By M Santhananaban
A full fortnight after the completion of the 12 August state elections – which was essentially the final phase of last November’s general election – some anxieties have vanished.
Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim can at last concentrate fully on pressing ahead with his refreshed reform agenda.
The sponsors and millions of supporters during his perilous passage to the prime ministerial post – ordinary folk like Abang, Amirul, Ameera, Ashwin, Ah Weng and Andrea – are anxious for him to succeed.
The Agong, who did his bit during the formation of the “unity government”, would also want his appointee to succeed and shine, to show the wisdom of a constitutional monarch acting on good advice. Lest it be forgotten, a constitutional crisis was averted by that palace-inspired masterstroke.
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Most people realise the PM inherited a mixed and monstrous mess from his recent predecessors. Anwar has received much sympathy and understanding on this score.
No one expects him to perform miracles. He is rooted deeply in appreciating both the rot and reality he inherited.
Many of the challenges the nation faces are of a sustained, systemic nature. They took a long time to become truly toxic, so it is unrealistic to expect the government to overcome them in a few short years.
The challenges include debt servicing payments for a RM1.5tn debt. The country’s revenue from taxes and other sources is being used more and more to pay off debt and cover salaries and pensions.
The nation is divided. An enormous dichotomy exists in the pace of development between the peninsula and the Borneo region. We also see a disturbing discrepancy between the east coast states and the west coast ones.
The nation is saddled with a disproportionately high ratio of civil servants relative to the size of the population.
The education system isn’t contributing effectively to the nation’s economic competitiveness and resilience.
A cabinet team to study the geoeconomics of the country would be timely.
All this must be corrected, although no acceptable solutions are in sight in the short term.
Yet the system in place is not producing the ideal school leaver. The nation has far too much abuse of office and corruption, especially at the highest elite level.
The training provided to government employees does not seem to inculcate absolute loyalty and dedication to national causes, high integrity, and a culture of good manners and politeness.
Immigration officials at the main gateway to the country were impertinent and insubordinate to a cabinet minister and the director general of public services in two, perhaps isolated, reported cases.
Are we allowed to assume that if such lapses occurred with ordinary Malaysians or foreigners, they would go unreported?
Such questionable and improper conduct at the country’s major airport does not help in making life easier for arriving tourists. Remember, tourism is an important source of revenue and a key resource for tourism and travel-related businesses.
The PM has had such poor administrators and planners as his predecessors that the best recent predecessor he had was Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who realised his own shortcomings and called a general election.
The entire nation, especially the vast majority of voters who voted for the MPs of the unity government, are desperately looking to see how the PM can succeed. And succeed, he must.
It is well past the stage of advocacy, of criticising the errant prime ministers or finance ministers of the past. Now is the time to get to grips with the hard realities of a shaken national stature, a shrinking ringgit and resource base, serious divisions and discrepancies, and dysfunctional public institutions.
Holding two positions simultaneously – prime minister and finance minister – is too much for Anwar. A Rafizi Ramli or another reliable, robust, resourceful Rafizi-like figure in finance should be relied on to take a fresh look at the government’s income and expenditure.
Populism has to be set aside for professionalism and pragmatism to take its place. Give Rafizi three years and let him convince the cabinet and the public about the essential steps to be taken. Appoint capable deputy ministers to assist him.
Explain government’s plan
The country’s leadership has to empower Rafizi and the younger MPs close to the grassroots to identify urgent issues.
They have to reach out and use the media to enlighten the public on the critical situation the nation faces. It is not a time for another “Abah cares” scam with handouts and handshakes with cash in hand.
Sacrifice, austerity needed
Highlight the importance of personal sacrifice to achieve some recovery.
For a start, slash overseas trips by top officials.
Do something shocking – like selling a government-owned executive jet – to show seriousness in handling an unsustainable situation.
Let the realisation sink in that it is difficult to resolve high debt service obligations in the short term.
Devise a sustainable tax system for expensive single-item purchases (say, over RM800) so that the lower-income groups are not burdened.
It will be tough to educate the entire population on the cumbersome challenges we face.
It may be wise to invite written proposals from Perikatan Nasional leaders Hadi Awang and Mahiaddin Yasin on how to improve the taxation and education systems. Make known their stand and then proceed with the most reasonable course of action.
Pontificating about theology won’t solve the technological and transformational challenges the nation faces.
Religion and piety must be respected, its place secure and sustainable in the home and social environment. It must not impede on the people’s passion for peace, progress, enhanced productivity and prosperity.
The basic principle of governance is to enhance the people’s wellbeing while being transparent and accountable.
Engage the business, education and industrial community on how to raise local skills so that wage increases can be more justified.
After the last general election, it is clear Umno is on life support. Unfortunately, the Pakatan Harapan leadership has to continue to rely heavily on Umno’s tainted leader.
The unity government must extricate itself from this over-reliance to strengthen itself. Some serious discussions must be held within Umno to enable a leadership transition. This will improve the government’s standing and help it achieve accountability, good governance and transparency.
Undoubtedly, Umno played a vital and virtuous role from the 1950s to the early 1980s. The party was then hijacked and began advancing the interests of those in supreme power rather than the ordinary people’s interests.
No longer the underdog
Now that the state elections are over, Anwar has to shed his underdog’s image. In its place, he has to acquire the reputation of a consummate cabinet leader. He has to ensure that every cabinet member plays a scripted role to provide a semblance of collective responsibility.
In our system, the PM is the first among equals, and any attempt to provide a presidential direction or dictatorship would be out of place. There are no cabinet minsters of Anwar’s vintage. But there is no pressing need for him to overplay his allotted leadership role.
The PM should select a team of five cabinet ministers to steer his agenda for the nation. Their task should be to transcend race, religion, region and the politics of hate espoused by the opposition.
Anwar has travelled a tough and tortuous route to get to the highest position. The people have endured elite corruption and government excesses since his ouster on 2 September 1998 – a quarter of a century ago. It is time to move out of that dark phase of false propaganda, fake projections and failed projects.
Anwar himself must also move out of the phase of being in his comfort zone and promoting Islam for a domestic and international audience. That work should be the privilege of larger Islamic countries, including Indonesia and Bangladesh.
Making statements on corruption is not enough. Anwar has to start governing instead of going on about the ghastly ghosts of corruption amid us.
The direction and decisions on Islam should, by convention, be left to the rulers – not politicians who have no business usurping the role of the sultans or rulers.
Let us develop the clarity of purpose, confidence and strength to overcome the obstacles we face.
Let Anwar emerge as a fully-fledged leader of a magnificent and majestic Malaysia.
Dato’ M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience. He has no political affiliations