The failures and successes of Pakatan Harapan

Happier days: Dr Mahathir and his colleagues in the early days of the Pakatan Harapan administration. During the 19 months they were in power, Pakatan was criticised for many things, including poor communication and U-turns in policies.

LOOKING back on the less than two years Pakatan Harapan served as the federal government, there were many successes, as well as evident weaknesses in the way the coalition governed the country.

Pakatan, which made history by defeating the Barisan Nasional government in the May 2018 general elections, faced a lot of criticisms in the months that followed the elections. Much of this criticism, in the early days, was in relation to its ambitious election manifesto, which featured many tall promises that would end up unfulfilled due to the government’s financial constraints.

Voters also felt that the new government was constantly assigning blame to the fallen Barisan Nasional government for many of its troubles, and that the coalition needed to move on from this in order to perform.

During the 19 months it was in power, Pakatan was criticised for many things, including poor communication, U-turns in policies, a failure to institute structural reforms in crucial areas such as education, and in-fighting. To be fair, the expectations of the rakyat for the new government, and of a “New Malaysia”, were sky-high after the last general election, and this put the government’s every move under scrutiny. This naturally led to disappointment among some voters when changes did not take place as fast as they would have liked.

Today, after the fall of the Pakatan government, many Malaysians are highlighting the strong performance of some of its Cabinet ministers, especially given that it was the first time they had taken on such positions.

On social media, many are singing praises of PH ministers who made a difference during their very short tenures, including former Health Minister, Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, for his handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, Transport Minister Anthony Loke, Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin, and the Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo, among others.

Loke’s achievements included legalising the e-hailing industry, while Yeo made commendable efforts against plastic pollution, as well as policy changes to increase renewable energy and reform the power sector.

PH also notably clamped down on corruption, improved transparency in government deals, and raised minimum wage during its time in power.

Among its other commendable achievements were the push for wider fixed broadband access, leading to more competition and ultimately lower broadband prices, as well as the reform of the country’s power sector.

A tall order for new coalition

Political analyst and senior fellow of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs Oh Ei Sun believes much of the weaknesses seen in the PH coalition stemmed from the tall promises in its election manifesto.

The promise to abolish tolls, for example, could not be fulfilled due to the shortage of government funds. This is especially after abolishing the extremely unpopular Goods and Services Tax (GST).

“If you look at the pledge to abolish tolls, for example, although PH cited insufficient funds, due to the previous government being spendthrift, the people will still blame them - and therein lies the problem, ” he tells StarBizweek.

The move to scrap GST, while generally welcomed by the public, was widely criticised by analysts and economists, and led to PH having to introduce several other taxes in order to cope with the shortfall.

“I don’t blame them (PH), GST was extremely unpopular for many reasons, mainly because it led to opportunistic inflation.

“And as a result of scrapping the GST, and discovering that they had insufficient funds, they had to introduce other taxes, ” he says.

Another area of criticism was in terms of education reforms, with the manifesto promising to reform the system to make national schools “the school of choice.”

However, it appeared as though there was not much efforts taken in this direction.

Oh notes that PH also faced pressure from the Chinese society which sought government recognition of the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) and Chinese independent schools, while conservative Malays wanted to see more religious elements included in the curriculum. On the cancellation and deferment of projects, he notes that this was done as some of the projects were riddled with corrupt practices and kickbacks.

“Some of the projects were revived after costs were slashed considerably, ” he notes, in reference to the East Coast Railway Link (ECRL) which saw its price tag negotiated down to RM44bil from RM66.78bil, among other projects.

Oh also cited Pakatan’s flip-flopping on policies like the backtracking from its decision to accede to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and its withdrawal from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the face of religiously-charged protests.

On some of the PH government’s successes, Oh notes the prosecution of several key figures for corruption, with the trials still ongoing. “Even then, there were some who questioned why the cases are dragging for so long.

“Sometimes, it is a question of perception. The PH government being a stickler for propriety, sometimes follows process too rigidly, and can be perceived as non performing, ” he says.

Another highlight of the administration, in Oh’s view, is the legalisation of e-hailing services.

Internal issues caused weaknesses

PH’s inability to reconcile or find a centrist coalition stance among its component members, particularly with Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), was among the key issues the coalition faced, leading to its inability to come up with strong policies.

“This ideological chasm contributed to the breakdown in strategic and constructive communication in terms of policy and decision making that was plain to see by the electorate, ” political scientist associate professor Danial Yusof says.

He also cites the alienation of civil servants from the Minister and political appointees, with regard to policy input and feedback in various ministries as among its core weaknesses.

He notes that this can be seen as stemming from distrust, given the perception of a “deep state” among civil servants working against the PH government.

Former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had stated in December 2019 that he would look into the existence of a “deep state” within the civil service that was supposedly sabotaging the PH government.

Following this, some parties blamed the slow progress of the government’s reform agenda on the existence of the deep state, saying reform proposals were being blocked in the inner circles at the ministry level.

Danial, who is coordinator of the Extremism Analytical Research Unit at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC-IIUM), says another weakness seen in the PH government was its failure to address consociationalism – in which political power is shared so that the voice of minority groups is represented in government – as a pillar of political stability. The inclusion of PPBM as a minority party in the coalition in terms of seats, he says, meant that Malay political discourse, or identity politics, had to be mediated in PH.

“Any pressure from other component members in relation to political leadership meant that PPBM would be looking to its own survival.

“This was a simple issue that could be seen for miles since GE14, yet lacked sophistication from PH in terms of its resolution, ” he says.

On the other hand, Danial says PH’s leadership was proof that MPs from parties such as DAP and Amanah could perform at the highest level of public expectation, and were viable options for political leadership. He cited the former transport and health ministers, Loke and Dr Dzulkefly, as examples of this.

Another key strength shown by the PH government was its ability to decrease the power distance of their politicians with the people, allowing space for engagement and discourse without fear of repercussion, he says.It is also notable that the Malaysian media enjoyed more press freedom, as guaranteed by PH in their election manifesto.

Also worth highlighting, Danial says, is Pakatan’s success in proving that Amanah, an Islamic party, can work together sustainably with pluralist and non-Malay dominated parties such as PKR and DAP.

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