May 9 marks the one-year anniversary of Malaysia’s historic 14th general election, where, for the first time since independence, the incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN) government lost to the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition.
Since then, much has transpired on multiple fronts, but if there were one news item that could perhaps provide an overarching view of events since the election, it would be the recently released Merdeka Centre poll results on the approval rating of Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad and the PH coalition that he leads.
In the survey, the prime minister’s approval rating took a nosedive, falling from 71% in August 2018 to 46% in April 2019. The survey also found that only 39% of Malaysians gave PH a positive rating, compared with 66% in August 2018. The proportion of voters who felt the “country was headed in the wrong direction” increased from 24% to 46% over the same period. The Merdeka Centre identified the likely factors for the decline as “…the state of the economy as perceived by ordinary consumers, the perceived performance of the administration, and concerns over Malay rights and privileges as well as fair treatment of other races in Malaysia”.
In fact, the “to-do” list of the PH government is very long. In addition to the issues quoted by the Merdeka Centre, it also has to deal with rising income inequality between the bottom 40 (B40) and the top 20 (T20), as per Khazanah Research Institute’s State of Households 2018 report; the renegotiations of mega infrastructure projects; reforms of important institutional pillars; a youth unemployment rate that is about three times the national unemployment rate; the weeding out of corruption, and much more. And all this amidst a global sentiment that is tepid towards emerging markets, and an ongoing US–China trade war as well as a domestic environment where household indebtedness is close to 90% of GDP, and where government finances are stretched and limited.
Critics of the PH government would argue that some of these issues are self-inflicted. It is true that the government has made some avoidable missteps. For one, in the initial months of the administration, it seemed as if certain members of the PH coalition underestimated the weight of their statements and how they might impact capital markets and investors. After all, investors are going to pay more attention to their statements when PH is in power, and not when it was in the opposition.
These mistakes have strengthened the case for the opposition and their supporters to say that the current government is clueless. I don’t think they are clueless. I think they have made mistakes and I do hope they learn from them. But I am seriously opposed to those who believe a change in government was a mistake. They completely missed the point of May 9. What really matters is that, for the first time in our history, we know that we can change the government. Of course, at the state level, we have seen it happen, but never at the federal government level.
Now, we have. And, in the really big scheme of things, that matters. A country’s history is, hopefully, not limited to a mere 61 years. If we are building something that is meant to last, it should last for as long as there are Malaysians to call this piece of land home. In that long stretch of history, there will be pivotal moments. Of course, Aug 31, 1957, was one such moment. As was Sept 16, 1963, and May 13, 1969, as well as many others. May 9, 2018, is such a moment as well as the nation took a collective step forward.
We had a peaceful change of regime at the polls. The fear of riots and unruly unrest was unfounded. We saw millions of Malaysians come together — as voters, volunteers, politicians, postal vote transporters, police officers — the gotong-royong spirit at its very best. In the grand scheme of things, that matters a lot more — showing what we can be as a nation — than the argument about whether or not PH will end up being a good government.
People who do not share this view will argue, with some merit, that I am being naïve. They will argue that a given government cycle, even of five years, can lead a country into a never-ending vicious circle of tragic outcomes. Sure, it is always possible, of course, and yes, a bad government will certainly have very significant collateral damage on the rakyat even in the short term, but let us try to take a broader look. Countries around the world have recovered and thrived, even from events such as World War I and World War II, the Great Depression, fascist rule by Hitler and Mussolini, a great famine, nuclear bombs, the Black Plague, civil war, and many others.
The danger is when we place greater importance on who the ruling party should be, as opposed to what the nation can be. The ruling party should do what is best for the country and the rakyat, and every ruling party should always look to earn the vote of every Malaysian. Now, that is not to say that we expect the ruling party to always be perfect. Of course, for many of PH’s politicians, even the most seasoned ones, this is their first time as the government of the day. They are bound to make mistakes. And, after 61 years of institutional, cultural, economic, societal and political path dependence, surely there is bound to be a J-curve for the new government. It is not realistic to expect their trajectory to be exponentially better immediately.
That said, we do expect them to take the right steps to a better Malaysia. And if they fail to do so, never forget the real message of May 9 — if you don’t like an incumbent government, by all means, vote it out. Make any ruling party earn your vote. As long as Malaysians remain true to the values they hold dear, we will be fine. May 9, 2018, was never about BN or PH; it was always about Malaysians.
Nicholas Khaw is an economist with the Khazanah Research and Investment Strategy Division