Nurul Izzah Anwar, the 42-year-old eldest daughter of Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, has triggered public uproar after she revealed his appointment as Senior Advisor to the 10th Prime Minister on Economics and Finance effective January 3, 2023. Knowing the sensitivity of his new job, she quickly said she is working “pro-bono” or free without any salary or allowances.
However, that was not enough to stop criticisms, especially from opposition Perikatan Nasional, which has been looking for bullets to attack Anwar-led unity government. It provides a temporary relief to Perikatan Nasional chairman Muhyiddin Yassin, who is plagued with the RM92.5 billion Covid-19 stimulus scandal, where up to RM4.5 billion could have been stolen by the former prime minister.
The public too was not impressed with Nurul’s appointment. On the surface, it screams “nepotism” – an extremely negative subject in a country where hundreds of billions of Ringgit have been lost through corruption, cronyism, favouritism and nepotism over 60 years under the previous Barisan Nasional government. However, critics might have prematurely over-reacted.
Nepotism, in layman term, means the act of using your power or influence to get good jobs or unfair advantages for members of your own family. Essentially, Bill Gates would have committed nepotism if he appoints any of his three kids, Jennifer, Rory and Phoebe, for top jobs at Microsoft. Nepotism easily applies to most Chinese-owned companies, where children are trained to run the family business.
The key word here is getting “good jobs” for family members. Of course, good jobs here also mean top salaries or perks because nobody would work for free. The only way someone would work for free is he/she is wealthy enough not to worry about putting food on the table, or if they could benefit – directly or indirectly – through projects or business contracts behind the scene.
And since Nurul isn’t getting paid for her new job (she has more than enough money to survive from her pensions as four-term Member of Parliament since 2008), the only risk is the possibility of her enriching family members through directly awarded projects or contracts. But it seems none of her critics think she would do such thing – suggesting she is clean.
So, they attack her qualification. For example, opposition Bersatu deputy president Ahmad Faizal Azumu asked whether she is qualified for the post as she only has a bachelor’s degree in engineering. Azumu should instead look at his own below-average credentials. He only holds a Masters Degree in Political Science from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.
Worse, Ahmad Faizal is tainted with a dubious Business Studies degree from Edith Cowan University, Australia. Nurul did her bachelor’s degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering from the Universiti Tenaga Nasional. She then furthered her studies in the U.S., graduating with a a Master’s degree in public policy from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
After Azumu was toppled as the Perak chief minister, his boss – PM Muhyiddin Yassin – shamelessly appointed him as a Special Advisor in Aug 2021 with “ministerial rank”, drawing salary and perks of at least RM55,000 every month. Exactly what Azumu had achieved which Muhyiddin is so proud that the ex-PM is now lecturing PM Anwar to cancel Nurul’s appointment?
So, it’s perfectly acceptable for Muhyiddin to appoint Azumu as a Special Advisor with RM55,000 pay cheques, but a horrible idea for Anwar to appoint his daughter as a Special Advisor without any pay? Can Muhyiddin explain why Nurul’s appointment is more wasteful than Azumu’s? Muhyiddin’s super bloated Cabinet comprised 72 ministers and deputy ministers – all paid by taxpayers.
A so-called think-tank – the Center for Market Education (CME) – has expressed serious concerns about the appointment of PKR vice-president Nurul Izzah, arguing that she does not possess any specific background in economics or finance. Actually, it’s quite idiocy to question Nurul’s capability to offer advice based on her university degrees and experience.
Janet Yellen – nominated by President Joe Biden – is an American economist currently serving as the 78th U.S. Secretary of the Treasury since January 26, 2021. Previously served as the 15th chair of the Federal Reserve (2014-2018), she possessed an incredible qualification. She graduated from Brown University in 1967 and earned a Ph.D. in economics from Yale University.
She even taught as an assistant professor at Harvard University (1971-1976) and joined the faculty of the London School of Economics (1978-1980). Heck, Yellen is professor emeritus at the Haas School of Business and the University of California. She was also nominated by President Bill Clinton to serve as a member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors (1994-1997).
