It has been some months since my last column. I took some time off to reflect and digest what has happened to our country over the past few months. My only hope is that next year will be better than the last two years for all of us.
The floods that ravaged Selangor and other states in Peninsular Malaysia are a wake-up call for us that climate change is a real challenge. We also need to ensure our drainage system is efficient and capable of coping with extreme weather conditions. But most importantly, we need our leaders to recognise that selfies and cheeky posts are not what people need. Malaysia needs leadership, and it is the collective responsibility of the government.
Now, this brings me to a book written by Romen Bose titled “Final Reckoning: an insider’s view of the fall of Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional Government”.
In early 2009, I was asked to attend a gathering with some journalists and activists in Mid Valley Mall. The same meeting was attended by Romen Bose, a journalist with Agence France-Presse (AFP). We happened to be seated next to one another and immediately we hit it off. Romen was a history buff like me, and he wrote books on World War II. All of which was very exciting.
Some months later, I was appointed as special officer to Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, then Minister in the Prime Minister's Department.
About two months into my appointment, I received a call from Romen, who sounded rather concerned and agitated. If I recall his words correctly, "do not ask me much but please delete all your anti-BN posts on Facebook because PMO is not happy with you." I tried to ask more, but Romen, a journalist, knew when to be verbose and cagey.
I dutifully did so though I felt it was not fair to me because my views in university, which were naturally anti-Barisan Nasional, should not disqualify me from serving in government. If at all, it was up to Barisan to “convert” people like me if it were to restore its political fortunes.
Some years later, Romen finally told me that certain officers of the then-Prime Minister felt I was a BINO – Barisan in name only and a plant of the opposition. I was quite flattered that I was seen as capable of such things. Alas, life went on, and I enjoyed my first stint in government.
Last week, I received a copy of Romen’s book, and I was gripped by it as it is a page-turner. It is a riveting, frank, and honest account of what transpired in government, and despite being political secretary to a cabinet minister during Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s administration, there was a lot that I only knew after reading the book.
I think it is important for Malaysians to understand the inner workings of government and to understand how decisions were made in government.
Romen tried his best to help us understand the decision-making process at the upper echelons of power tempered by the political, economic, geopolitical and social imperatives.
Government is a messy business, and it is even messier now because there is no central unifying figure for the various parties to coalesce around. Najib offered that stability during his nine years in power, for better or worse.
At the same time, Romen exposes the weaknesses in Najib’s inner circle, from supercilious staff to commercially driven advisors and self-absorbed political allies; it lays bare the challenges faced to turn around an already failing political system.
At the same time, there are also success stories that Romen recounts in respect of managing global crises and expanding the economic pie for all Malaysians.
I, for one, regret that we did not do more to convince Najib that the 1MDB scandal was a real issue on the ground and people were upset with what happened.
But the culture of sycophancy, as evidenced by Romen’s writing, was very strong early in the Najib administration, and it was difficult to "go against the trend."
Najib’s officers, many of whom deserted him after the election loss, made every attempt to ensure only the “good news” reached his ears.
I recall, vividly, one of the meetings with political secretaries after the Kuala Kangsar and Sg Besar by-elections in 2016. I was admonished for saying that Barisan ignored the 1MDB scandal at its peril.
At that time, certain quarters in Barisan advocated for "Malay consolidation" and worked with PAS to take away Pakatan Harapan’s Malay votes. That strategy worked in the twin by-elections of June 2016. Barisan’s big win despite the headwinds of the 1MDB scandal emboldened Najib and the Barisan leadership. Also, many in Barisan felt that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's rhetoric on 1MDB did not sway voters. However, they were proven wrong on the night of May 9, 2018.
In hindsight, Romen’s book serves as a personal reckoning for me, and I believe, many others who were part of Najib's administration. It is a reminder that we should have done more to speak truth to power.
I believe the component parties of Barisan should have done more to tell the government leadership that all was not well in the country.
But at the same time, despite all that happened with 1MDB, under Najib's leadership the economy grew. He made tough economic decisions on implementing GST, reducing Malaysia's dependence on petrol revenue, and reducing the budget deficit.
At the same time, the growth of transportation links and infrastructure was a priority for him, including giving Sabah and Sarawak a better deal, were high points as well.
As Romen concludes, we may not have seen the end of Najib, and history is generally kinder as it was to Richard Nixon.
Finally, I wish all of you a very happy new year!
Ivanpal Singh Grewal is an Advocate & Solicitor. He was formerly Political Secretary to the Minister of Plantation Industries & Commodities.