Lunar new year greetings to all who celebrate. Aliran hopes that the Year of the Water Rabbit will usher in peace, solidarity and justice for all.
Today, 31 January 2023, is the 69th day since Anwar Ibrahim’s swearing-in as Malaysia’s 10th Prime Minister. Over the last two months, he has taken on his responsibilities like a duck to water with hardly any ‘honeymoon’ period.
But Anwar’s long years of service both in government and as opposition leader (including some jail time) have moulded him into the seasoned politician he is today, suitably experienced to take on the job of PM.
In enhancing ties with neighbouring countries, the PM has carefully chosen to visit Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore in that order, presumably a reflection of his priority list. While he stresses race and religion ought to take a back seat behind needs-based policies, he cannot afford to be seen to be sidelining or minimising the importance of Islam.
He is probably mindful he cannot ignore the ‘green wave’ at last year’s general election. As Aliran’s Azmil Tayeb pointed out previously, “nearly 90% of Malays voted for the Malay-Islamic coalitions PN [Perikatan Nasional] and the Umno-dominated Barisan Nasional while 90% of ethnic Chinese and 75% of ethnic Indians voted for Pakatan Harapan.”
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So Anwar and his team have an uphill battle to deal with the country’s serious ethno-religious polarisation. They must showcase, through their policies and actions, that they are sincere in reaching out to all those in need, particularly the poor.
If the government focuses on the marginalised, the poor among both the ethnic Malays and the other ethnicities will inevitably receive the help they need.
The apprehension among many Malays that the minorities will dominate the economy to the detriment of the former needs careful attention and clarification.
The Anwar government’s launching of the madani (civil society) concept on 19 January seeks to provide a principled basis for economic vibrancy and sustained development for the benefit of all the people, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion.
The “Malaysia Madani” concept envisions a country that emphasises humanity and noble values like fair, just and effective governance.
Madani is an acronym derived from the six core values of the policy – sustainability, prosperity, innovation, respect, trust and compassion.
In explaining the Malaysia madani concept, the PM stressed that growth and development must be attained through the larger context of a humane economy that prioritises the people’s needs.
“Malaysia must be known as a madani nation that is prosperous, fair and rejects any form of cruelty towards any individual or race. It must be a nation known for its renewed spirit,” Anwar said.
The six noble values under the madani concept are certainly worthy of support by all who believe in justice and fairness for all.
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Anwar and his team need to be wary about programmes and policies that run counter to the madani values.
Take the recent controversy at the Infant Jesus Convent National Secondary School in Johor Bahru over a special programme for weak Malay fifth form students preparing for the SPM exams.
If the special programme had been accessible to all fifth form students who were weak in their studies regardless of their ethnicity, there would not have been an uproar by the parents of students of other ethnicities.
Damage control measures are in place at the school now: the school’s management announced a separate session for weak students of other ethnicities.
The big question is, why the need to segregate the students according to ethnicity in the first place? The school is the ideal place to foster friendships and the bonds of goodwill.
With the right motivation, students, regardless of ethnicity or religion, will mix well and develop camaraderie that often lasts a lifetime.
Conversely, programmes that segregate students according to ethnicity will only drive a wedge between them.
Under the madani concept, the segregation of students according to race or ethnicity would simply not happen. The education minister and her team must thoroughly review all these activities and programmes and ensure such discriminatory practices are eliminated.
Let’s categorise the convent school controversy as a ‘legacy issue’. If the minister is serious in setting things right, she and her team should apply the madani principles and implement fair and just policies.
The recent revelation that Anwar has appointed his daughter Nurul Izzah as his senior economics and finance adviser, with effect from 3 January, understandably drew criticisms from friends and foes alike.
Political rivals like Perikatan Nasional chairman Mahiaddin Yasin asked Nurul Izzah to resign from her new post. The former PM added that Anwar himself should resign as finance minister and concentrate on being Prime Minister.
Anwar responded that Nurul Izzah has taken on the role of special adviser pro-bono and therefore will not burden the government’s coffers.
Unfortunately, the PM failed to consider the optics of appointing his daughter as his senior adviser.
Critics hurled accusations of nepotism and personal bias at Anwar.
They pointed out that under the Abdullah Badawi administration, criticism had flared over the role that Abdullah’s son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin and his “fourth-floor boys” played in influencing the then PM.
Similarly, who can forget the leaked audio tape purportedly of Rosmah Mansor asking (or telling!) then PM Najib Razak: “Can I advise you something?!”
This is not to take anything away from Nurul Izzah’s credentials and her ability to play a constructive role in government.
But by appointing her senior adviser to her father, the PM is simply inviting criticism and providing opportunities for his rivals to attack him. It is a mistake that could have been avoided if Anwar had been more circumspect and sensitive to the potential backlash.
Anwar tried to explain that Nurul Izzah’s appointment was based on her experience and qualifications.
But surely, she is not the only talent the country has. Let her play an important role but don’t appoint her as a senior adviser to the PM, who happens to be her father.
Anwar has espoused many ideas that give off the right vibes to those who aspire to a just and united society that aims to fight corruption. At a Lunar New Year gathering in Penang, he said “development would be hollow if it came without social justice or recognition of Malaysia’s multiculturalism”.
The distribution of wealth has to be balanced and more needs to be done for the poorest 40% in society, he stressed.
We are getting the right sound bites and it is early days yet to see if these fair and just policies actually get implemented.
Anwar should therefore pay special attention to the reality on the ground. Commentator Dr Raman Letchumanan in a no-holds-barred article has challenged Anwar and his team, including the relevant civil servants, to immediately ease the dire living conditions of those living in abject poverty.
The statistics are alarming: the number of households in abject poverty has risen steadily from 27,158 in 2019 to 78,000 in 2020 to 136,000 last year.
Wealth has not been distributed fairly but is concentrated in the hands of an elite few: the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer.
Anwar and his team must double down and come up with bold fiscal policies to reduce this imbalance. We are a long way from becoming a high-income nation; the trickle-down effect is simply not taking place.
The PM and his team have not even governed for 100 days but already we have witnessed controversies and mistakes. This is to be expected but he must be extra vigilant and avoid making too many missteps.
Anwar must realise, given all the values and principles of good governance he had espoused over the years while in the opposition bloc, the people will hold him to much higher, more exacting standards. He has no choice: he must walk the talk.
That said, taking the cue from John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance, we should also ‘give Anwar a chance’ to show us what he can do.
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
31 January 2023