Yet, she destroys the U.S. economy spectacularly. In an interview with CNN, the U.S. Treasury Secretary said she was “wrong” about how severe inflation would be. She admitted her screw-up – “I think I was wrong then about the path that inflation would take”. She was referring to her remarks in 2021 where she indicated there would only be a “small risk” of inflation, and that it would be “manageable”.
Worse, she said something that was absolutely stunning – “There have been unanticipated and large shocks to the economy that have boosted energy and food prices, and supply bottlenecks that have affected our economy badly, that I didn’t at the time ‘didn’t fully understand’. But we recognize that now the Federal Reserve is taking the steps that it needs to take.”
Yes, she did not fully understand the economic problem in 2021, yet she had irresponsibly declared that inflation would be “a small risk,” “manageable” and “not a problem”. If a person with tons of economic experience and impressive academic qualifications like Yellen could not even understand the basic risk of inflation, aren’t Malaysians over-reacting before Nurul could even prove herself?
Just to set the expectation right, Nurul’s role is just an economic and financial advisor to PM Anwar. Her role is limited to an advisory, not making policies, which falls under the jurisdiction of finance ministry, economic ministry, international trade ministry and other ministries. She does not have any power to call for meetings among ministries to propose or implement economic policy agenda.
Therefore, she can’t make any bad policies at all because her new position does not come with “ministerial rank”. Her badge as special advisor does not grant her an executive power to make critical finance or economic decisions. Her role isn’t like the wasteful appointment of PAS Islamist party president Hadi Awang as special envoy to the Middle East with ministerial rank.
Even if Nurul’s appointment as Senior Advisor comes with special executive power, which does not, it’s hard to believe she would propose some disastrous policies that would undermine, damage or destroy her father’s reputation. The reason why PM Anwar wanted her daughter to be his adviser is because she is the most trustworthy person within the circle to offer him honest advice.
Sure, some might argue why the prime minister can’t appoint an outsider. The question is whether someone without any personal or business agenda would be interested to work as Special Advisor on pro-bono basis – without stirring up racial and religion sentiments among the Malays that they have lost power to the “Chinese, Christians and Communists”.
If there’s such talent, the country would not be in such a mess in the first place. Critics appear to assume the Special Advisor must be a genius in economy and finance to be qualified. In truth, such brilliant economists and financial experts, if they exist, have already migrated due to 60 years of discrimination, racism, favouritism policies and whatnot.
The Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4) similarly condemned Nurul’s appointment as not only nepotism, but a conflict of interest. Do they even understand the meaning of conflict of interest? It is a situation in which a person is in a position to derive personal benefit from actions or decisions made in their official capacity. But a conflict cannot happen if there is no interest to begin with.
Some silly critics argue that Nurul should join an NGO instead to advise his father. Have they forgotten how Rosmah Mansor ran the country disguised as the wife of former PM Najib Razak who never interfered in the government affairs? The Imelda Marcos of Malaysia always “advised” the premier even though she was never a special advisor to the government.
Rosmah too had a special programme called “Permata” which she believed to be a non-profit organization. Yet, the so-called charity organization was allocated a whopping RM711 million in the Budget 2015 alone. Since its inception in 2007, nobody knows how billions of Ringgit had been spent or channelled from Permata. This shows you don’t need to directly work under the prime minister to steal money.
Ivanka Trump and husband Jared Kushner both served as senior advisors to former U.S. President Donald Trump. Even though the POTUS’ daughter and son-in-law were not paid a salary for their work, they made between US$24 million and US$121 million during their final year working in the White House. That’s because unlike Nurul, the couple has business interests in Trump Empire.
The scope of economy and finance is very broad. Is Nurul appointed to single-handedly fix the country’s national debt of RM1.5 trillion or to strengthen the Ringgit currency to RM2.50 to a U.S. dollar? Or is she appointed just to channel economic advice based on real problems on the ground because PM Anwar could not fully trust apple polishers or officials with ulterior motives around him?
It’s worth noting that Nurul Izzah, whose journey in politics began in 1998, had resigned as vice president of PKR and announced she would no longer serve the federal government in any capacity back in December 2018 because the principled “Princess of Reformasi” disagreed with how his father ran the party, not to mention how then-PM Mahathir ran the government.