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What went wrong for Pakatan Harapan at Kimanis?

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Another by-election, another defeat. The Pakatan Harapan government badly needs to change course if it is to avoid becoming a one-term government, writes Anil Netto.

Hours after the Kimanis by-election result, the wisecracks were already making the rounds, for instance: “Kimanis has become Kipahit” (manis means sweet; pahit means bitter) for Pakatan Harapan.

Barisan Nasional romped home to victory in the Kimanis by-election in Sabah with a larger majority of 2,029 compared to its 156-vote majority in the 2018 general election.

One of the big issues that BN played up was the Sabah PH government plan to issue Sabah temporary passes to undocumented persons in the state. Just two days before the by-election, speaker after speaker from BN railed against the proposed pass at a large rally.

We shouldn’t be surprised. In many countries, nationalistic or right-wing parties are capitalising on insecurities over migration and identity politics to win support from voters disenchanted with tough economic conditions and low wages.

It is not just Bersatu that is feeling the heat now, but the entire PH-plus coalition, Warisan too. Kimanis is the latest in a series of five by-election setbacks for PH. If the ruling coalition is not careful, these setbacks could snowball into the next general election.

What has gone wrong for PH just two years after it clinched power at the federal level? How could Umno, which led a BN government derided internationally as a kleptocracy, along with its demoralised allies, make such a resurgence in less than two years? Remember, Sabah Umno itself was badly hit by defections to Bersatu in the aftermath of the 2018 general election. Observers must surely be flabbergasted at how PH could lose to such a discredited lot.

For that matter, how did Bersatu, the smallest party in PH (and a race-based one at that), start calling the shots over the larger multi-ethnic parties in the PH coalition? That was always going to take us back to the bad old days of the politics of race and religion, egged on of course by Pas and Umno.

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Perhaps it was a combination of factors that led to PH’s defeat: the lacklustre economy and the mountain of debt, the slow pace of political and economic reforms; the unnecessary problems in the peninsula in managing religious and cultural diversity; unfulfilled aspirations for greater regional and local autonomy; controversial mega projects; and the blinkered, corrosive factionalism within PKR.

Last night, as the Kimanis results were trickling in, a Bantah Sosma (Reject Sosmai) rally was held in Kuala Lumpur. Now, the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act rally (Sosma) is one of the oppressive acts that allow detention without trial, and PH should have repealed it long ago. But it remains in the statute books, and now even PH politicians have been detained.

Apart from these pressing concerns, Putrajaya must resolve the sense of regional injustice, whether real or imagined, felt by some East Malaysians about the Malaysia Agreement, especially the share of oil royalties (even if the real problem is the lack of development and widespread poverty among the people, the legacy of corrupt local fat cats).

PH leaders have to tackle unhappiness over the perception that the peninsula-dominated federal government has treated East Malaysians as second-class citizens, despite Sabah and Sarawak being equal partners with the peninsula in the Federation of Malaysia.

The uncertainty over the prime ministerial succession from Dr Mahathir Mohamad to Anwar can’t have helped in Kimanis.

Flash back to the transition of power in 2003, when a beleaguered Mahathir, then with Umno, finally handed over the reins to Abdullah Badawi. The succession provided an immediate fillip to the ruling coalition. Abdullah was perceived to be a clean leader, free from Mahathir’s baggage (or so it seemed at the time). Riding on the Reformasi aspirations for change, the then new PM minister led BN to a landslide win in the 2004 general election, grabbing 90.4% of parliamentary seats and 63.9% of the popular vote. This reversed the opposition coalition’s Reformasi gains in the general election in 1999, when the BN’s share of the popular vote had slumped to 56.5% (from 65.2% in 1995).

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It says something that one of the key reform initiatives under the Abdullah administration – an independent police complaints commission proposed by a royal commission – has not yet seen the light of day, 15 years later.

Will PH enjoy a similar boost if Mahathir hands over power to Anwar this year or ahead of the next general election? Or do the problems run much deeper than a simple handing over of the reins can resolve?

The entire neoliberal orientation of the economy has left many people struggling in contrast to the opulent lifestyles of the elites. No wonder, when the PH administration planned to buy a fleet of new cars for ministers (whether Vellfire or Proton Perdana, it mattered little), it created a furore. For many, it showed that some political leaders were out of touch with the difficulties ordinary people faced on the ground,

Upon his release from prison in 2018, Anwar said, “I always believed in the wisdom of the people…”

Well, you know what? People are wise enough to sense if the leaders they elected are working for the people’s interests – or for personal or vested interests.

That is why if PH wants to remain in power after the next general election, it had better start focusing on the real reform agenda – political and civil rights reforms, local democracy, a genuine independent police complaints commission, the repeal of oppressive laws.

Work hard on improving public transport, food security, government schools, and general hospitals and district clinics (and I don’t mean the controversial MySalam insurance scheme). Get rid of all the cronies and rent-seekers. Keep a distance from property developers and contractors.

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Scrap mega-projects that harm the people and damage the ecology. For instance, the Warisan-led government in Sabah should ask itself if it really wants to borrow money to build the controversial RM3bn dam in Papar, which would destroy the biodiversity in the area. Wouldn’t a much cheaper alternative suffice eg a direct water intake reservoir, as suggested by an expert?  Imagine if those funds could be better spent on the people’s welfare. The same goes for mega-projects elsewhere.

More than that, a real leader must be positive and forthright – and not defensive – in projecting a vision of a new Malaysia where everyone has a place and no one will be left behind. He or she must get the public to buy into this vision, rising above ethnic and religious barriers.

If leaders of opposition parties try to thwart this vision by playing the race-and-religion card in the hope of winning power (and staying out of jail!), then expose their rank hypocrisy. Show how they have siphoned funds away from the very people they purport to champion. Expedite their prosecution.

That said, the PH administration itself better make sure it doesn’t do things like selling government-linked companies and cash cows to crony firms or entering into major projects to benefit well-connected firms.

Otherwise, it could end up as a one-term government, making way for others who may be more attuned to the people’s aspirations and better able to realise the dream of a new Malaysia. The writing is on the wall. 

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