Fifteen months after that sweet, splendid victory of Pakatan Harapan in GE 14, some Malaysian government leaders seem to have forgotten many things completely including the anxiety, hard work, sweat and sacrifice of the people who put them in power. Had that old government survived it is unimaginable what kind of a catastrophic chaos would have convulsed the country. Our nation’s finances would have plunged to perilous, unsustainable levels. That government had an all powerful Nero in their midst and the roles of other Ministers to correct course or inculcate some reasonableness were nugatory.
While the ongoing high profile trial of the former prime minister Najib Razak is a reminder of the extensive and excessive powers and primacy of the prime minister’s office very little has been done to curb the powers of that office.
The new ministers, deputy ministers and high officials seem to be comfortably settled into their well air conditioned and opulent offices and have become accustomed to doors being opened for them and aides, like equerries, waiting on them. They seem to be grateful for this powerful and privileged position and have developed some amnesia with their new found status. Yet there are daily reminders of the excesses attributed to a former prime minister.
The promise made to reduce drastically the powers of the prime minister has to be worked on laboriously and honoured, more so as it was the current incumbent in that office who had raised it both before and after GE14. The devolution of the prime minister’s powers can only happen with the full involvement of the entire cabinet, the country’s highest policy making body.
Tun Suffian’s An Introduction to the Constitution of Malaysia states that there were “ no Rules of Conduct for Cabinet Ministers, but a pre- Merdeka text, a despatch from the Colonial Secretary of State dated 25th August 1954 to Sir Donald MacGillivray, the last British High Commissioner before Independence throws some light as to what is expected of them.” The text goes on to specify some rules and a code of ethics for Ministers based on practices which were generally accepted in the UK such as maintaining secrecy, the integrity of the office and not placing oneself in a conflict of interest situation. Those rules seem to have been largely observed in the first five decades of Independence.
The most explicit rules of conduct and adat for Cabinet Ministers are spelt out by an experienced former federal Cabinet Minister, Tan Sri Dr Rais Yatim in his “ Cabinet Governing in Malaysia”(2006) which describes the practice of how the cabinet operates. Generously endowed with photographs of the cabinet room taken by the author, on page 6 it is stated that ‘ Ministers do not forgot that under the Malaysian political system, the PM calls the shots.” Tan Sri Rais is categorical in suggesting( on page25) that the largest component in the Barisan Nasional coalition, UMNO had provided the PM and hence satisfied Article 43(2)(a) of commanding the confidence of the majority of the members of Parliament. Rais’ prescient assertion that ‘ the day that the status quo is changed, which may arise out of the question of leadership or equality perspective in the Bangsa Malaysia scenario, it will then become a constitutional issue.” That constitutional issue did not arise after GE14 but the reality is that UMNO has lost power and the current prime minister does not lead the largest component of the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition. Yet he was acceptable to all the component parties of Pakatan Harapan.
That familiar asymmetrical UMNO-dominated coalition system has been inexorably replaced for the time being with one of the smaller parties in the ruling coalition obtaining the prime ministerial position.
There is currently a crisis because there is no clearly identifiable successor to the 94-year-old Dr Mahathir Mohamad. His deputy is Dato’ Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail who, on the evening of May 10 2018 came to that position on account of her party being the largest component of the newly formed PH government. From the beginning it was widely understood that she was an interim stand-in deputy prime minister and it was contingent on her spouse, Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim replacing her at some point. Elected to parliament just before midOctober 2018, Anwar is waiting in the wings and is being referred to some circles as prime minister-designate and prime minister-in-waiting.
There was no question till early June that Anwar would succeed Dr Mahathir. Some uncertainty on this matter has crept up lately as there seems to be an unresolved issue with the principal deputy in the PKR over a sensational video involving sex.
The present government has done many good things including fostering an atmosphere of unprecedented openness and freedom of speech, providing an honest appraisal of our debt situation and debt servicing obligations, reducing road tolls, stabilising petrol prices and focussing attention on B40 problems and the serious pollution issue. Their efforts to curb rising prices have had some success.They have failed however to address the issue of rebuilding national unity or reinvigorating our education system, failed to capture the national narrative and communicate effectively to publicise and promote their policies although their ministers are making some incredible statements on non-alcoholic beer and potential African workers. They have not been short of histrionics but the leadership has failed repeatedly to speak with one voice perhaps partly because the prime minister is a compromise candidate rather than someone with the authority and support of the largest component party.
The government has also charged several high officials of the previous government for theft and trickery that may be tantamount to treason in some countries.
Our new leaders have however let down the People with their infighting( it is no longer friendly fire) and the public airing of their intra- party differences. Their personality differences, preference for certain second echelon leaders and their contests for popularity within their political caucuses are matters best settled behind closed doors.
This victory that was handed by the People has to be valued, appreciated and enhanced and not be whittled away.
Aspirants for the prime minister’s position, when a vacancy arises , have to be and seen to be of impeccable character and conduct.
The Prime Minister is not an ordinarily free citizen, not in Malaysia.
Given the most powerful position of the prime minister in Malaysia’s system of government any incumbent in that office must realise that he is not a free man, in the ordinary sense.
The prime minister’s conduct will be henceforth subject to much scrutiny.
While members of the public, his cabinet and parliamentary colleagues can enjoy some access such access is often restricted by heavy commitments, the discretion of the private office and security personnel. The PM’s own staff must be of the highest integrity and maintain full secrecy of their movements for both safety, efficiency and to provide ample time to perform important duties. They cannot be seen to be seen or heard to be tipping off members of the business community or anyone of the prime minister’s travel plans. Actions of the prime minister’s staff will also be scrutinised, especially within social media.
It is therefore essential that aspirants for this post are of impeccable character and conduct. These are the qualities that serving ministers in the Malaysian cabinet are required to have.
Refining and redefining the role of the prime minister in Malaysia’s political system will not diminish that office. Instead Malaysia would enhance the role of the cabinet in the governance system and could well become a shining model of parliamentary democracy in Southeast Asia.
Dato’ M Santhananaban, a retired ambassador has 45 years of public service experience