International Asia This Week Malaysia Negates & Neglects a Nice National Narrative

Malaysia Negates & Neglects a Nice National Narrative

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Letter from Kuala Lumpur

Since the Pakatan Harapan(PH) Government assumed office in May 2018 it has had difficulties in presenting a clear, common and consistent narrative on its programmes, objectives and the processes involved in implementing its policies. Apart from the Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad and the Home Affairs Minister Muhyiddin Yassin the other cabinet ministers were new to the game of federal cabinet governance and the handling of national media resources and relations.

While PH has shown a clear and unequivocal commitment on bringing to book some of the highest officials of the previous government there is some ambivalence on many other issues.

Lately it is clear that even on the date on which Tun Dr Mahathir would relinquish office there is no clear and consistent narrative. On this matter while it has to be conceded that only the Almighty is the ultimate power some indicative date rather than a definitive one would at least allay some misgivings that exist currently.

This is one of the issues that is causing much concern and unhappiness among important and influential segments of Malaysian society and also among business strategists, including foreign investors. There are reports and some speculation that suggest that Dr Mahathir could remain in office for as long as five years from the present.

It is noteworthy that former prime minister Najib Razak, for all his few well known and possibly many unknown shenanigans, ran a very effective, efficient and well controlled media operation. It was no doubt a fairly costly exercise for the federal treasury as public funds were used liberally but it was effective as it proved authoritative and almost absolute until May 9, 2018.

Najib, in order to present a clear, concise and consistent narrative had employed at least one foreign national in this effort.

Within the Pakatan Harapan Government, given his unprecedented dominance, comfortable seniority, his supreme control, long experience and expertise and Malaysia’s highest power distance ratio, Dr Mahathir has become , without contest, the ultimate authority and spokesman of his government. He is currently not only the supreme leader of the country but one who has reverted back to being that somewhat unaccountable figure of the mid-1990s who was in a position to say, act and play any role he wanted. Some of the things he has said and done indicate that he is perhaps the sole decision maker for the country.

That he has morphed into this present mould is partly because his so-called coequals (the prime minister is supposed to be the first among equals) in the Pakatan Harapan coalition and its presidential council have not been seen performing at par and, more accurately, have probably been somewhat either overwhelmed by ministerial office, have lost their fire or have been easily marginalised and outmanoeuvred.

Anwar Ibrahim who could have been some form of a counterpoise in the cabinet is represented by his able but agreeable and amiable spouse. It would seem that the cabinet members of the PH’s component parties have since July 2018 gradually become accustomed to accepting the arbitrary, authoritative and almost authoritarian leadership of Dr Mahathir. It is also entirely possible that some of them first learn of developments from press and media reports and the grapevine than from any prior consultative process.

In the early days of his administration, Dr Mahathir was able to obtain from the then Agong(King) a full and free reprieve for the then imprisoned Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of PH’ s largest parliamentary component.

Not only Anwar but his entire People’s Justice Party had then become beholden and even perhaps inordinately grateful to Dr Mahathir. This debt of gratitude is being repaid apparently on Dr Mahathir’s own terms and while in New York for the General Assembly last September he suddenly became inspired, while being away from the country, to serve the country as prime minister for the following three years!

This additional three-year gambit is a new one and it would effectively allow him to remain as the prime minister till September 2022, some eight months before the next general election.

Three years is a long time but it is an incredibly long time for the ninety four year-old Dr Mahathir. Azmin Ali, no political oracle but a first time federal minister has lately proposed that Dr Mahathir should remain in office for a further five years. This would mean he will remain in office till he is a year short of his centenary.

With that distant date Malaysians, given the hype for the tallest, biggest and persistent preeminent status, may be easily prevailed upon to keep him in office till Dr Mahathir is a hundred, God-willing.

Dr Mahathir then clarified somewhat belatedly but helpfully that the decision on his tenure is at the discretion of the PH presidential council which incidentally is also chaired by him. While this has helped to calm some quarters there is wide well founded apprehension that Dr Mahathir is not sincerely inclined to hand power over to Anwar Ibrahim. This was borne out before, in 1998, with the humiliation and imprisonment of Anwar Ibrahim.

The principal ministerial aide and ally of Dr Mahathir appears to be the erstwhile great Anwar loyalist, Azmin Ali, who now appears more as a dedicated devotee of Dr Mahathir’s continued tenure for a further five years.

In the meantime the Pakatan Harapan victory in May 2018 has been brazenly presented by Najib and his largely Malay cohorts in UMNO and PAS as a catastrophic and calamitous loss of power by the majority Malay community. Dr Mahathir has, it would appear, conveniently and consciously bought into this, certainly in a much more plausible fashion than any other PH parliamentarian.

Given this situation, it would seem that only Dr Mahathir, more than any other PH politician can assuage such Malay fears.

Dr Mahathir ‘s United Nations General Assembly address on September 29 can be viewed in that context. Clearly that speech was inappropriate for any high level international audience. What Dr Mahathir did in New York was a game that he has played well for the past six decades. Dr Mahathir seemed to be reaching out to his majority Malay- Muslim audience in Malaysia than speaking to an international forum.

He could have reached out to the majority Malay- Muslim segment in Malaysia by highlighting at the UNGA the immense progress made in the country towards being more open, democratic and free and aspiring towards a more united and equal society. Indeed it has to be acknowledged that the quotient of freedom, as reflected in Malaysia’s free press and media, is at its most robust state historically and in the context of the ASEAN region.

