After almost 19 months in office, the Malaysian Government administration headed by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is attempting to maintain some kind of a slow but steady momentum towards the vague utopia that Pakatan Harapan had promised in its 14th General Election manifesto.
It has not been an easy task.
The previous government did not cooperate with the successor government by providing handover notes or situation reports. Most of the previous government leaders abandoned what the thought to be a sinking ship.
The former prime minister himself was missing from the public radar for a good 10 hours after being the unquestioned majordomo in the nation for 10 years. For the first time in history a living former prime minister was also not present at the swearing in of a new prime minister.
It took much time to appoint the ministers of the new government. Except for perhaps three former ministers they were all new and the senior civil servants did not have a clue as to how to bring their new ministers to scratch on their portfolios. When they settled in in July 2018 there was much catching up to do.
There were also the civil service routine and not-so-routine retirements and a small number of obvious Najib loyalists who had to be replaced. Beyond these teething problems the new government inherited a system where half the national budget would go towards operational expenditure for the upkeep of the government establishment and mandatory payments to almost 800,000 pensioners. Part of this problem was caused by Najib’s populist instincts to keep the top brass in the civil service on his side. Debt servicing, or more accurately the need to avoid defaulting on 1MDB debts also soaked up substantial revenue.
Commentators quickly cottoned on to the difficulties faced by the new government.
The government has been held to account for their shortcomings, especially for not fulfilling some of their campaign promises and their spokespersons have admiringly admitted that there have been some failings. Little praise has however come their way. At the time the Manifesto was drawn up Pakatan Harapan could not have known the full extent of the serious financial shortfalls the country was facing and perhaps Pakatan overestimated their capacity to deliver on some of their promises.
Yet, there are notable improvements, innovations and integrity-enhancing mechanisms in governance that have largely not been given due importance and recognition. There is much emphasis on being a law abiding society and much work remains to be done to create a situation where constitutional supremacy will prevail.
In this endeavour there are important roles for the Executive, Parliament, the Judiciary and the press and media. The Agong, and the Conference of Rulers are paramount institutions whose role must also be recognised and restored in accordance with the Constitution. There is no doubt that this government is succeeding in creating a more level playing field for all, including its political opposition and its detractors.
The poor international economic environment due partly to US- driven tensions with China is also affecting countries in South East Asia, including Malaysia where growth rates have fallen below 5 percent.
Recently on November 16, 2019 an Opposition candidate, Dato Sri Wee Jeck Seng scored a stunning landslide victory in Tanjong Piai over the Pakatan Harapan candidate. He was congratulated for that victory as he had won against almost the entire machinery, manpower and material support of the government. That result is a testimony to the integrity of the by-election process.
The reconstituted Election Commission could conduct that by-election as it saw fit, something that did not exist before May 10, 2019. There was no reported irregularity in the election and no dispute about voter rolls or the vote counting process. More significantly the voters of Tanjong Piai voted en masse to support a candidate whom they favoured as they would not be influenced by the government’s narrative. The counter narrative of Dr Wee was not only convincing but overwhelming.
The biggest dividend that the Pakatan Harapan Government has given the country is the new sense of freedom. This is evident in the press and media and in the highest levels of the judiciary which now focuses on transparency, accountability and good governance. This momentum has to be sustained so that members of the public speak up against arbitrariness, poor service, monopolies and the manipulation of certain narratives that don’t serve the public interest.
On a broader national scale some of the country’s educated elite are focussed on the trials of the former prime minister and other senior officials of the past administration. The proceedings have been well covered by the press and media. There is no doubt that these trials are being conducted in a fair manner and their outcome should not be the cause of any dissatisfaction, unhappiness or untoward action.
The proceedings provide an insight into the operation of various institutions by highly placed civil servants.There are clear instances of state capture ( political corruption in which private unauthorised persons have access to information, assets and decision making processes for private advantage as opposed to state interest), superciliousness on the part of the political and administrative elite to enforce obedience of civil servants instead of upholding the observance of laws and regulations and a blatant disregard for the people’s well-being.
It is also significant that the current government, in spite of its proceedings against certain high officials has not created an air of oppression where the public live in fear of the state authorities. This is commendable, especially the openness which seems to bring to the public domain issues that were well camouflaged.
These proceedings can, in one sense, be viewed as the trial of the nation’ s political, bureaucratic and administrative institutions. In some cases it was highlighted that the most senior officials were obedient to the point of being servile and were willing to set aside established norms, laws and regulations in order to placate and please their political masters. The cost to the state of non adherence to set procedures can be measurable or immeasurable.
It can, and in most of the heard cases, cause colossal financial losses, loss of morale amongst those inveterate law abiding people in the system, distort the entire reward and punishment ethos on which the meritocracy of the civil service rests and cause the wrong narrative to prevail at particular times.
Non-adherence to set procedures, processes and practices therefore inflicts grave injustices to the people in the system to enable obviously illegitimate enormous private advantage to flow to a minuscule of people who portray themselves as the very top elite.
Interestingly on December 9, 2018 some Malaysian newspapers carried reports that a son of a long-standing former minister was trying to get his father declared to be unfit mentally to handle his personal and legal affairs on account of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
The 82-year old man seemed to have large private assets which were being apparently contested by the man’s mistress, his wife and two children of his wife. The action by the son seemed to suggest that his residual assets were disproportionate to the man’s luxurious lifestyles of maintaining two families for more than three decades.
In spite of these things being known at a later date the system has no means of compensating courageous, conscientious and competent officers. Alternatively it also has no means to take punitive action against public servants who have accumulated assets way beyond their known sources of income and/or inherited wealth.
In the Republic of Korea they have perfected a system where no one, and especially their president cannot escape the dragnet of state scrutiny. For this reason four of Korea’s past presidents have done jail time and have been disgraced while one former president committed suicide while being investigated.
Strangely, in spite of all the adverse publicity of the enormous egregious excesses and alleged abuses of the former prime minister he has emerged a perplexing popular figure with an ironic Apa Malu Bosku ( What Shame,My boss) label. PAS, the conservative Islamic party has closed ranks with Najib, as has UMNO who behave as if Najib has done no wrong. It is a classic case of not only endorsing criminal wrongdoing but actually make it respectable.
Pakatan Harapan, preoccupied with its intra-party fissures and tensions and its inability to produce a sound single narrative on the country’s most notorious kleptocrat seems lost and listless. Yes,it does seem that the negativity of shameful, anti national and nefarious is not material.
The prosecution and trial processes involving Najib and his cohorts now have to carry an additional responsibility of making it clear that crime is bad, crime does not pay and with the efficient working of the criminal justice system white collar criminals, no matter what their station in life, have to bear the full consequences if they are found guilty. Until that message reaches the status of the most dominant and pertinent part of our society this confusing situation that has convulsed sections of Malaysian society will prevail. This is the biggest challenge facing the current government.
It is appropriate that the government under Dr Mahathir is recognised for all its many achievements in spite of the powerful hold of Najib, PAS and UMNO over the vast swathes of the strongholds of the rural electorate. UMNO and PAS have played the explosive race and religious gambit in an attempt to save and salvage Najib. For the country to move on there must be early closure of Najib’s cases in particular.
Dato’M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador with more than 45 years of public service experience.
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