Home Newsletters The more things change, the more they appear to be the same…

The more things change, the more they appear to be the same…


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It was never going to be easy as we are not undergoing systemic change, only regime change. And this came only after 60 years, says Francis Loh.

It would seem as though the above dictum holds true at least with regard to ethnic-based politics and ethno-religious relations, political leadership as well as leadership of our public universities, our continued resort to coercive laws, our budget formulation still more skewed in favour of the top 10% of households, not the bottom 40% and middle 40%, and so on.

Malay Dignity Congress and stoking ethnic sentiments

On 6 October we witnessed the holding of the Malay Dignity Congress, apparently organised by Malay academicians from four universities.

Zainal Kling, an elder academician better known for his exclusivist views rather than for his scholarship, appeared to be the spokesperson for the organisers. He spoke about a certain “social contract” – apparently even more sacrosanct than the Constitution – which, according to him, the non-Malays had broken.

What? When? How? Because Umno-BN was set aside electorally in the 2018 general election? And because of that alleged breach of an imagined contract, apparently, Malays – all Malays? these Malay academicians? Umno-Pas political leaders? – had been insulted. Never mind that Dr Mahathir Mohamad and other Pakatan Harapan (PH) Malay leaders constitute the majority in the cabinet and the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. The rights and status of Malays, meaning their own interests, as primus inter pares, first among equals, must be restored.

Another Malay leader who spoke at the Kongres Maruah Melayu (Malay Dignity Congress or KMM) rally was Abdul Rahim Hashim, the University of Malaya’s vice-chancellor who had been appointed by the previous Umno-BN government. He surprised many, who had not heard of him previously, with his rabid racist opinions about non-Malays in Malaysia. What he said at the rally was most unbecoming of the vice-chancellor of the oldest and perhaps the leading university in the country.

C’mon, how can one have respect for him or for whatever plans he has for the University of Malaya after his awful speech which essentially rejected the rights of non-Malays as citizens of Malaysia.

Zainal Kling going on a rant – we have heard before and can understand. But Vice-Chancellor Abdul Rahim Hashim doing the same? Whatever has become of the common and universal understanding of the role of the university as a centre of learning, of the exchange of views and rational debate? How can he be expected to preside over an institution that encourages learning, nation-building in multi-ethnic Malaysia, and the pursuit of excellence? Rightly, he has received much criticism for the views he expressed – and not just from non-Malays.

As we know, one of the students, Wong Yan Ke, decided to carry a placard denouncing the vice-chancellor at the graduation ceremony. In turn, this student was admonished and threatened that his degree might be withdrawn.

Almost suddenly, the intellectually-bankrupt National Professors Council, which had been a principal cheer-leading squad of the previous Umno-BN government, sprang to life again – after it had been shunted aside by the new PH government in 2018. Their comments remain as incoherent as before! Come to think of it, many of these council professors must have been involved in the KMM too. No wonder!

Missed opportunity to promote multi-ethnic cooperation counter-narrative

I’d like to believe that the principal organisers of the KMM were not necessarily associated with Parti Pribumi Bersatu as some commentators have suggested. For although Mahathir was the principal guest and speaker and many other Bersatu leaders accompanied him, also present were Amanah president Mohamad Sabu, PKR deputy president Azmin Ali and Pas and Umno leaders – though not Umno president Zahid Hamidi. Ah yes, conspicuously absent, apparently not invited, was Anwar Ibrahim.

Rather, I’d like to think that the presence or absence of particular Malay political leaders derived from the wishes of the organisers to rebuild a new coalition of Malay-based parties, held together by Bersatu and led by Mahathir.

At the back of their minds might be that first gathering of Malay organisations and clubs which led to the formation of Umno in 1946. Perhaps this is why they named their rally KMM, hoping to claim the mantle of the pre-Medeka Kesatuan Melayu Muda, which later became the Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Muda. But KMM 2019 is vastly different from the original KMM, which was a progressive movement.

In the wake of Umno and Pas coming together in a new political pact and if indeed the organisers were Bersatu sympathisers, Mahathir’s attendance at the rally is understandable. Obviously, he could not simply leave the Umno-Pas pact to claim itself as the defender of Malay rights and interests and Malay dignity.

To his credit, Mahathir did not rally support for the resolutions passed to promote Malay unity and restore its political hegemony on the grounds of a supposed “social contract”. Instead, true to form, he told his audience not to be lazy and to work hard… Put another way, he was there, present at the rally, but he was not captive to KMM and its resolution.

