On March 8, 2018, some two months before Malaysia’s 14th General Election(GE14) a seemingly ragtag group of seasoned, well known political figures under the Pakatan Harapan (PH) umbrella led by a 93-year-old long-retired prime minister met in Shah Alam to unveil their election manifesto. There was some press coverage of the event and most of the country’s compliant press and media was scathing, if not sceptical about that manifesto. News portals, especially non-mainstream ones, were more considerate and charitable and provided some detailed coverage of the contents of the manifesto.
The PH leadership was announcing its manifesto at a time when it did not know when GE14 would take place. Being in the political wilderness PH leaders could not guess or anticipate when exactly GE14 would take place. That election date was the sole prerogative of the government of the day. The manifesto was an all-encompassing, ambitious, some would even say an astounding one for it promised what seemed utopian and unachievable.
Being distant from the seat of power and given the difficult, almost impossible, political terrain that had to be covered to capture power, the distinguished and disparate PH leadership was perhaps too effusive of the reality it hoped to create. It was a frantic but formidable attempt at correcting the excesses of some 30 years of over-centralised, almost authoritarian and increasingly arbitrary one-man rule. The manifesto spoke of a ‘ dire situation due to the grave wrong doings of the ruling regime’ and expressed the veritable truth that that ‘regime will not correct itself.’
The manifesto itself contained 60 promises and five pillars. The most poignant pillar was the fifth, which was the commitment to create a Malaysia that is inclusive, moderate and respected globally. Although this appeared as the last of the five pillars it aptly summed up an untenable situation in a divided, peninsula-Malay first and besmirched Malaysia as a result of unbridled corruption and a power-crazy kleptomaniac prime minister who depended on Sabah and Sarawak mainly for a fixed deposit of electoral advantage under the guise of one Malaysia (1Malaysia).
In the preamble of the manifesto, it promised that PH will ensure that Malaysians of all backgrounds will enjoy a fair share of the country’s wealth.
Pakatan wins power
Then on May 10, 2018, barely two months after the announcement of the manifesto PH was in power rather unexpectedly. A newly empowered electorate and a devastated and discredited opposition of the new PH government began to agitate and hold the new government to its manifesto thinking aloud that PH will not be able to deliver.
The PH government was put under pressure on one other new flank by a defiant and distraught Najib, the former prime minister. In that exercise, Najib found a good ally, the conservative Islamic party, PAS. That flank was that the dominant Malay-Muslim segment had lost power and that the new government was beholden to the non-Malay elements in the government. This was a clever and cunning but irresponsible strategy which riled the new government and reoriented, almost disoriented, the new government.
Najib and his former deputy have since been charged separately for various white-collar crimes and the trials seem to provide a rare insight into the impunity with which they conducted themselves.
In spite of this and other diversions, the PH government has been able to deliver on most of its promises, conservatively estimated at about 50 per cent although some PH stalwarts would claim fulfilment as high as 60 per cent. This is an impressive achievement for a 20 month-old government which is only on the first third of a 60-month tenure.
The delivery record is also notable given international economic headwinds and a rather stagnant economy. The voting age has also been reduced to 18. Some important headline changes relating to human rights, non-discrimination and the abrogation of bad laws could not be made as these reforms were not able to muster the numbers required for parliamentary approval. Najib’s coterie succeeded in whipping up a scare about the proposed amendments.
The scare, essentially race and religion-based, built up by Najib’s opposition faction had also derailed efforts to ratify the International Convention Against All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). The government also back-pedalled on the Rome Statute.
One important feature of PH’s strategy was to reduce the burden of the high cost of living on the population. In order to reduce such costs, the government successfully renegotiated and brought down the previously agreed cost of massive infrastructure projects.
A significant component of the high cost of living was also the daily transportation cost and in response to widely expressed dissatisfaction over toll charges, the PH manifesto had promised a gradual lowering of toll charges. This was to lead to the eventual abolition of these charges. No time span was specified.
On Wednesday, January 15 the Malaysian cabinet decided that Malaysia’s biggest expressway toll operator, PLUS will not be to sell to private interests. Instead PLUS toll operations would continue to remain vested indirectly with two State-owned and run funds, Khazanah Negara and the Employees Provident Fund. Some corporate figures who had attempted to take control of the lucrative toll operator were aghast and criticised the move. It was seen as a reversal of a trend to allow privatisation and a retrogressive step.
The decision of the government to not sell PLUS came with other goodies which would be beneficial to most of the population. Toll charges in the expressways covered by PLUS would be reduced for private passenger cars by 18 per cent from February 1, 2020, and the rates would remain unchanged up to 2058.
Significantly PLUS would retain the concession for another 38 years but for the first time that extension of an additional twenty years was not accompanied by an increase in toll charges. While this may seem like a modest step, the car-owning population stands to benefit from lower tolls especially in travelling to and from certain urban centres on their daily routine.
BN retains Kimanis
Before the impact of this reduction in tolls could take hold of the Peninsula where most of the benefit would apply, there was the news of the retention of the Kimanis parliamentary seat by the Opposition Barisan Nasional(BN) candidate in a by-election held on January 18th.
To the credit of the PH government and a reconstituted Election Commission by-elections in Malaysia are a fair game for both the governing coalition and the opposition. In the by-election held in Kimanis the BN’s UMNO candidate, Mohamad Alamin managed to garner 12,706 votes against his PH’s opponent, Karim Bujang’s 10677 votes, giving the former a comfortable margin of 2029 votes.
This was a more than a twelvefold increase for the UMNO/BN candidate over the precarious 156 vote lead in GE14. The most disturbing part of the victory lineup was the presence of Najib Razak and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, both of whom are facing various serious white-collar criminal charges.
It would seem that to the man in the street in Kimanis white-collar crimes, corruption and abuse of power and tainted associates are not a great disability.
From the PH government, there have been many reactions to the loss in the by-election. It is telling however that PH is saddled with certain persistent issues, especially infighting between certain parties in the coalition and too much friendly fire. PH also seems to have been bogged down with trivialities like the colour of shoes for school goers.
The other major issue is the distraction and unending speculation caused by the lack of a date for Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim to succeed the incumbent prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
There are many misgivings that no firm date has been set for a smooth, orderly and peaceful transition. A firm decision on the matter would also ease concerns in the minds of most Malaysians, including ordinary citizens as well as potential investors on the direction the country will take in the medium term. A firm date would bring much clarity to an issue that is played out in many different ways both within and outside the country.
Dato’ M Santhananaban is a retired Malaysian ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Independent Singapore. /TISG