Remaking Malaysia: Of promises and manifestos

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 22, 2018 - October 28, 2018.
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FIRST things first. In the old days — well, not that long ago — editors of the mainstream media would seek the advice of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) on whether a particular statement made by the prime minister, which they saw as unfavourable, could be published.

The editors did this because of their love for the man and the government of the day and out of concern that such a statement would put the premier in a bad light and turn the rakyat against him. They considered these as classic slip-of-the-tongue situations.

Hence, they would seek the views of officers or advisers to the prime minister, or request them to “check with the boss” if a certain statement could be used or if it needed to be toned down a little.

The same applied when dealing with so-called controversial statements by ministers. In a nutshell, editors of the mainstream media did a lot of self-censorship, for the right or wrong reasons. Let’s not go into that. That was when the old Barisan Nasional regime had a grip on the mainstream media — government-controlled or otherwise.

Now, let us turn to recent remarks by Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad about tolls and highways. In an interview with Bernama and RTM, he said it was impossible to have toll-free highways. This is despite what was promised by Pakatan Harapan (PH) in its GE14 manifesto.

As I am not privy to such matters, I do not know if the editors of the mainstream media, or Bernama and RTM for that matter — both of which are state-owned, by the way — had sought advice from the powers that be on whether those remarks could be broadcast on television, or published in print as well as online. After all, they could, and, in fact, did make a lot of people angry.

I can only guess, but judging by the fact that Mahathir’s remarks were widely reported in the media, two things could have happened. One, the editors did not go running to the relevant officials, or two, there were no instructions from the authorities or the PMO to prevent their publication or to tone them down — sugar coat them, if you like.

My bet is both. If that were the case, then it augurs well for the New Malaysia.

Now, we move on to what Mahathir said. While he has logical reasons for doing so — the only way to have toll-free highways and no tolls is to raise petrol/diesel prices or introduce a carbon tax — I feel he should not have said that the pledge to abolish tolls, and the manifesto itself, were made “thinking we would not be the government”.

That, in the opinion of many, gives the impression that there was an intention to dupe the voters right from the beginning.

Still, being the experienced politician he is, Mahathir would surely have anticipated the public outcry. But he said it anyway, frankly and bluntly as usual. And honestly.

Mahathir also said he was against including the toll-free highway pledge in the PH manifesto. But he obviously went along with it. Why? Possibly because many wanted it and he went along with the consensus.

This is not the Mahathir of old who, so we are told, would have insisted on “it’s my way or the highway”.

Anyway, since it was a collective decision, all parties responsible for the manifesto ought to collectively make good on the promises, something Bersatu strategist Rais Hussin conceded.

He is on record as saying a promise is a promise, and vowed that amendments will be made without compromising on the broader promises in the manifesto. In short, PH wants to find ways to keep its part of the bargain.

Rais, who was one of the people entrusted with drafting the manifesto, said they spent eight months working on it. Feedback and data came from independent researchers, non-governmental organisations, the legal fraternity and all PH component parties.

“The manifesto was written not by plucking figures and facts from the sky,” he told Malaysiakini.

“Instead of calling it a burden, the document (manifesto) must be viewed as a great responsibility and instead of finding reasons why we can’t deliver it, we need to find ways to deliver it,” he said.

But Mahathir has been quoted as saying that “now we are the government, and the manifesto is a big burden”.

Rais’s statment could be perceived as talking back to Mahathir, who is also the chairman of his party.

But Rais is still standing, without any obvious repercussion or reprimand. That bodes well for freedom of expression and the right to disagree in Bersatu, and PH as well.

Rais has acknowledged, though, the need to recalibrate the manifesto “in light of the broader realities facing the nation, including its RM1 trillion debt”.

Other PH leaders weighed in, saying when the promises were made, they “really believed they could be fulfilled without knowing the actual financial status of the government coffers ”.

Moving on, just what constitutes a manifesto?

Wikipedia puts it like this: A manifesto is a published verbal declaration of the intentions, motives or views of the issuer, be it an individual, group, political party or government.

In an article in The Edge Financial Daily on April 10, “Are manifestos necessary?”, I wrote that a manifesto, as I know it in my line of work, is one drawn up by political parties whose objective is to win the hearts and minds of the people. That would mean to reap votes to win elections.

I also highlighted a case in 2013 when a group of women from the Selangor Single Mothers Association took the state government and the then menteri besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim to court for “reneging on the promise of giving allowances to single mothers in the state”.

Apparently, the promise was made by Khalid’s party in its manifesto for the 2008 general election. Long story short, the case went right up to the Court of Appeal, which ruled that an election manifesto is not legally enforceable.

Justice Hishamudin Yunus agreed with Khalid’s lawyers that the manifesto “was not a legally binding document” and “a person aggrieved at the unfulfillment of an election manifesto cannot seek to enforce the manifesto”.

I ended that piece by repeating Khalid’s infamous quote: “A manifesto is not a promise, as such, there is no need to fulfil it.”

Legally, he is right but I also wrote in the closing paragraph that there is an old Malay saying: Manusia dipegang kepada janjinya, which means a person is held to his or her words and promises.

PH might not have said it in not so many words but judging by what some of it leaders have said thus far, I think Rais and Co seem to agree with the saying. I hope I am right in assuming that.


Mohsin Abdullah is contributing editor at The Edge Malaysia. He has covered politics for the past four decades.



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