Forum: My Say: Winter of discontent

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This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 2 - 8, 2015.


PRIME Minister and Finance Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had, on several occasions recently, strenuously denied that Malaysia was a failed state.

Malaysians should not be so easily influenced by “propaganda” against the government by politicians who like to play up sentiment, said the chairman of Barisan Nasional (BN), the ruling coalition.

“Can we really be called a failed state when Malaysia is placed in the upper ranks of many indicators, such as the Global Competitiveness Report, or the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business?” he asked.

The term “failed state” has, of late, been used by opposition politicians as the country grapples with rising racial tensions, weakening of the ringgit against the US dollar, and the troubles faced by state-owned 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), which has run up debts of RM42 billion.

In general, a failed state is one that is unable to fulfil some of the basic conditions and responsibilities of a sovereign government. Common characteristics  include a central government that is so weak or ineffective that it has little practical control over much of its territory and is unable to provide public services. As a result, widespread corruption and criminality, as well as a sharp economic decline, will ensue.

Obviously, based on the above definition, Malaysia, which has a democratically elected government and well-functioning public service, is definitely not a failed state. Not yet, at least.

But, at the same time, no one can deny that there are worrying signs that all is not well. There is talk that the BN government is suffering from a trust deficit, and that the people’s confidence in it is not what it used to be.

Some analysts are even saying that the present time is Malaysia’s winter of discontent. They hint that — much like the UK Labour government's inability to contain widespread disgruntlement following massive strikes that helped pave the way for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives to win the 1979 general election — it may be a prelude to BN’s downfall in the next general election.

The festering disgruntlement of the people is so widespread that it can no longer be contained. Hit by the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax, burdened by the rising cost of living and confused by the political uncertainty, who is to blame for such a sad state of affairs?

Worse, the “uneasy working relationship” among key government institutions, such as the Attorney-General’s Chambers, Bank Negara Malaysia and Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, perceived or otherwise, has become an open secret.

In a highly unusual move, the Malaysian Economic Association in a recent statement urged all quarters to stop questioning the independence of Bank Negara, saying this would create the impression that the central bank was losing its autonomy. Such an impression would erode investor confidence and threaten the country's economy, it added.

But more significant was the historic statement by the Conference of Rulers. The rulers collectively wanted investigations into 1MDB to be swiftly resolved and the result made public to show that nothing is being hidden in the probe into the state-owned investment firm.

They further cautioned that improper handling of the 1MDB controversy and related investigations could affect the economy and even threaten national security.

Against this fluid national political background, the last thing we would like to see is for the national leadership to make the same  mistake as James Callaghan, the British prime minister at the height of the winter of discontent in the seventies.

In that has now become known as the “Crisis? What crisis?” incident, Callaghan had been asked by the media, "What is your general approach in view of the mounting chaos in the country at the moment?" He replied, “Well, that's a judgment that you are making. I promise you that if you look at it from outside — and perhaps you're taking rather a parochial view at the moment — I don't think that other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos.”

The next day's edition of The Sun featured the famous headline "Crisis? What crisis?" with the  subhead, "Rail, lorry, jobs chaos — and Jim blames Press". Callaghan was condemned for being "out of touch" with British society. The rest, as they always say, is history.

 There are bound to be some government leaders who dismiss talk of the people’s lack of confidence or trust deficit in the government as mere perception, or even something concocted mostly by the opposition.

But if a national poll conducted by Merdeka Center in August is any indication, all is apparently not well for the BN-led federal government. The poll showed that almost four out of five Malaysians disapprove of Putrajaya.

The survey also found that support from Malay voters stood at just 31% — a massive drop from the 52% registered in January. The same poll also found that the Chinese community’s approval of the Najib administration stood at a mere 5%, against 11% in January.

The survey was conducted just weeks after the Cabinet reshuffle in July, when Najib dropped his deputy Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who is Umno deputy president, and minister and Umno vice-president Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal.

At least one BN leader got it right though. BN and Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin recently said that the ruling coalition will be in trouble if it does not address the decline in votes. He pointed out that BN has about two years to reverse the downward trend, which began with the 2008 general election.

The question now is, can BN get its act together before the 14th general election? Or will it,  like the Labour party, face its own winter of discontent?

Khaw Veon Szu, a former executive director of a local think tank, is a practising lawyer. Opinions expressed in this article are his own.