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Narratives of PH governance – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Photograph: Sumisha Naidu/CNA

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Johan Saravanamuttu looks at how Pakatan Harapan has fared after almost a year in power.

“The evil that men do lives after them, the good is often interred in their bones” – Julius Caesar (Shakespeare).

There seems to be a relentless stream of critical commentary on Pakatan Harapan (PH) since it assumed the reins of government nearly a year ago. The overarching narrative is one that sees a steep slide in public confidence in PH governance.

Even after 100 days in power, there was already the palpable sense of disaffection in perceptions of the PH government’s performance. Thus, according to the Merdeka Centre, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s satisfaction index had dropped from a high­­­­ of 83% to 71%. “Happiness” with the federal government had declined from 79% to 67%, and with Malays, the dissatisfaction was even sharper, but still above the 50% mark.

These were numbers that one could expect. A new government in the first flush of overhauling six decades of rule by a previous incumbent naturally faced many uphill tasks and one should anticipate that putting things ‘right’ and fulfilling electoral promises could not all be met in short order.

But have matters got worse? Merdeka Centre has yet to obliged us with a new survey but, by the looks of things, it is likely that positive perceptions of the PH government has continued to slide. Analysts will cite the hattrick by the BN in three by-elections, the latest victory being in the Rantau state seat of Negri Sembilan, which saw the PKR candidate, Dr S Streram, lose all polling districts to Barisan Nasional (BN) except for one with a Chinese majority.

However, it may be technically incorrect to say PH lost three by-elections. The loss in the Cameron Highlands constituency was to an earlier BN incumbent while similarly Rantau had a BN incumbent who was Umno’s acting president Mohamad Hasan no less.

So, PH has only really ‘lost’ Semenyih since 2018; out of seven by-elections so far it has retained four previously won in the 2018 general election. If one were to be generous, one could even argue that it hasn’t lost any electoral ground.

I want to get on with what I term the three narratives of PH governance in the public discourse today – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (borrowed from a famous Clint Eastwood movie of the 1960s).

Let me preface my remarks by noting that all that has happened since 9 May 2018 comprise not only of willful acts of commission by the PH government. Indeed, many developments, which could be termed bad or ugly are the outcome of unintended consequences due neither to PH nor even wilful acts by critics of PH, especially the Opposition. A particular series of interconnected events can often lead to bad or ugly outcomes.

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I will not be able to run through the gamut of the events but will highlight the most prominent and consequential of these developments.

The Good

There is a reasonable list of admirable outcomes, successes, partial successes of the PH government.

Lest we forget, this coalition government put together a veritable multi-ethnic mix of ministers, including a non-Malay finance minister never seen since the days of Tunku Abdul Rahman.

Many of the immediately doable reform agendas were actually implemented. The Goods and Services Tax was abolished, petrol subsidies were restored, extravagant projects cancelled and so forth.

Two reform councils were formed – the Council of Eminent Persons and recently the Economic Action Council – and lengthy consultations with civil society activists and experts were conducted.

The Electoral Commission has had a new chief with new members recently reappointed, and an Electoral Reform Committee is now in place.

The Bantuan Sara Hidup (Cost of Living Aid) programme has replaced BR1M, with the objective of alleviating the inadequate income of the bottom 40% of households.

In foreign policy, prickly relations with Singapore have been put on an even keel.

Most crucially the main perpetrator of the 1MDB scandal, former Prime Minister Najib Razak, is finally in the dock to defend the first set of charges involving money laundering. A further slew of corruption charges has been foisted on other culpable individuals of Najib’s regime.

The trials that will follow from the investigative work of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and the Attorney General’s Chambers may well take five years, that is, up till the time of the next general election!

Few would dispute that the new Attorney GeneralTommy Thomas and his team have conducted themselves with professionalism, aplomb and effectiveness. Even Jho Low’s luxury yacht Equanimity has been finally sold, albeit even if the crook himself has eluded capture. Malaysians should acknowledge that the rule of law has been firmly put back in place – no mean task.

From the perspective of ‘turnover’ democratic politics, the BN haemorrhage of losing all of its partners, except the MCA and the MIC, and suffering defections were good developments for PH governance.

But there is a downside to this, namely, that it would be bad for the longevity of two-coalition politics. With the Umno-Pas alliance now in place, this development adds a ‘bad’ spin to the future of multi-ethnic politics but more on this later.

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Related to this is the acceptance of former Umno members into Bersatu, which in denuding Umno of strong personalities would likely drive it further into mono-religious collaboration with Pas

The Bad

Without doubt, the PH government has left us with unfulfilled agendas and setbacks. Many have pointed out that electoral promises have been reneged, notably, the ratification of human rights conventions, the baulking at the abolition of the death penalty and the snail’s pace corrective education policies and economic reform.

Disappointingly, the government withdrew its ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court owing mostly to Malay protests orchestrated by Umno and other groups. In the latter case, this was also because of alleged objections from some members of the royalty.

There could be many issues of an economic hue that could be regarded as bad, such as the potential revival of cronyism with government-linked companies being closely linked or associated with various ministries, Mahathir assuming the chairmanship of Khazanah, the tardiness or lack of gumption to reform political financing and the like. In most of these developments the jury is still out as to whether damaging outcomes have actually ensued.