That said, I would have preferred it if Mahathir had actually linked all that talk of Malay dignity to the ongoing 1MDB court case – how it was people like the past Umno leader and people of his ilk who had undermined the dignity of the Malays in the very first instance. It was not the “Others” who had maligned Malay dignity. It was the then numero uno leader of the Malays who had insulted the Malays big time.

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Better yet, Mahathir could have turned KMM on its head by calling Malaysians of all ethnic and religious backgrounds together, to rally the components parties of PH, to talk about Malaysian dignity. Just as he was instrumental in helping to pull together the Bersatu-PKR-DAP-Amanah coalition to deliver the popular vote on 9 May 2019, Mahathir could also play the lead role in consolidating multi-ethnic cooperation. It was a missed opportunity to kick start a counter-narrative at the highest level.

The failure to do so will continue to allow inter-ethnic matters to always remain sensitive, threatening to boil over as in:

  • the Zakir Naik incident
  • the Selangor Menteri Besar’s unilateral conversion bill, contrary to the ruling at the federal level requiring the consent of both parents prior to conversion of minors
  • the Jawi/khat issue
  • the opposition to the ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
  • the status of vernacular schools, yet again
  • the Methodist Girls School, a top school in Penang, becoming embroiled in a dispute over prayer because “a Christian prayer” asking for blessings for all present was said in the presence of Muslim and other non-Christian pupils

Inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations can always be turned sensitive, but can and must be contained. The counter-narrative is to respect one another, including each other’s beliefs; to always seek ways to tolerate, accommodate and even learn from one another; and to proclaim loudly that there is a larger common interest and end involving all humanity regardless of our differences, not just ethno-religious but also gender differences too.

This counter-narrative must be promoted by political leaders, worked into the school curriculum, publicised by the mainstream and social media, not forgetting civil society groups, so that the narrative becomes commonplace and mainstream, no longer a contrarian one.

Shared Prosperity Vision?

The PH government ought to be congratulated for its notion of a Shared Prosperity Vision 2030, announced during the unveiling of Budget 2020. In addition to the ethnic disparity that has been reduced but still persists, other kinds of disparities have been identified: the urban-rural, the regional especially between the Peninsula and Sabah and Sarawak, the male-female, and don’t ever forget the intra-ethnic divide.

All these divides need to be addressed if the government is serious about its 2030 vision. This must become part of the counter-narrative of our common interests regardless of ethno-religious differences. It is doubly important, therefore, to avoid cakap tak serupa bikin especially in budgetary and economic matters.

Yes, the PH government did maintain the usual allocations for the educational, housing and health sectors, while the Bantuan Sara Hidup (BSH) will be expanded to cover 1.1 million people. The Budget also increased allocations for Sabah and Sarawak a considerable proportion of which goes towards rural water and rural electrification projects.

Some RM1.1bn worth of development projects is made available for development projects in hitherto neglected regions outside of the Klang Valley, the Iskandar region and Penang. The Budget also provided allocations for small and medium-sized enterprises – businesspeople of all ethnic backgrounds as well as women involved in these enterprises.

That said, there does not appear to be enough rethinking about resolving the plight of the poor bottom 40% of Malaysians. Perhaps this is because, using current official definitions, absolute poverty in Malaysia has been cut to just 0.4% of the entire population and exists only in rural areas especially in Sabah, Sarawak and the northern and northeastern states of the peninsula. But relative poverty has worsened in Malaysia (that is a topic for another occasion).

The real danger is that the PH government, like the Umno-BN administration before it, is enamoured with privatisation, big high-tech business and massaging the market economy. The finance minister has offered up to RM1bn in “customised package investment incentives for 5 years” to attract “Fortune 500 companies and global unicorns in hi-tech manufacturing, creative and new economic sectors” to invest in the country.

Conceivably, such high-tech and knowledge-based investments might help the country to get out of the “middle-income trap” which was an important consideration in previous Umno-BN budgets. It appears this consideration persists.

The National Fiberisation and Connectivity Plan, which will probably result in Malaysia becoming the tech leader in the region, will receive RM21.6bn.

This pro-big business bias has also impacted on the question of housing, a basic need of all people. Unfortunately, there is an oversupply of high-end housing, reportedly some RM20bn worth in the country. To reduce this over-supply, the PH’s Budget for 2020 proposes that foreigners will be allowed to buy houses that cost RM600,000 upwards (down from the previous threshold of RM1m.

Need for cheap public housing

In contrast to this oversupply of expensive houses for the top 20% and for foreigners, there is a serious shortage of lower-medium and low-cost homes for the bottom 40% and middle 40% groups. So, who is going to build homes for the poor?

