Asia Malaysia’s dilemma is Dr Mahathir’s biggest hurdle

Malaysia’s dilemma is Dr Mahathir’s biggest hurdle

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By: Dato’ M Santhananaban

Fourteen months after that fulsome 14th General Election which saw the ouster of the UMNO-dominated Barisan Nasional Malaysia is a very long way away from the sober democratic utopia that the Pakatan Harapan government seemed to promise. To begin with Malaysians generally had had unrealistic expectations of the dividends from the ouster of the previous government. There were no uniform expectations that transcended ethnicity , class ,or religious or regional interests, for instance.

One cannot deny the positive changes that have occurred in the leadership of the Executive, the legislature and the Judiciary and new role of the fourth estate as a more assertive, free, open and probing medium. These are more than cosmetic changes. Certainly the quality of democracy and freedom of expression has improved. It is easily the best democracy in Southeast Asia.

A parsimonious reading of the epochal events beginning on May 9, 2018 would maintain however that the new government has faltered. Some analysts have highlighted the failure to devolve the powers of the prime minister. The appointment of a new anti -corruption commission chief in early June brought out much criticism that the prime minister was still all-powerful. Dr Mahathir Mohamad has maintained that he was solely responsible for the appointment. Legally he was on unshakeable ground but it was violative of his own commitment that there would be some consultation on such and other matters with select institutions.

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The prime minister’s outright offhand dismissal of a request for the extradition of a controversial Muslim cleric wanted for money laundering is India again demonstrated the continued prevalence of an overwhelmingly prime minister-centric and dominated system.
With regard to the extradition of the cleric the prime minister could have given a host of honest diplomatic answers. Instead he chose to show he was all powerful in the local power play and he virtually preempted what the courts could eventually rule on.

The reality is you cannot take a nonagenarian and expect him to change his character and pander to the needs of a vibrant and new democratic culture. Mahathir is no Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel who had championed the cause of freedom, and counselled some form of forgiveness, mellifluous meekness and reconciliation in their victory.

Mahathir has traditionally championed the cause of a major segment of the Malaysian population. Most of his leadership evolved from championing and integrating pro-Malay and Muslim priorities in the country’s development policies. In the present power calculus of Pakatan Harapan his Bersatu party is the weakest and while being the head of the coalition he is seeking continually to strengthen his own power base.

Pakatan Harapan won GE 14 but failed to capture the majority of the votes of the Malay- Muslim community. About two thirds of the Malay- Muslim votes went to UMNO and PAS and these two parties have been exceptionally efficient in capitalising on their losses by equating that to the loss of political power by the Malays. Being the hardheaded realist that he is, Mahathir has been trying from day one in the new administration to claw back Malay- Muslim support.

His political allies especially from the largely non-Malay -dominated Democratic Action Party, backed by some scholars and analysts, seem to harbour illusions that there would be movement toward a more inclusive, coequal and participatory role for non-Malays in the country. For greater inclusiveness and participation by the non-Malays, including Sabahans and Sarawakians in Malaysia’s economic, educational and employment situation a mindset change accompanied by reforms must take root.

The civil service has to be a major and integral part of that reform process. There is a highly politicised bureaucracy in place and the changes that have taken place at the apex of the bureaucratic structures are not sufficient for an innovative broad based approach to issues of ethnicity and regionalism.

With the near eighty five percent participation in most of the government by bumiputras through years of deliberate government and bureaucratic control of the recruitment apparatus Dr Mahathir himself can’t do much singlehandedly to bring about reforms.
A cabinet minister while explaining the backtracking on an innocuous ICERD and Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court attributed it to the existence of ‘a deep state.’ That deep state’s existence is undeniable. It works to protect many questionable transgressions.

Corruption, abuse of office and arbitrariness are integral to operation of the deep state. The deep state believes in a decree-driven polity, the type that came out raw from the May 13th Incidents of 1969. No government decree could then be questioned. When questioned the full force of colonial era legislation was brought to bear on those that transgressed. Dato Sri Najib Tun Abdul Razak, on hindsight the country’s most powerful prime minister contributed to the strengthening the operation of the deep state with new repressive laws, financial resources and apparatchiks in his administration. Under Najib Parliament approved the the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2015 and the Sedition( Amendment) Act 2015.

For this reason partly there seems to be some tangible sympathy for Dato Sri Najib as he faces various corruption and embezzlement charges. There is some resistance for the law to take its course from Najib’s supporters. He is still ‘Bossku’ to many who believe, rightly or wrongly, that he has been wronged.

For Mahathir’s government to win the next General Election it cannot go too hard on corruption within the government especially within the predominantly Malay bureaucracy. Mahathir or his administration cannot also be seen to be hard on dampening down pro-Malay sentiment or in some cases, pro- Malay leaders. The position of the Peninsular Malays in unassailable leadership positions has also to be safeguarded.
The objectives of building institutional capacity, eliminating corruption and realising separation of powers require not just leadership at the apex but well qualified and motivated people in the support structures. Those support structures will need time to build.

A peculiar feature of Malaysia is its highest power distance ratio. Heads of organisations always seem invincible and no number two can quite prevail. Leaders are not known for sharing power or the limelight. It is due to a combination of semi feudal practices, ethnicity-biased mechanisms and the axiomatic leadership preference that Peninsular Malays traditionally enjoy. In this equation it is difficult to accept a non-Malay in any flagship position. The appointment of a non- Malay Attorney General, for instance is seen as a betrayal of Malay primacy.

Many years ago I was told that only a Malay could be High Commissioner in London. To its credit the current PH Government has appointed for the first time a non- Peninsular Malay to that position, after 56 years of Malaysia. These exclusions have to be seen in the context somewhat similar to those practised by the Singapore Air Force with regard to the Malays and Cathay Pacific Airlines of the non-Caucasians.

Malaysians are generally vociferous about the PH Government not appointing politicians to GLCs and some of the statutory bodies. This is unrealistic given that the quality of the bureaucracy and professionalism is not first-rate with deeply embedded politicisation and other factors. One has to accept that not all politicians are bad and they should be considered for fixed tenure positions of two to three years.

Malaysia under the current Pakatan Harapan leadership is still a work in progress. A robust democratic culture and a greater responsiveness to the people’s needs will become more of a reality with reforms, reengineering of the civil service and time.

Those promises made by a an exhausted, weary but committed Dr Mahathir in the wee hours of May 10, 2018 will take time to run their course.

In the meantime much , much patience is absolutely essential but that seems to be rather in short supply.

M Santhananaban

Dato’ M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador of the Malaysian Foreign Service with more than forty five years of public sector experience.
(Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Publication)

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