Old politics in New Malaysia

HAPPY New Year? Not quite, for those of us who had expected things to change significantly under “Mal­aysia Baru”.

The euphoria over last May’s watershed GE14, which toppled Barisan Nasional from six decades of power, has largely faded with the new realities on the ground.

Maybe it was a tad naïve or too optimistic to believe that the seven-month-old Pakatan Harapan government could swiftly fix the fundamental problems facing the country.

We know better now. The rot not only runs deep, but permeates across all levels of governance.

The U-turns on manifesto pledges, underwhelming performances of a few ministers and the obvious split in the leadership of PKR, the party with the largest number of MPs in the coalition, have added to the rising pessimism.

As for the economy, besides the massive economic damage caused by the 1MDB scandal, the previous kleptocratic administration also left a rampant record of financial mismanagement, covering government agencies, departments and government-linked companies, saddling the Pakatan government with a whopping RM1 trillion debt.

According to Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng, it may take three years to restore Malaysia’s fiscal health.

The World Bank has since trimmed Malaysia’s GDP growth forecast for 2019 from 5.1% to 4.7%, while the International Mone­tary Fund has reviewed the growth rate from 5% to 4.6%. On the plus side, in spite of such worries, it expects our economy to remain strong as its foundations are solid.

As highlighted by the global financial institution, Malaysia needs to make greater advances in education, healthcare and social protection schemes to fulfil its aspirations of achieving high-income and developed country status.

But our economic challenges pale in comparison to the clearly disturbing threats we face as a nation.

Today, racial and religious sentiments can be whipped up and exploited easily, as shown by the reaction against the proposed ratification of the International Conven­tion on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Icerd) and the Seafield temple riots.

Whether it is real or created by politicians aiming to regain lost support, there is a fissure between the Malay Muslim majority and the rest of the population, and the gap appears to be widening.

With less than 30% support from the majority Malay Muslim population, the four-party multiracial Pakatan government has found itself vulnerable to losing ground when it comes to dealing with issues of race and religion.

It has been forced to tread gingerly to keep the fragile balance bet­ween the parties and their disparate ideologies.

Instead of implementing its promised progressive agenda of moving towards needs-based affir­mative action, it seems unable to unshackle itself from looking bey­ond the old New Economic Policy (1971-1990) and similar sequential plans – the National Dev­elopment Policy (1991-2000) and the New Economic Model (2010-2020).

We know that over the decades, the majority of bumiputra have not benefited from these policies as implementation was skewed tow­ards the connected political and business elites.

What will change? Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Tun Dr Maha­thir Mohamad said affirmative action was about providing support, but the changing of character was something that the people had to concentrate on.

“We have realised that affirmative action alone cannot make a success of the Malays. The most important thing is the character of the people, the value system of the people.

“The value system is wrong and with the value system that they have, it will not bring success to them,” he said.

It may be an uphill task, given the reality of expectations, even from Dr Mahathir’s own Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, which seems to be split between returning to the old politics of patronage and moving forward with integrity, accountability and good governance.

During his winding up speech at Bersatu’s recent assembly, party vice-president Tan Sri Rashid Abdul Rahman brazenly urged the leadership to channel government contracts to division and branch leaders.

When the former Election Com­mission chairman said it was “stupid” to deny Bersatu leaders access to government contracts and that the party must use any means necessary in order to win elections – “by hook or by crook” – he was given a standing ovation by a section of the delegates.

The demands were made after Bersatu youth chief Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman was applauded for censuring a delegate who criticised a Cabinet colleague for reportedly denying him a government contract.

Although Dr Mahathir brushed off Rashid’s remarks as personal opinion, it has raised the perception that the party is behaving just like Umno, earning harsh rebuke, even from Pakatan leaders.

It drew criticism from various leaders within the coalition, with DAP stalwart Lim Kit Siang saying that the majority of Pakatan leaders and members do not want to hold on to power “by hook or by crook” or the coalition would be no different from Umno and Barisan.

Lim said 2019 would be a test of whether the new government in Putrajaya is committed to electoral and institutional reforms to ensure that Malaysia is looked upon as a model of accountability, transparency, integrity and good governance.

Yet Rashid, who is also head of the government’s Electoral Reforms Committee, has remained defiant on wanting the government to grant contracts to party divisions and branches, saying that this was realistic as money was needed to serve the community.

With such a mentality in place at high levels, “Malaysia Baru” might just remain a distant dream for most of us.

Media consultant M. Veera Pandiyan likes this quote by Thomas Paine: A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.