Wednesday, August 22, 2018


Chandra Muzaffar

There is little sense in grading a new government on its performance in its first 100 days in office especially if it has just replaced the world’s longest running coalition in power which had degenerated into a notorious kleptocracy in its last phase.

The Pakatan Harapan itself had set the stage for this evaluation by pledging to fulfil 10 promises within 100 days in its Election Manifesto. The 100 days idea is nothing more than a political fad that originated with the Franklin Roosevelt presidency in the United States of America. It is totally inappropriate in our context when the momentous change that occurred on the 9th of May and the monumental challenges that have unfolded since then require an appraisal that is continuous and comprehensive.

It is that sort of appraisal that society should provide as feedback to the PH government. It should be non-partisan and as fair and unbiased as possible.  The aim would be to encourage the positive dimensions in the PH’s governance and to caution against negative aspects of its performance.

Since corruption and abuse of power associated with the previous Barisan Nasional government was a major factor in its downfall, the PH leadership is doing the right thing in exposing the terrible wrongdoings related to the 1MDB scandal and other financial shenanigans. Understandably, the focus has been upon the former Prime Minister, Dato Sri Mohd Najib Razak and upon the handbags, jewelleries and other expensive acquisitions of his wife, Datin Sri Rosmah Mansor. In the course of these revelations, the Malaysian public has become acutely aware of the massive debts that the government had accumulated in recent years. In order to reduce these debts, mammoth projects undertaken with Chinese companies and the Singapore government have had to be cancelled or postponed.

For the people, especially those who were once unquestioningly loyal to Najib, the realisation that a leader that they revered had betrayed their well-being could be a traumatic experience. Nonetheless, one hopes that coming to grips with the truth in this painful manner will, at the collective level, lead to a catharsis --- a catharsis of the Malaysian soul that will fortify us, all of us, against the scourge of corruption.

Apart from baring the ugly face of corruption and its consequences, the PH government has also sought to address some of the woes of the people as expressed during the election campaign. It has abolished the unpopular Goods and Services Tax (GST) ; stabilised the price of petrol and introduced targeted petrol subsidies ; eliminated unnecessary debts imposed upon Felda settlers; and postponed the repayment of PTPTN loans for graduates whose salaries are below RM 4000 per month.

The government has also acted against two institutions related directly or indirectly to national unity. It has abolished the Biro Tata Negara (BTN) which many felt did not conduce towards the promotion of better ethnic relations. And it has also dismantled the National Service Programme which earlier studies had shown made very limited contribution to the integration of young adults.

While these are among the many positive measures, one should not ignore the gross errors and outright fumbles committed by the new government and entities associated with it.  I shall highlight just one. For a short while in July, Malaysia found itself in an embarrassing situation with two Chief Justices. It arose partly because in hastening a transition of authority in the Judiciary, respect for the independence and integrity of the institution was set aside.

In spite of this and other flaws, the PH government continues to enjoy the trust and confidence of the vast majority of the people as reflected in a number of surveys. It is perceived as sincere in its endeavour to rectify the shortcomings of the previous government. Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad’s pivotal role in ousting Najib and the commitment displayed by this 93 year-old leader in planning and executing important changes since the 9th of May, explain in part the high level of public trust in the government of the day. 

Nonetheless, Tun and his government will be facing monumental challenges in the days ahead. Even in combating corruption --- the first of seven challenges --- it has yet to present to Parliament a Bill to regulate political financing and to make electoral funding transparent. The declaration of the assets and liabilities of Ministers and Deputy Ministers at the federal level to the public through the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission is awaiting implementation.  Other proposals on barring close relatives of power-holders from bidding for Federal or state government contracts and projects or on minimising and eliminating  the role of  “middle-men”  and proxies in procurement exercises involving  Federal and state entities have not been pursued with vigour.

Strengthening democracy has been largely about rescinding laws such as the Sedition Act, and Sosma, among others. But even this remains an unfulfilled promise. However, enhancing human rights must mean more than rescinding authoritarian laws.  Some of the vile and vicious excesses of the social media have convinced a lot of human rights advocates of the importance of integrating rights with responsibilities. A more profound commitment to responsibilities at all levels could help develop a deeper attachment to the principle of Amanah (Trust) which in turn will reinforce the spiritual-moral foundation of life and society.

An equally crucial challenge confronting the PH government is the situation of the relatively poor and disadvantaged. Increasing and equalising the minimum wage nationally is one of the prominent PH pledges. The government is also very much aware of why improving the quality of public housing, public education, public health-care, public transportation, and public amenities in general will impact positively upon the life of the poor. But relative deprivation in a society like ours cannot be overcome unless one also regulates the huge salaries, bonuses and perks that the affluent minority regard as their privilege. There is no sign to suggest that the PH is moving in that direction in a concerted manner.
A fourth fundamental challenge revolves around ethnic relations. Remarks and demands made within and without the PH by different individuals and parties in the first 100 days reveal ethnic and religious fault lines that the coalition has not dealt with as a grouping. For instance, the uneasiness among some Malays caused by certain senior government appointments indicates not only a lack of appreciation of the Constitution but also points to a superficial understanding of what citizenship in a modern society entails. Similarly, grossly inaccurate views about the ethnicity of ancient communities in the region, the flow of peoples within Nusantara and the reality of colonial migration and its adverse impact upon contemporary ethnic relations, shows how much ignorance prevails even among top political leaders in PH. Indeed, one gets the impression that the PH has not really imbued its leadership and membership with knowledge and understanding of how the Malaysian nation-state evolved essentially from Malay Sultanates shaped by the colonial experience and the non-Malay presence. Without such understanding, it will be difficult to navigate ethnic relations in the country.

PH has also got to deal with the rising crescendo of calls for greater autonomy from the citizens of Sarawak and Sabah. Enforcing the Malaysia Agreement of 1963 is a PH promise though very little appears to have been done in concrete terms. Genuine autonomy for the two states will require a re-appraisal of the federal structure itself.

Forging a foreign policy of dignity that safeguards Malaysia’s independence and sovereignty has become a much greater challenge today than it was when Mahathir first became Prime Minister in 1981. The United States’ negative response to the rise of China in recent decades has transformed ASEAN into a potential cockpit of conflict. To minimise tension and to avert serious friction, Malaysia together with its ASEAN neighbours will have to engage not just the US and China but also other states in Asia such as Japan, the Koreas, India and Pakistan in constructive dialogue.

Finally, in order to handle all these challenges, a seventh challenge centred upon Pakatan Harapan itself. While we acknowledge that it is a new coalition of four parties, we realise that because it is in power and forced to grapple with monumental challenges, it has no choice but to demonstrate a high degree of cohesion and unity. On many issues of governance it has already achieved an appreciable measure of consensus. However, the same cannot be said for issues of identity related to ethnicity and religion. For coalitions linked to ethnic and religious communities, directly or indirectly, the politics of identity would be as critical as the ethics of governance. 

To evolve a viable understanding on the politics of identity, PH’s leading personalities from all the parties will have a decisive role to play. One hopes that heart-to-heart communication among them will lead to greater empathy across ethnic and religious boundaries. It is such empathy --- and such empathy alone ---that will sustain PH in the years to come   
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Yayasan Perpaduan Malaysia.

Petaling Jaya.

20 August 2018.