Finally, the highly significant constitutional Malaysia Agreement 1963 amendments on Sabah and Sarawak, requiring a two-thirds majority to return these Borneo states to their original status as equal states with Peninsular Malaysia, fell through.

Whether this was due to a lack of proper preparation and lobbying of Sabah and Sarawak parliamentarians or the outcome of sheer BN oppositional politics, the fact is that it has put the brakes on a critical election promise to the people of North Borneo.

The Ugly

We also have the ugly developments. Let me start with “enforced disappearances” which, admittedly, were acts committed under the previous regime.

But there is seemingly no will by the PH government to right a grievous wrong. Mahathir’s knee-jerk and dismissive response to the Suhakam inquiry was truly regrettable.

The three-member panel comprising prominent legal persons found that “on a balance of probabilities” state agents were responsible for the abduction and disappearing of Amri Che Mat and Pastor Koh.

The light at the end of this dark tunnel could hopefully see the revival of the proposal for an independent police complaints and misconduct commission (IPCMC), mooted since the days of Pak Lah.

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At the end of 2018, Malaysians witnessed the ugly and acrimonious PKR internal elections, which have been clearly harmful to the party itself because of the worsening of factionalism in the party. It could well have caused the resignation of Nurul Izzah Anwar as vice president and her announcement more recently of eventually quitting politics.

Anwar, as president, was caught in the horns of a dilemma which saw him visibly choosing sides rather than alleviating the intense rivalry of the Rafizi Ramli and Azmin Ali camps. The president seemed powerless to stem the unsightly fights, allegations of foul play and vote buying.

Arguably Anwar’s reputation dropped a notch or two because of the PKR elections. To put it plainly, if one of the ruling parties (or Malaysia’s future premier) could not conduct elections fairly, how could anyone have confidence in the party or its president running the state?

Lastly, with the rise of the Umno-Pas alliance, compounded by PH electoral losses, we are seeing a definite uptick in ethnic polarisation in Malaysia. The fact that political campaigning has taken on a more racial tone is evident from the last two by-elections.

Add to this, the Seafield Sri Maha Mariamman Temple riot causing a fireman’s death, Umno louts harassing and abusing students in UM and the resurgence of the royal house of Johor, ugly racial politics has certainly reared its head towards the end of the first year of PH governance.

What is to be done?

We can see that, as can be inferred from the Shakespearean quote, the Good is often less recognised and usually forgotten while the Bad stays with us for a long, long time. The Ugly, by implication, will always colour our perceptions and remain in our consciousness for a great length of time.

Thus to address the issue of PH governance, it may not be just a simple solution of continuing to do good, righting wrongs, avoiding the bad and excising the ugly. That said, this could be an overall stratagem.

What is clear is though is that well-intentioned individuals and commentators from civil society need not go overboard in castigating the PH government. Constructive criticism is good but there is also bad and ugly criticism!

Many things are still going well and moving along. Democracy, to repeat a cliché, is a messy business. Let me take one example, that of electoral reform; it requires considerable thinking, debate and consultation and even the architects of such reform may not know what could be its eventual shape. Civil society and able academics are helping this process along. Give them breathing space.

Some questions include the following: should Malaysia have a mixed mode system, combining first-past-the-post and proportional representation? How do we institute more gender balance? How should locally elected councils be implemented? What sort of legislation would be necessary? How many elected councils should there be?

Clearly there is still much on the plate of the PH government in the next four years. We only ask that it remains firmly on the track of reform and good governance to inspire public confidence for a second term when the next general election comes around.

Johan Saravanamuttu
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter

19 April 2019

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Dr Johan Saravanamuttu, a long-time Aliran member, is emeritus professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia, adjunct professor at the Asia Europe Institute, University of Malaya and adjunct senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He believes in politics as a vocation but is frustrated that it is often the refuge of opportunists and the morally depraved
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Stephen Tan
Stephen Tan
23 Apr 2019 1.21pm

My dear Dr Johan Saravanamuttu

You referred to what you believe to be Shakespeare’s treatment of the good and the bad.

In Shakespeare’s overall philosophy that can be discerned repeatedly in almost all his plays, the theme that always persists is that the forces of good will triumph over the forces of evil, though in the process a lot of suffering will ensue for the forces of good.

In the Shakespearean scheme of things, the forces of bad therefore do not enjoy permanency although they may be with us for “a long, long time.”

Cheers, big brother!

20 Apr 2019 11.21am

But more haste is needed in key reforms. For example, if not reformed in time, the present unfair electoral system would enable an UMNO-PAS alliance to win the next election on the basis of Malay votes alone and with less than half of total votes. Better act now with foresight than to realise with hindsight after becoming a one-term government.

20 Apr 2019 6.52am

One member of the family refuses to work for it but will demand & live on other family members hard work and sweat. This attitude is not going to change even after another 60 years. Somebody might write the same in years 2080.

Subramaniam Pillay
Subramaniam Pillay
19 Apr 2019 10.12pm

Excellent commentary by Johan. Let’s not be too hasty in rushing to condemn PH.

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