By M Santhananaban
When Dr Mahathir Mohamad became the Prime Minister for the second time in May 2018, he had to grapple with the gravest issues of priority.
He had to be pragmatic while enhancing the relevance and popularity of his hybrid government. He had to improve the professional management of the nation. And he had to oversee the healing of a nation torn asunder by a powerful plunderer-predecessor.
It took some time, but Mahathir’s plunderer-predecessor, Najib Razak, was handled properly and professionally through a transparent, thorough and prolonged judicial process. To prison Najib went eventually, four years later.
Today, Anwar Ibrahim, having inherited a daunting prime ministership a year ago, must admit his challenges are not comparable to the delicate, devastating situation that Mahathir faced.
- Sign up for Aliran's free daily email updates or weekly newsletters or both
- Make a one-off donation to Persatuan Aliran Kesedaran Negara, CIMB a/c 8004240948
- Make a pledge or schedule an auto donation to Aliran every month or every quarter
- Become an Aliran member
Mahathir, in his trademark cavalier, commanding and creative style, got some things right but did not last beyond 22 months. He vastly overestimated his political prowess and underestimated his allies, who stitched deals with his antagonists.
Anwar’s problem today is he is in a coalition with the same set of antagonists from Umno chiefly. The party’s leader, Zahid Hamidi, has become a big burden to the PM’s leadership of a clean, accountable and transparent government.
After 11 months in office, Anwar is perceived as grasping for legitimacy and relevance and is not seen as governing with authority and conviction.
Slogans, speech-making and stunning statements cannot a credible government make. Neither can revenge and rhetoric or the settlement of scores. Instead, it requires solid work, backroom deal-making, sustainable governance and proven, sound leadership.
The present situation is vastly different. The prime minister has to show he has the skills to handle the situation. He has to provide convincing explanations and effective confidence-building executive actions.
Anwar seems unable to have a frank and friendly powwow with the tainted Umno leader, to ask for his withdrawal and replace him with a leader from the party without the same baggage.
If Anwar could pull that off, it would help refurbish his image, and reorient his government to his declared reformist credentials. It would restore somewhat the solemnity with which he is seeking to govern with full accountability and transparency.
This is not some novel solution. Recall how Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who was not president of Umno, became Prime Minister and how he contributed to the continuation of certain policies and introduced some decent innovations.
So Zahid must be persuaded that his withdrawal would be a small sacrifice to make for the wellbeing of the nation and for his mate and mentor, Anwar, to succeed in service to the nation.
The game is about effective good governance. It calls for sacrifice, courage, creativity, austerity, some generosity, great honesty and integrity to serve the country as a proactive patriot. It involves hard work, undivided commitment and dedication to enable the nation to achieve greater unity, recovery, progress and prosperity.
The country cannot continue in the state of limbo it is in – adrift, aimless, with constant references to the follies of the past. We cannot go on blaming predecessors for every shortcoming. We cannot afford to get sidetracked by inconsequential issues. Just focus on central, core issues.
Sacrifice, more sacrifice, is what the nation needs desperately. The PM has to state it clearly and frequently and administer such sacrifices through exemplary conduct.
Anwar must be fearless and fervent in his fight against corruption. He must be forceful in impressing upon the people the need to realise we are all equal and completely together in the noble endeavour to uplift our nation and its economy.
PM must be exemplary
For a start, the PM has to give up his finance portfolio. He has to appoint a credible person with a sound financial acumen to fill the position.
Many conversations and difficult consultations are needed to manage an unsustainable debt-servicing challenge. We have to draw on the understanding of the people. Let’s rely on our own pool of experienced finance people who have dealt with international financial institutions.
The government has to expand the nation’s revenue base, even if it involves unpopular measures. It can bump up income tax on those making over RM1m a year, sales tax on luxury vehicles above RM1m, and property tax for transactions above RM5m.
It can also slash the perks of those helming government-linked companies and shut down non-critical government entities that keep on incurring losses.
The immigration authorities must be brought to understand that tourism and trade are important sources of employment and revenue for the country. It is no use advertising Malaysia as an investment and tourist destination and then holding up arriving visitors in long queues at checkpoints.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has several attractive and valuable properties overseas. Consider selling those that do not generate revenue but cost a lot to maintain.
Let’s face the reality that Malaysia is no longer a credible aspirant for first world status in the short or medium term. Widespread corruption, high operational and debt-servicing costs and ‘leaks’ are plaguing the country. These factors are hindering the growth of people’s incomes.
In the past, the country was on a false trajectory of such possibilities. Much money was splurged on high rentals and inflated expectations and expenditure.
For a comparison, check out the embassies of several European and Latin American countries that are run on modest budgets, small staff establishments, and a reliance on locally hired staff.
Specifically, if an ambassador was enjoying a rental subsidy of $16,000 monthly in a distant, peripheral and dismally administered capital with Dutch disease a long time ago, this should concern us even today, some 25 years later.
Anwar should focus Malaysia’s foreign policy on Asean, China and India, the rest of Asia, the five-nation Brics and Australasia.
Protocol, reciprocity, pragmatism and personnel considerations would require the government to maintain other diplomatic and consular missions, but these should be administered and audited properly.
Diplomacy is about obtaining maximum benefit from a minimal outlay of resources, such as personnel, finances, diplomatic initiatives, travel expenses and resident representation. It can be done smartly and superbly.
Representation in international organisations is unavoidable to protect our sovereignty and status. It helps the nation tackle issues relating to peace, security, the environment, global warming, airline operations, shipping and trading privileges.
Yes, there was indeed a time when Malaysia stood on the threshold of a trajectory towards great promise and pre-eminence. We then had honourable, high-minded though humble leaders who spoke politely but slogged silently for the nation. Those were memorable years of magnificent leaders and technocrats.
Partying is over
Today, few would remember that then UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan proposed a toast on behalf of his government when the inaugural Malaysia Day diplomatic reception was held in mid-September 1963.
That grand party at Grosvenor House in London was graciously hosted by the Cambridge-educated Tunku Yaacob, the then Malaysian high commissioner and older brother of then Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.
That kind of an elegant bubbly party effectively ended for us decades ago.
Anwar now has to build not from scratch but from a mutilated base, a maligned personnel establishment, a vastly vitiated asset base and a dispiriting debt problem.
He has to get on to doing the prime minister’s job with dedication, delegation, design and diplomacy. He has no other choice.
M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience. He has no political affiliations