Ideas: Towards a better and just Malaysia

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 7, 2018 - May 13, 2018.
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On May 9, Malaysia will face its toughest election to date. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who was prime minister for 22 years, is now leading the charge for the opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan (PH). His newly established Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), is a member of PH.

Some voters say this will provide Malaysians with a strong alternative to the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that has ruled Malaysia since independence. The air is thick with calls for change and institutional reforms, while others are convinced that the high cost of living and stagnant wages remain the top priority for most voters. In the midst of it all, there are concerns over low voter turnout, unfair electoral boundaries and a disinterested youth — factors widely considered to benefit the incumbent.

Leading up to the big day, the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) has written and commented extensively on the policies that both coalitions are offering in their respective manifestos. We pointed out the highs and lows of both documents, seen through the lens of our commitment to the principles of the rule of law, free markets, limited government and individual liberty and responsibility. These four principles have guided IDEAS through our eight years of existence, and we see a need for what is offered by both coalitions to be analysed in the light of these propositions.


Rule of law

The concept of the rule of law can be defined as “the restriction of the arbitrary exercise of power by subordinating it to well-defined and established laws”. Of the two manifestos, PH’s Buku Harapan presents clearer proposals to restrict the “arbitrary exercise of power”, predominantly through restoring the dignity of parliament. As one of the three pillars that make up a well-functioning democracy, PH acknowledges the erosion of the Malaysian parliament over the years, mainly through poor quality debates, insufficient time given to study and pass bills, and the lack of recognition and funding given to members of the opposition. PH promises to introduce the much-needed Parliamentary Select Committees and Temporary Committees in both the lower and upper houses of parliament, complete with the required provisions and support to enable them to function effectively.

To ensure bills are passed with sufficient scrutiny from both sides of the House, PH proposes that parliament convenes for a minimum of 100 days per year, and the introduction of Green and White papers. Accountability and transparency would also be also increased through its proposal of a 30-minute Prime Minister’s Questions session in the Dewan Rakyat every week.


Free markets

BN’s manifesto shows promise in its initiatives that empower small and medium enterprises (SMEs) as well as entrepreneurs. Its offerings include grants and credit guarantee opportunities to expand access to new international markets, tax incentives and special development funds to help leading brands assist small entrepreneurs, and easing microcredit loan requirements for women entrepreneurs who conduct businesses part-time. These are important steps in ensuring entrepreneurship is able to flourish, thus enabling an important engine of the economy to grow unencumbered.

On the other hand, BN proposes to enhance the Ministry of Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism’s authority to take action against traders that make excessive profits. This is clearly anti-market and undermines the fundamental economic concept of prices being determined by the forces of supply and demand. PH’s manifesto echoes this anti-market sentiment in its proposal to restrict the import of rice. Although well-intended, this measure might create shortages in the market, thus driving prices upwards and burdening the people even further.

A growing economy needs a simple and stable tax system. PH has the noble goal of reducing the cost of living by abolishing the Goods and Services Tax (GST) with no clear plan for what fills the gap, raising the question of what new tax or spending cuts may need to be introduced down the line if PH comes to power.


Limited government

The idea of limited government implies that the scope of government activity and legislation should be limited to what is necessary. When analysing both manifestos, the Buku Harapan includes proposals that seek to limit the government’s power such as separating the posts of the prime minister and finance minister, imposing two-term limits on the office of the prime minister and chief ministers, as well as downsizing the Prime Minister’s Department. Empowering parliament is also an effort to limit the government’s power through allowing elected representatives to make decisions rather than appointed executives.

Conversely, the BN manifesto seems to further widen the government’s powers through its proposals to add units under the Prime Minister’s Department, one of which aims to “promote dialogue on equality and mutual understanding between races”. How exactly these lofty ideals can be achieved through a unit under the Prime Minister’s Department remains anyone’s guess.


Individual liberty and responsibility

Central to all of these principles is the notion that individuals are first and foremost free to make their own choices unless these choices cause harm to others. Extending this concept to the relationship between government and the people, it is therefore fundamental that the government allows its citizens to live freely, intervening only when the law is being broken. Buku Harapan’s promise to abolish the whole slew of repressive laws in the country, including the Sedition Act 1948 and the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, signals a commitment to securing the rakyat’s rights and freedoms.

The BN manifesto is silent on the issue of civil liberties and fundamental freedoms. In fact, it explicitly mentions the introduction of the Anti-Fake News Act, which was enacted right before the manifesto was released. This further curtailment of speech and privacy sets a worrying precedent of what may come in the future should the coalition maintain power.

While the outcome of GE14 is still anybody’s guess at the moment, it remains paramount that the electoral process is conducted freely and fairly in order to present the rakyat’s voice as accurately as possible. Regardless of which coalition eventually comes into power, the future of Malaysia must be shaped by the values of liberty and justice for all citizens.

Happy Voting, Malaysians!

Aira Azhari is coordinator of the Democracy and Governance Unit at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS)

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