Tanjong Piai, an ethnically mixed semi rural parliamentary constituency in Southern Johor has delivered a bloody black eye to the high leadership of Pakatan Harapan (PH), Malaysia’s ruling political coalition. The teflon has come off from the Pakatan’s leadership, especially from its supreme leader, Dr Mahathir Mohamad. Just eighteen months earlier he had been widely hailed as the stalwart saviour salvaging a runaway kleptocratic state. Dr Mahathir’s leadership is currently the subject of much annoyance and acrimony.
The devastating defeat of Karmaine Sardini, PH’s candidate by Dr Wee Jeck Seng, the Opposition candidate from the MCA by a massive margin of more than fifteen thousand votes suggests a bloodthirsty backlash against the ruling government. Leading functionaries of the ruling government have graciously accepted the defeat, congratulated the victorious MCA candidate but have at the same time cautioned and censured their coalition leadership for their candidate’s poor showing. There are many critiques of the by-election result, some finger pointing but there is a general consensus that it should have been anticipated. It is entirely possible that the by-election debacle will rile and rue the coalition and if that is not contained it could very easily ruin whatever fragile semblance of unity that exists in the ruling political coalition.
Reversal of Support For PH
Days after the announcement of the six names of the candidates for that by-election there was much speculation that the government candidate was bound to lose but the expectation was that he would lose by about five thousand votes. Few anticipated this monumental margin of 15,000 in a constituency of about 52,000 voters. Voter turnout in excess of 74 percent was remarkable although it was clear that almost a quarter of the electorate also opted to not return from their work stations to support any of the candidates.
The loss by Karmaine was however a complex issue. It did not reflect support for the Opposition. Rather the government- backed candidate was being penalised because a large segment of the majority Malay community had perceived the outcome of GE14 with PH’s victory as a loss of Malay power. The country’s largest minority Chinese community felt that the DAP had lost its firepower and had become weak and had succumbed to the compulsive control of Bersatu led by Dr Mahathir.
Thus the vote for the MCA candidate was a quirk and a form of protest against the DAP, a significant component of the ruling PH. There were assuredly other factors as well.
The Singapore Factor
Given its proximity to Singapore it may well be that there is a significant proportion of registered voters who work in Singapore. Given statistical shortcomings, a perennial reality in Malaysia, it is not possible to establish how dependent Tanjong Piai is on direct employment in Singapore and elsewhere. It is widely accepted that Johor’s full employment and relative prosperity is partly due to Singapore’s prosperity, investments and the sales and employment prospects there.
It has to be further assumed that Tanjong Piai , on account of its relative proximity to neighbouring Singapore, has an electorate that is relatively well informed and better off than some remote and deeply rural single ethnic majority constituencies in parts of rural Malaysia.
While it may be a stretch to suggest that informed, educated and politically aware people would not support the present government because of its lacklustre performance one cannot ignore the growing fury and frustration of Malaysians with the present government.
It has to be conceded however that the level of unhappiness has not reached a point that amounts to a popular yearning for the return of the embattled king of kleptocracy, Najib Razak, the former prime minister.
Gripes about Pakatan
However if current trends of dissatisfaction are not checked or become accentuated then there will arise a situation where the people will determine that any change would do. This is precisely what brought PH to power in May 2018.
After eighteen months of PH governance there are some unmistakable signs of a flaccid or failed top leadership. The PH government rejected in its entirety any reference to 1Malaysia but has failed miserably in promoting and projecting the alternative of a united, inclusive and integrated Malaysian society where everyone is equal.
Let me provide one example of big bad misdirection. The government is led by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, whose Bersatu Party functions like the Politbureau in the old Communist world. With the exception of a diminished Finance Ministry these Bersatu ministers control the key government and corporate bodies, including home affairs, education, youth, rural development portfolios and almost all the GLCs and GLICs. Azmin, a former Anwar loyalist seems to have been informally coopted into the Bersatu fold, although every effort is made to deny this. (An allegation related to an episode in a Sandakan Hotel remains unresolved but Azmin has been audacious enough to allegedly ignore a big bill from a travel company. )
This obvious concentration of power in a coterie associated with a relatively small party in the PH coalition is disturbing, to say the least. The economist Terence Gomez has made a pointed reference to this powerful influence of Bersatu’s inner circle.
Secondly, this government has been negligent in promoting and presenting a common, consensual and clear message. Most people want to know when, not if, Anwar Ibrahim will become the prime minister. Tun Mahathir, in all likelihood the world’s most travelled government leader seems to be still travelling and trawling for a continued tenure in office of up to five years from New York, Ankara and Bangkok, to name just a few places. There seems to be scant attention to the preeminence that domestic issues should enjoy. How much of this travel is really necessary?
Thirdly the Ministers in the government seem to be working in an uncoordinated and unusual way. One Minster removed every Sabahan and Sarawakian from every appointed position within his purview. Where is the message of uniting the country into one integrated country. Sabah and Sarawak are Malaysia’s most enlightened states in terms of religious harmony, diversity and decency and their exemplary role in this regard must not be underestimated. Sabahans and Srawakians have a rightful place in all national decision making fora.
Fourthly, while Najib was prime minister he did not function alone. He was assisted by mostly upright, professional people of the highest integrity. It is noted that most of them of them have been removed and an attempt is being made to resuscitate bureaucratic and business holdovers of the 1998-2003 period or the post Anwar 1.0 period. Those were not particularly propitious years but represent a troubled trough from many perspectives. Our currency depreciated from RM2.50 to the US dollar to what it is (RM4.20) today. There is no prospect whatsoever of it reaching any parity with the value enjoyed in the 1957 to 1996 period, even against the Thai baht. Yet we speak vacuously of visions and an illusion of a flying car.
Education, both at basic primary and secondary level is in an atrocious state. Everyone agrees and talks ad neuseam about it but no one seems to be making the essential courageous and credible move. The government seems to be clueless about where to begin in revamping education.
Prices are high and rising and wages are low and people are generally having a hard time making ends meet. This government could do much to improve the people’s lives especially by dismantling the monopolies held by a small coterie of cronies of all colours whose capacity to alter their political coloration is legendary. Do they possess something that technocrats, experts and ordinary people don’t have.
Proper public transport provision is long overdue. Vast improvement is needed because of the neglect of decades. Najib did improve the transport network in Kuala Lumpur somewhat but few tangible steps have been to improve on what he left behind. When the daily commute is taxing financially and time wise how much is left to cover other essential home expenditure and chores.
As the successor to Najib’s kleptocratic reign this Government has understandably been held to a higher threshold of transparency, accountability and responsibility. The people perhaps forgot the extent to which the PH government was dependent for its functioning on the civil service, packed at the highest levels with supporters and sympathisers of Najib.
Najib was recklessly generous in ordering that retiring civil servants were promoted and placed on the highest pension scales. Najib had the gall to reward his civil servants as a potential vote bank, facile facilitators of his favourite projects and friends who needed to be looked after.
With that largesse the current government inherited a 1.7 million strong government establishment and a 800,000 strong community of pensioners. Pay increases in the halcyon days of the Najib Administration contributed to a larger, almost doubled expenditure for salaries and pensions. Within a decade annual expenditure for these two categories alone rose to more than RM100 billion.
Further, and this is an issue that attracts intense feelings. There is a palpable perception and presumption that Dr Mahathir will not hand power honourably to Anwar Ibrahim in spite of the former’s repeated assurances to that effect.
That perception has to change and that change can only come about with a strong and unequivocal assertion that he would step down on a certain date. Dr Mahathir’s promise that he would relinquish the post after certain economic issues are resolved is an unsatisfactory and troubling position. Some people, including parliamentarians suggest that Dr Mahathir should step down immediately.
Practices, policies and programmes pursued by Dr Mahathir in the 1980s and the 1990s may have been promising and successful then but today not only are those policies and programmes but the personalities associated with them have to be reinvented and even repudiated and replaced. Dr Mahathir is known to speak often about about how he does not replace his staff. But is this not the same prime minister who removed several well regarded political leaders from being his potential successors. It is also noteworthy that every nominee of his for the prime ministership eventually proved incompetent and inappropriate.
There is such a dearth of alternative leaders because the issue of succession became increasingly the exclusive preserve and the sole prerogative of Tun Dr Mahathir for almost half a century.
It made the institution of the prime minister all powerful and despite the assurances in May 2018 there has been no devolution of the powers of the prime minister.
A sitting Court of Appeal Judge, Justice Dr Hamid Sultan bin Abu Backer has written a well argued peer reviewed research paper entitled ‘ Social Justice:
Constitutional Oath, Rule of Law and Judicial Review’ which asserts the principle of the overarching supremacy of the Malaysian Constitution which somewhat like the US and Indian Constitution affirms the justiciability of Acts of Parliament by the Courts. The paper also affirms the supreme role of HM the Yang dipertuan Agong “in policing the pillars as well as other functionaries subject only to the Constitutional framework and limitations”( page 16).
It has to be deduced (although by no means specifically stated in the instant paper) from this paper that the prime minister in Malaysia has been in an powerful control of Parliament, has by following the UK precedent that Parliament was supreme, disregarded the exclusive supreme role of the Agong. It is perhaps appropriate that the role of the prime minister is reviewed by a properly constituted body so that some powers are transferred to the King and other representative institutions.The Courts should be empowered to review Acts of Parliament so that they do not violate provisions in the Malaysian Constitution. Justice Hamid’s paper can be accessed freely at www.janablegal.com)
The by-election loss by PH does not alter the parliamentary strength of the governing coalition significantly. But it is a good manifestation of the anger and unhappiness with the current government. Dr Mahathir is rightfully being blamed both directly and indirectly for the dismal showing by his Bersatu party’s candidate. There is even speculation because of Bersatu’ s relatively poor performance in GE14 that a candidate from some other PH component would have fared better. Dr Mahathir just does not possess the gravitas he had once commanded as the younger voters don’t know him and the older ones don’t trust him.
Reconfigured PH Rule
There are some calls for the dissolution of Parliament on account of the Tanjong Piai result. This is essentially what Najib Razak and his conspirators In kleptocracy want. Najib’s concern is only about seeking exoneration from the many serious charges that he is facing.
With the undisguised infighting within the PH, partly the handiwork of Dr Mahathir, this would be a disastrous step as allies associated with Najib would easily win that election. There is no justification whatsoever for a General Election on the basis of the loss of one parliamentary seat. Instead Pakatan would do well to replace its top leadership with another, less controversial and more acceptable leader. The country is bemoaning Dr Mahathir’s leadership.
Notwithstanding the defeat in Tanjong Piai the PH government has in 18 months ushered in an era of the greatest openness, transparency and freedom of expression in Malaysia. Malaysia has a respectable range of media portals which espouse a wide spectrum of contrarian views but also report in a factual, unbiased and balanced manner happenings in the country.
The PH’s government relentless pursuit of corrupt officials and their co-conspirators is impressive. The High Court is separately hearing cases against the highest officials of the Najib Administration. Most significantly the PH government has renegotiated and secured better terms on major infrastructure projects. Constantly PH leaders are asking for more time to fulfil their election promises made in April2018 when PH was not in power.
The Malaysian economy’s growth rate has declined to the 4 to 5 percent range because of international trade tensions and other headwinds. Joblessness among graduates, a problem inherited from poor planning of the past is a prominent and persistent issue.
The PH leadership must remove its Bersatu blinkers and govern the country with the full participation of its political partners from PKR, the DAP, Amanah and stretch out their hand of inclusiveness to their Sabah and Sarawak counterparts.
PH must function as a collective leadership at all times and not only during by-elections and Parliament muster.
Dato’ M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador with more than 45 years of public service experience.