This December of Malaysia’s Vision 2020 year must be the most dismal in the country’s history. It is not the floods or another flight disaster this year. It was Fitch that downgraded Malaysia’s ratings to a BBB+.
A former Attorney General is suing for wrongful dismissal and a Court of Appeal judge who had alleged gross judicial misconduct is being examined for ethics when there are clearly larger, incredible issues of good governance. Then a Menteri Besar fails a confidence vote and there is a boastful Menteri Besar of a state famed for multicultural harmony, who instead of pacifying, provokes a small minority. He also splashes news that his state has substantial subterranean geological assets amounting to trillions. This is an acute, almost chaotic state of disarray in which the elite are the exclusive participants.
At the macroeconomic level Covid-19 seems to have condemned the nation and consigned it to the boondocks of Southeast Asia. It is now increasingly clear that more economies in Southeast Asia have not only become larger but more competitive than that of Malaysia.
Yet the paramount issue of the overarching unity of the country and the need to power ahead to build a stronger and more resilient competitive nation does not seem to be the main priority of the government led by Tan Sri Muhyiddin Mohd Yassin.
Malay- Muslim Predominance
At the annual general meeting of his Bersatu party in late November, the prime minister spoke of the unity of three Malay parties-UMNO, PAS and his Bersatu – which he referred to as Malay-dominant parties.
They are in fact plain Malay parties seeking permanent political preeminence. He spoke of this three Malay party alliance as the fated destiny of divine will. He further made a pledge to fight ‘secularism and liberalism. ‘The definition of secularism and liberalism was left undefined. It was clear that the prime minister was politicising the secular aspects of effective governance practised in Malaysia as provided for in the Constitution for a very long time.
The courts have made this clear repeatedly.
Muhyiddin may have made these statements on the cusp of a contested precarious but bittersweet victory in getting his government’s budget passed. Certainly, he displayed an overdose of confidence and exuberance in speaking of Malay-Muslim solidarity.
With this statement, the prime minister entered into the most muddled and dangerous kind of polemics in a multicultural country.
It will create further division, alienation and tensions within a relatively harmonious polity. He could not possibly have meant what he said. For Muhyiddin to proceed on that narrow and noxious track he would put paid to efforts to preserve multiculturalism that has been the hallmark of the nation from 1957. This was reaffirmed at the time of the formation of Malaysia in 1963 when Sabah and Sarawak agreed to join Malaysia on specified irrevocable terms
Inclusive Malay Leaders
Muhyiddin’s narrow perspective is not even shared by his main Malay political ally, UMNO. For UMNO, despite the involvement of some of its key leaders in unsavoury criminal activities for which they are being prosecuted, has maintained a modest working arrangement with lawmakers representing minority parties.
Beyond that Muhyiddin seems to be somewhat impervious to appreciating and understanding the renewed and resurgent effort being made by some better established Malay leaders to reach out, recognise and represent fairly the interests of the country’s substantial minority segment. These distinguished Malay leaders have always been there but their tack on equitable justice, burden- and prosperity-sharing were enunciated extensively during the recent big-budget debates of November.
This group of leaders have always been there but for Muhyiddin who remains steadfastly Malay-first rather than Malaysian-first these leaders are perhaps just a trifle troublesome and tangential. They are there, however, including the Justice Party chiefs, Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and the progressive leaders of Amanah who are Dato Sris- Mohamad Sabu, Khalid Samad, Dr Dzulkifli Ahmad. This is a rather motley group.
Then there are the Malay Rulers, significant but understated power and policy powerhouses who have consistently been inclusive and sensitive to the aspirations of all Malaysians and have upheld the sanctity and sovereignty of a united Malaysian society.
It would also be unwise to ignore the inclusive and all-embracing outlook of the leaders of Sabah and Sarawak, including Dato Seri Shafie Apdal and Datuk Patinggi Abang Haji Abdul Rahman Johari who on their turf, have steadfastly maintained an inclusive kind of governance.
Muhyiddin Against The Grain
The government of Muhyiddin seems to be sustained on a narrow and nihilistic path of disregarding the minorities when its very survival depends to a large extent on the handful of parliamentary votes it garners from the minorities.
Fitch Ratings may have been influenced by this aspect in highlighting the high political risk headline. It is more a passing phase which is not only unsustainable and unrealistic but doomed.
Malaysia has its strengths and the instant dismal diagnosis by Fitch is a bit of a stretch. While there are some dysfunctional demerits in the current government there are compelling compensatory elements in the strong lineup of the parliamentary opposition, an apolitical bureaucracy, a largely sound legal and judiciary system, feisty social media and respectable and reasonable news portals.
The chasm that exists between Muhyiddin’s mollycoddling of a small segment of the simple majority and his modest achievements in the containment of the Covid-19 pandemic pale in contrast to the high mindedness of his Malay and minority opposition. His is clearly a leadership built on infirm, insecure and insidious foundations which is disproportionately reliant on the office of the Speaker of the lower house. Never in the history of the country has the Speaker been perceived to be so biased and beholden to the mechanics of petty political power dynamics.
Muhyiddin’s sole interest seems to have been dictated by an overwhelming concern of his own survival. The convenience of the cosmetics provided by the Covid-19 contagion more than the political reality on the ground seems to have temporarily secured the tenure of both the prime minister and the Speaker.
At the height of the surge of the Covid-19 cases, the shaky position of the prime minster seems increasingly vulnerable as the senior minister handling the travel and movement control tools has announced the most liberal travel relaxations.
Hence, for some Malaysians, in general, the ratings by Fitch are somewhat flawed, founded on the first impression focus on the fluidity of a political situation, which if and when it changes, would be followed by a more consolidated government than the fragile one it will succeed.
2021 will, by the looks of it, be a more promising year. The Speaker and more than one attorney general may be entering a period of partial and possibly complete eclipse and the Sun should shine more brightly on Malaysia as it gathers steam from a modest recovery. Political stability would, by all calculations be reestablished, in a more united multihued country.
Dato M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador