Some seven months after becoming prime minister, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Mohd Yassin, with his informal caucus’ wafer-thin parliamentary advantage is managing Malaysia precariously. His government seems powered more than ever vicariously by Covid-19 restrictions.
Everyone who switched camps to enable the formation of his government seems to have been rewarded with sinecures- ministerial posts, ambassadorships, chairmanships and directorships. One desperate turncoat has installed himself in the deputy prime minister’s official residence when not so designated.
Muhyiddin now refers to himself as ‘Abah’, a familiar endearing term for a father figure in certain homes of Malaysia’s multihued population. He is hardly a patriarchal figure with his controversial route to the prime ministership. Political sleaze is written all over him. Styling himself as Abah seems somewhat odd. The patriarch, although kind and caring to his folk, claims he would also use the cane to enforce proper behaviour. The irony is he does not have this option. He is so desperately dependent on all his associates including his backbenchers. That reality rules out the cane. Muhyiddin is the weakest prime minister in the country’s history because of the precarious parliamentary support he has. He cannot enforce discipline. In fact he is at the mercy of a small extremist party. That partly has inordinate influence over him, treating him like a puppet sometimes.
Surge in COVID-19 cases
The whole issue of caning surfaced over the sharp spike in Covid-19 infections to the low hundreds after hovering at double digit figures for almost three months. The alarming rise in the spread of the pandemic seems to have received a surge from Sabah where an election was narrowly won on September 26. This poorest state now has almost half of the country’s active coronavirus cases. Certain politicians including some of Muhyiddin’s associates who had campaigned in Sabah generally failed to observe the mandatory physical distancing requirements. They are now seen in some quarters as super spreaders of the Covid-19 virus.
A bad example by backdoor government is a double demerit on poor governance. Some other travellers to and from Sabah seem to have aided the spread of the virus too. The Malaysian public is subject to harangues, the harshest treatment and hefty fines for minor infractions. Some Malaysians also see the frequent raids on cafes and bars as the work of Islamic radicals in the bureaucracy than that of responsible health care workers.
PAS, the extremist Islamic party is seen as driving the agenda of Muhyiddin’s government in the the same way that false propaganda had it that the DAP was driving Dr Mahathir’s government. This is the perception, right or wrong.
The public is infuriated with the blatant double standards in the enforcement of Covid-19 restrictions. While one minister was sincerely apologetic the other senior officials have seemed largely somewhat callous. Their attitude is in sharp contrast with the health care professionals and frontline medicos who have managed the pandemic rather commendably. Managing the pandemic is particularly impressive for Malaysia given its many porous borders, high number of foreign nationals and the poor living conditions for the lowest rungs of the economic strata.
The other area that seems reasonably well managed is the amelioration of loan repayments by the public. Bank Negara and the finance authorities seem to have somehow contained the fallout from sharply reduced incomes as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Malaysia can still draw some satisfaction from the quality of its administrative, medical, health, social welfare, educational and security apparatus which is functioning respectably.
The precarious situation of the Muhyiddin government is however a pressing and pertinent issue. It’s a pressing issue because the leadership should, by design rather than default, have been passed on Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim before May this year. It was partly on that platform that the Pakatan Harapan (PH) Government came to power in May 2018. The PH government was let down by a deceitful leader who reneged on a promise. Known for much deception in the past that leader should have been shunted aside earlier but Malaysians are an incredibly tolerant and masochistic lot, they suffer their mentors more than their mosquitoes.
Anwar Ibrahim now again positions himself to be the country’s next prime minister. Some dinosaurs seem to have given up on denying him access to that high office but there are some major formalities to be overcome.
Anwar would be the best
In the current situation of a nation being adrift, with declining oil and gas revenues, the stoppage of foreign tourists, shutdowns affecting many small businesses, growing unemployment and with no prospect of COVID-19 disappearing most Malaysians feel punished and pressured. There is an absence of leadership except in the statements on ameliorating and observing COVID-19 SOPs.
It looks rather bleak. Anwar is perhaps the only one who fits the description of a firebrand who can get the country out of the gutter. The country really needs a revamp.
Anwar and his wife, Dr Azizah Wan Ismail are both MPs who have had a punishing political baptism of fire and fury. There is much sympathy, even empathy for them. They can easily attract the right talent to administer Malaysia better. They don’t carry the negative baggage of having ridden roughshod over the sizeable minorities – the Sabahans, Sarawakians, Chinese, Indians or the others- who, alongside the majority peninsular Malays have to work closely together to rebuild a much damaged Malaysia. In any case Anwar has been out of political office for 22 years and it would be wrong to blame him for the dimness of present day Malaysia.
Anwar can create a new national narrative for Malaysia based on values of inclusivity, integrity, innovativeness and integration. Sabah and Sarawak nationals must be brought into the mainstream of governance and leadership. Anwar also does not carry the baggage of slighting foreign leaders and investors of any particular ilk.
To rebuild itself the country desperately needs huge investments, good advice on reviving the economy and allowing all, not a select group, to rejuvenate the economy. The election manifesto of PH has to be delivered and religious and racial extremism must be outlawed and made obsolete.
A target date of perhaps a decade has to be set to phase out all race and religion based political parties and the vast assets held by these parties must be returned to the consolidated fund by 2035. Many of these parties built their nest egg with public funds anyway. Legislation with teeth must be introduced to check money politics.
Draconian measures to clamp corruption
As a first step an extensive audit has to be carried out on all high officials and their families that have had political affiliation or office in the past two decades.
If they cannot account for their assets they should be advised to surrender them voluntarily to the state. Publicity should be provided to these efforts to recover assets from the recalcitrant ones.
The programme has to be launched by the Anwar administration from its first month in office so that by the start of GE15 the public should know who owns what. That should disqualify them from running for public office. Elite corruption in hierarchy conscious Malaysia has been identified as a serious problem because the elite in politics, business, bureaucracy and banking wield the greatest influence and connectivity with the levers of power. Action against them did not seem to have existed until about July 2019.
All press and media portals must require all their news people filing reports to provide details of whatever gifts, hospitality and advantages they have been provided by businesspeople who are promoting new ventures. That way the stories of these writers can be scrutinised for accuracy, impartiality and integrity. The quality of journalism would improve. News organisations owned by politically affiliated individuals and institutions should be required to inform their readership of the ownership and non-independence of their editorial content.
These are rather radical and unconventional steps to realign the country to the path of full accountability, transparency and good governance. For far too long the most powerful office of the prime minister has allowed its incumbents to run the country like their private estate.
Public funds were liberally allocated for the most fanciful and unrealisable projects simply because the funds were easily available. Malaysia had invested in aircraft production, tele-health, steel production, electric vehicles, the multimedia super corridor without any reference to the limits of local capabilities. It was a flagrant misuse of public funds which were treated as ‘other people’s money.’ The cost is borne by the public while the prime minister gets highly decorated with a million ringgit golden handshake. The vast powers of the prime minister’s office and a compliant press enabled successive incumbents in that office to cover their failures. Anwar has the onerous responsibility to make the prime minister’s office more accountable to both parliament and the public.
Dato M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador