resignation.

Slideshow (2 Images)

Attorney-general Tommy Thomas, who brought corruption charges against Najib and other members of the ex-premier’s former administration, quit the previous week. He has since been replaced by former federal court judge Idrus Harun.

In his first week as prime minister, Muhyiddin had already faced criticism after he postponed the start of parliamentary proceedings by two months amid efforts by Mahathir and the opposition to challenge his government with a confidence vote.

Reporting by Rozanna Latiff, Joseph Sipalan and Krishna N. Das; Editing by Kim Coghill

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