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Some 25% of Malaysian families do not own the houses they live in. Last year, the PH government launched its Skim Rumah Mampu Milik (Affordable Housing Scheme or SRMM) last year and parked RM1bn worth of low- interest loans in Bank Negara. But only 300 families in the bottom 40% group, earning less than RM2,400 per month, had reportedly applied and were awarded these loans.

To encourage more buyers, this Budget increased the eligibility threshold from those earning less than RM2,500 to those earning less than RM4,300 per month. This adjustment ought to allow more people to access loans.

However, the bottom 20% of the population will still not be deemed ineligible and will be unable to obtain the loans. They simply do not earn the necessary income to become eligible.

This brings us back to the need for the government to enter the housing sector, once again. Yes, restore the role of government in providing cheap and comfortable housing for the needy. In this era of neoliberalism, only the govenment will be able to build a stock of social housing. This public housing can then be rented out cheaply to the bottom 20% and after say, 10 years, these homes could be sold to those renting them at discounted prices.

Versions of such rent-first, then-buy schemes have been provided by neighbouring Singapore to its poorer citizens. More than that, the Housing Development Board has ensured that such social housing also provides parks and childcare facilities in these public housing schemes.

Indeed, the George Town Municipal Council also developed walk-up low-cost public housing in the inner city during the 1960s. If the government does not re-enter the housing market, when will the 25% of families without houses ever own their own homes?

Need to deepen our democracy, not resort to coercive laws.

Consider also the recent use of the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma) to arrest 12 Malaysians of Indian descent for alleged ties with and support for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), considered by the government to be a terrorist organisation.

The use of Sosma allows the PH government to detain suspects without trial, a situation that PH leaders like Anwar Ibrahim, Lim Kit Siang, Lim Guan Eng, Mohamad Sabu and others are all familiar with and have campaigned against.

Of late, we have had several cases of deaths in custody, the shootings in Rawang, the continued delay in launching an independent police complaints of misconduct commission (IPCMC), which had been proposed by a royal commission of inquiry in 2005 during Abdullah Badawi’s tenure as Prime Minister. And it seems as though the PH 2013 general election promise to bring back local government elections has not yet been put on the agenda.

Some Malaysians are extremely disappointed that we have also failed to ratify the international convention against racial discrimination. The government has also been slow in abolishing the death penalty in its entirety; it has only got rid of the mandatory death penalty.

We shall not consider the infighting within the Pakatan Keadilan Rakyat, the impending break-up of the PH government, Azmin’s call this week for Mahathir to serve as Prime Minister till the end of his term, which was immediately denounced by Anwar Ibrahim’s supporters.

From our review of recent developments, there is enough “evidence” to leave the impression among increasing numbers of Malaysians that little has changed whatsoever. Frustration with the PH government has been creeping in.

Regime change

There is a danger that we do not adequately appreciate the very significant changes that have occurred. For the first time in 60 years, the Umno-BN government was displaced in the 2018 general election. And this was achieved bloodlessly.

Look around the world at what is happening and appreciate the significance of this achievement. Henceforth, a change of government after elections ought to become a normal affair, whereas prior to the last general election, change had not ever occurred, was not thought about, was even feared for its consequences.

This breakthrough is also a psychological one, although perhaps those who organised KMM still have not had the capacity to accept this psychological turn.

Next, it is also unprecedented that a former prime minister has been hauled to court on several charges of criminal breach of trust, money laundering and abuse of power. Very soon, cases involving other top politicians and government officers who have also been charged with abusing their positions and so on will also be prosecuted in court.

This is the second kind of breakthrough – not simply in terms of top leaders and government officers thinking twice and thrice before indulging in the same, but the judicial system will dare to prosecute such cases from now on.

At this point, the prosecution is being headed by a new appointee who has had to rely on “ad-hoc prosecutors” to pursue the former prime minister’s cases in court. Tomorrow, the usual career judicial officer will be more familiar with what and how to proceed.

Hence, apart from new cabinet ministers and deputy ministers – some very capable, a few less so – there have been changes in personnel in top government positions.

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The list is quite impressive. We have had two new chief justices, first a Sabahan and then a women; a new attorney general; a new inspector general of police; new heads of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, the Electoral Commission, Bank Negara and so on. Many government-linked corporations have had a change of CEOs. Top civil servants like the secretary-general of the Treasury have been removed. In fact, he too will be taken to court soon. Thank heavens, the humongous PM’s Department has been downsized and the National Professors Council mentioned earlier was kicked out of the PM’s Department.