Within Malaysia, Dr Mahathir has spoken on diverse and sharply divisive issues such as a controversial Indian- Muslim preacher, on ICERD, on Jawi somewhat loosely. He represents an enigma in Malaysian politics today as after eighteen months in office he seems to be relapsing into his old hectoring, haughty intolerant mould of picking on relatively weak political allies and discrediting them.

Dr Mahathir had started this new term in May 2018 rather well as he seemed to have led a ragtag coalition of strange political bedfellows to an impossible victory over Najib who, given the powerful prime minister-centric system in Malaysia and his total control of the national narrative seemed unassailable and invincible.

Najib, during his prime ministerial tenure drew principally from two of his predecessors-his late father, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein and Tun Dr Mahathir -who amended the country’s Constitution to augment and centralise power in the prime minister’s office. Dr Mahathir also amended the constitution of the political party he led to consolidate his leadership position.

With Tun Razak’s assumption of the prime minister’s office formally in September 1970 the country bade farewell to the original Westminster system that Tunku Abdul Rahman had started and held on to from 1957 to 1969.

Dr Mahathir reinforced the prime minister’s pivotal power base by passing several amendments to the constitution of the country and especially UMNO. Tan Sri Rais Yatim’s book , ‘ Freedom Under Executive Power in Malaysia: A study of Executive Supremacy(1995) illustrates authoritatively how Dr Mahathir usurped power unethically. That power had originally and ordinarily been in the vague purview of the Agong, the Judiciary, Parliament, the press and the people. With this accumulation of power he probably intended to do good but that extensive power also led to abuses and recklessness on the part of the prime minister’s office.

Najib, as his ongoing trials show, was able to elicit obedience and compliance for the furtherance of his private agenda by instilling a fusion of fear and favour, providing bribes, blandishments and other unusual benefits to top bureaucrats and politicians.

Najib used all the power accumulated in the prime minister’s office to do whatever he wanted, especially to enrich himself and perpetuate and enhance his power base. Najib was so powerful with unfettered discretion that he could order on April 5 2015 that the remains of Jamaluddin Jarjis, a former cabinet minister who it was learned posthumously had assets exceeding two billion Ringgit, be buried at the Malaysian National Heroes Mausoleum. JJ, as he was known was neither a major national influence nor a notional figure to be singled out for such honour.

Leadership, under Dr Mahathir 1.0 and Najib became the ultimate factor pipping not only the law and logic but also the legislature. It was this unbridled power that enabled Dr Mahathir to embark on some of the country’s most controversial and disastrous ventures, including the utopian Vision 2020 project, the Multimedia Super Corridor, Perwaja Steel and other ventures. Barry Wain’s “ Malaysian Maverick“published by Palgrave MacMillan(2009) provides a good but not necessarily an authoritative insight into some of these failures and the great cost to the Malaysian people.

It would seem that Dr Mahathir continues to retain an excellent capacity for good story telling with his government’s unending hype about a flying car when there are many other pressing issues.

To its credit the Pakatan Harapan Government has, in the past eighteen months brought down considerably the cost of several mega projects negotiated with parties in China. Recently it was announced that the cost of the Johor Baru- Singapore transit railway, for instance, had been reduced from RM 4.93 billion to RM 3.16 billion.

The PH government has also stabilised petrol prices, reduced tolls partially and is functioning as a relatively more transparent and accountable government. It is however constrained financially from embarking on any new major national infrastructure project due to mandatory debt service obligations and the huge outlay for civil service remuneration and pensions.

This commitment to salaries and pensions has ballooned from RM88.42 billion in 2015 to approximately RM 107 billion in 2019, as Najib had raised the salaries of civil servants to unsustainable levels to partly placate a perceived vote bank. Then there are issues of corruption and inefficiency which this government inherited which it is attempting to reduce and eradicate.

There is also the humongous size and complexity of the GLCs and GLICs which operated under the personal direction of the previous prime minister and other ministers which are in the process of a rationalisation exercise. On the issue of child marriages the PH has also attempted some sort of a dialogue although a resolution is still avidly awaited.

Malaysia can justifiably advertise its free Malaysiakini, FMT, its BFM radio station and the Edge portal which provide an unvarnished version of narratives and views which are attributable to both known and unknown persons and institutions. This is probably Malaysia’s greatest strength as these portals and publications retain high integrity, independence, decorum and decency and are not unashamedly affiliated to any political organ.

For the well known reason that Anwar Ibrahim’s tagline ‘ Reformasi’ had been effective but ineffectual two decades ago, the current government under Dr Mahathir seems to be reluctant to use it in its approach to current challenges. We thus have a situation where reforms are taking place but cannot be so called out of deference to the personal idiosyncrasies of Dr Mahathir.

Essentially Malaysia has started a gradual reform and rationalisation process but it inherited a vast array of mismanagement and misdirected national policies. There are also concerns about the growing inequality between the highly elitist banking, business and bureaucratic group and the bottom 40 segment.

The issues affecting the Malaysia Agreement(1963) involving Sabah and Sarawak are also being addressed and they would provide the nexus for a greater unity between the Peninsula and the two states. Some peninsular Malaysians, at least segments of them, accustomed to a free ride in respect of revenues from the two states are resisting the current government’s moves but such pleas are well contained.

The government has however failed in presenting a nuanced national narrative on most issues and the longer it delays efforts to construct, consolidate and command the national narrative the opposition from its political and social media opponents can have a powerful and plausible counterpoint. -/TISG

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