One Year After May 9 - An opinion piece by The Edge

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 6, 2019 - May 12, 2019.

Other stories in the Malaysia Baru: One Year On Special Pullout

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If there was a honeymoon feeling among Pakatan Harapan (PH) leaders last May when the coalition pulled off the first change of government since Independence in 1957, they must have come down to earth with a bump.

The list of challenges that the new government faces to put Malaysia on a new footing and ensure that it can once again aspire to become a dynamic emerging economy is by no means trifling.

On that score, it is clear that as we mark PH’s first year in office this week, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s administration has accomplished a good deal.

Addressing investors last month, he summed up his government’s efforts as “a year of consolidation, rehabilitation and resetting our nation”.

That encompasses action on a slew of financial scandals that were bleeding the nation, including the 1MDB fiasco, the grossly overpriced East Coast Rail Link, mismanagement at FELDA, bad deals at armed forces fund Lembaga Tabung Angkatan Tentera (LTAT) and Mara, as well as other tales of misfeasance.

In addition to financial prudence, impressive progress was seen on good governance and respect for fundamental liberties, which has created a new mood of openness unimaginable under the rule of Barisan Nasional (BN).

Moreover, the PH government has taken bold steps to give more independence to key institutions, including the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, Election Commission and the judiciary. It indicates a sincere intention to restore democratic rule to its rightful status, and has made a noticeable difference to public and investor confidence.

To get a sense of how well the PH government has performed in the past year in our readers’ eyes, The Edge conducted an online survey last month. Over 37,200 people participated, and the opinions they expressed confirm the view that the new government has done well overall, but needs to pay attention in some crucial areas if it wants voters to keep faith with it.

On the economic front, the government needs to maintain a fine balance between driving growth and undertaking fiscal reform. Obviously, if growth slows, staying in power will become a real challenge, especially if the B40 group feels that making ends meet is harder under the new government.

On the cost of living front, the broad view is that the government could do a better job. While it has rolled out some measures in this direction, achieving significant improvements will inevitably take time.

In this aspect, the PH government has been caught on the back foot by the people’s high expectations of what it can do, fuelled by the euphoria of a historic change of government as well as PH’s lofty election promises that it is now struggling with.

In terms of economic management, the government’s maiden budget was the first substantial test of how it is handling the people’s mandate. It earns good marks on a range of measures such as the refund of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) to businesses, which puts more money into circulation.

Unfortunately, there have been quite a few occasions when the government’s resolve to correct the wrongs of the previous administration has been shaken.

One cluster of issues revolves around the question of Malay rights, the position of Islam and the royal institution. The PH government’s efforts to chalk a new path by taking an open approach to key appointments, including the position of Attorney-General and Chief Justice, provided fodder for groups that see this as an erosion of Malay-Muslim interests.

This racial and religious slant has become a rallying point for Umno in its new role as the largest opposition party, and driven it to formalise its cooperation with PAS in an effort to burnish its Islamic credentials.

Faced with competition from this alliance for the loyalties of the Malay-Muslim voter base, the PH government’s confidence has suffered a clear setback, as seen in its change of mind over the ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

The issue signifies the need for the PH government to present a new national narrative that is based on inclusiveness as the foundation of a united populace. It is one of the clearest examples of the areas where the new government shows much room for improvement.

If a new discourse may take some work before it can presented to the people, there is no such ground to excuse the government’s communications machinery for its ineffectiveness in telling the story of its interventions to rescue national institutions like LTAT, FELDA and Tabung Haji.

On the other hand, some segments of Umno, PAS and the Malay community have been labelling the PH government as lacking a Malay soul. In the spirit of New Malaysia, which promises more freedom for the media, the government has not acted against it. Ironically, such tolerance of critical media voices was missing under BN rule.

Its promise to abolish the unpopular GST may have won PH the support of the lower income groups en route to winning the election. But the actual abolishment, to put it bluntly, is viewed as a mistake.

Indeed, tax experts feel that the government could have managed its finances better by keeping the GST at a lower rate, rather than introducing an improvised version of the Sales and Services Tax (SST).

Lower-income households must be relieved that the GST has been removed. But with a shortfall in revenue that the SST cannot fully replace, the rich or Top 20 percentile are now looking over their shoulders for the taxman, given that the Inland Revenue Board has set up a task force to scrutinise and investigate unexplained extraordinary wealth as it seeks to raise collection.

Another major gap in the PH government’s record is the lack of reform in political financing to date. This is a priority if the new government wants to avoid perpetuating the old BN culture of political patronage and illicit funding, which breeds systemic corruption.

An assessment of the PH government’s performance would not be complete without a mention of the issue of leadership transition. For the sake of political stability, Mahathir and PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim must give their attention to this matter, giving ample time for a smooth change to take effect.

A further point is that the PH government needs to take effective steps to curb fake news about its administration and incitement of hatred, which is reportedly rampant, especially on social media. Failure to take the necessary measures may cause Malay support for the coalition to seriously erode and impact its electoral chances. The coalition needs to convince the masses as to why it has not delivered on some of the key promises and what must be done to address the problems going forward.

We also need to address the question of whether it is fair to expect the new government to deliver everything it has promised in 12 months and solve all the problems caused by BN over so many years, especially in the last decade.

Obviously, it will take time to repair the institutions that the new government has inherited, including a civil service that is used to the rewards of political patronage, an education system that must be revitalised and a business sector that must wean itself from cronyism.

It is important to bear in mind that voting for a government is not about choosing the perfect or ideal administration but about the best options available. Furthermore, PH did not draw its support from one or two voter bases but from many constituent groups — from liberals to conservatives and from the B40 to T20 groups. Naturally, it is impossible to fully, or even largely, satisfy every demographic.

The bottom line is, after calculating all the pluses and minuses of both sides, the people must weigh whether PH or BN would be the better coalition to take the country forward. That is a verdict voters will deliver at the 15th general election.