These changes in personnel have contributed to some change in policies and some changes to institutional arrangements. However, what we have experienced since May 2018 is regime change.

A regime change is not simply a change of government where a new party takes over after defeating the old one in the polls. In liberal democracies like UK and Canada, a change of government happens frequently. Apart from a change of personnel at the centre, some policy shifts and a reallocation of funds, few other major changes occur.

Regime change is also different from the systemic change that occurs when changes in the fundamental institutions and policies occur. The overthrow of Marcos by People Power in the Philippines in 1986 is an example of systemic change. Corazon Aquino’s elected Rainbow Alliance government took over from Marcos’ authoritarian regime. Following the takeover, a new constitution was promulgated. The pro-Marcos military was ordered back to the barracks. The US was disallowed from having naval and air bases in the Philippines. Agrarian land reform was introduced. Free and fair elections at all levels were restored. The judicial system was revamped.

By contrast, regime change is a middle-level type of change between mere government change and radical systemic change. We have used this term to describe the end of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rule in Japan, the defeat of Congress in India and the defeat of the Kuomintang (KMT) in Taiwan among others – in all cases, after extended periods of one dominant party rule.

Regime change sees changes in three areas: the socioeconomic alliance backing up the regime, the restructuring of major political institutions, and the formulating of new policies that are more responsive to the needs of the people..

First, whereas a majority of Malays and pockets of non-Malays plus the “fixed deposits” of Sabah and Sarawak used to support the Umno-BN regime, the new PH regime commands the support of the non-Malays and non-Muslims overwhelmingly in all parts of Malaysia. It also commands the support of Malays in all the states except for Kelantan and Terengganu, at least for now. We know that Sabahans rallied behind PH though not the Sarawakians. The pro-PH Malays were principally urban-based, educated and middle class including Malay civil servants and retired military and police personnel. This was due to Mahathir helming the PH coalition. Big business used to support Umno-BN but they are supporting PH nowadays. But there has not occurred much of a shift in terms of class support between Umno-BN and PH.

Second, as we have already discussed, there have been important changes in top personnel and some institutional reform.

And three, new policies ought to accompany regime change. Two budgets later, there are some changes, but also many continuities as discussed earlier. The Goods and Services Tax has been replaced by the Sales and Service Tax and, despite a shortfall in government revenue, the PH government has held its course.

But as mentioned, the IPCMC has not been made law. Coercive laws which allow for detention without trial continue ie Sosma, the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Prevention of Crime Act.

The Malaysian population was hoping that there would be new policies on public transport, public housing, environmental protection, decentralisation of the education system and upgrading of our universities and on women and other welfare concerns.

And here is the rub. Many of the promises that the PH declared it would deliver within 100 days in office have not yet been settled some 500-plus days later.

Another age-old dictum is that change does not occur overnight. Take heed, problems in policing will persist even after the IPCMC gets passed. Or, if one replaces all the vice-chancellors of our public universities who had been appointed by the Umno-BN government, the change of personnel would not lead to the university working more efficiently, the performance of its staff and students improving, and the institution climbing up the index of the world’s top universities.

We should not be surprised that so many promises have not yet been delivered. It was never going to be easy since we are not undergoing systemic change, only regime change. And this came only after 60 years.

What does it mean? Put simply, we have to continue to exert pressure on those in power and the decision-makers, like we use to do during the Umno-BN days. Otherwise, we will not get the reforms and changes we desire.

However, because regime change did take place, it implies that there is room for us to manoeuvre or some possibility for us to negotiate around the PH government.

We should step forward too to work with this PH government so that the PH government’s new alliance of support results not only in a mere change of personnel but ushers in meaningful policy changes and long-lasting institutional restructuring.

Among others, civil society organisations must continue to push for the return of local government elections and more competent and transparent local government from outside and from within the PH government. Women’s groups are also doing the same vis-a-vis Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail’s initiatives for women. In Penang, a recent initiative is working with a particular Penang state government department and the Penang Island City Council to clean up one of the rivers in the state.

Find your niche, pressure from without, but also dig in from within.

Francis Loh
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
26 October 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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3 Nov 2019 5.16am

The Health Ministries budget can be reduced if Racial & Hatred Politics are stopped.
Its sicking to watch or read any media in Malaysia. Especially the Parliament meetings where the so call MPs dont even respect or understand the house rules & the word…..Duduk.

If the parliament leaders are with sick brain then how are the citizens going to be Healthy?

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