One reason the Pakatan Harapan government in 2018 did not last long is that it failed to distinguish itself sufficiently from the previous Barisan Nasional administration.
Many ordinary people simply could not see a qualitative improvement in their lives in the 22 months after the 2018 general election – and that is why PH did not fare well in a string of by-elections in that period.
It was these losses that provided confidence to the plotters behind the Sheraton move in early 2020.
What led to the loss of support for PH ahead of the Sheraton move? People’s lived experience on the ground and their interactions with public services can influence their perception of how well (or not) the government is performing. If they see no difference in their quality of life, the fence-sitters among them could easily fall for the narrative of other parties.
If Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim wants to win more fence-sitters to his side, he needs to show real improvements in several key areas within the next six months, especially ahead of elections in six states.
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It is not enough to battle corruption – important as that is. Many want to see how their lives will be improved. Although it will take longer than six months to bring about a real improvement in the people’s quality of life, the government can still do a lot within six months.
The government should go beyond optics and improve the actual lived experience of the people.
Anwar needs to focus on several key areas that have a direct impact on people’s lives: food prices; the quality of national schools and public hospitals; public transport; the cleanliness of markets, streets and parks; and the experience at key government departments which the public use.
This will have a direct bearing on the people’s quality of life – the first item of the five-point People’s Agenda.
1. Control prices of essential items
The government must work hard to keep a lid on the rising prices of food and other essential items. The Agriculture and Food Security Minister Mohamad Sabu and Domestic Trade and Cost of Living Minister Salahuddin Ayub have a lot of work to do.
The authorities must also do more to monitor unreasonable price increases and reduce supply constraints. Dismantle any cartels and monopolies that have been profiteering from essential items.
We must support our farmers and fisherfolk. Rezoning agricultural land to ‘mixed development’ and carrying out land reclamation in prime fishing waters will only undermine – and not improve – food security.
Check out civil society’s eight-point plan to tackle the nation’s food crisis.
At the local level, promote cooperatives and fortify existing cooperatives so that low-income citizens can enjoy the benefits.
2. Improve quality of public schools
The government should act fast to improve the infrastructure of our public schools – create smaller classrooms, hire more teachers and teaching assistants, reduce the paperwork of the teachers, ensure all schools have access to water and electricity. Provide breakfast for all students, irrespective of family incomes, to foster social solidarity.
In rural schools, make sure they have enough teachers for all subjects and that facilities at these schools are the same as in urban schools. Ensure that the routes that pupils take to get to school are safe – upgrade all makeshift bridges and unsafe paths between homes and schools.
The government should also ensure inclusivity and non-discrimination, especially in schools, universities and other public services, so that no one feels left out.
3. Reduce crowds at public hospitals
Examine if crony companies are profiting excessively from the procurement of drugs and medical equipment for general hospitals as well as from the outsourcing of hospital support services.
Use these savings and increase the public healthcare budget from 2% to 4% to immediately increase the number of doctors and specialists in government hospitals and clinics. Hire more contract staff as a short-term measure. Order new equipment if there are long waiting times for some test results.
The idea is to slash the queues, waiting times and congestion in public hospitals as soon as possible, so that people can see the difference in a people-focused government.
4. Expand public transport
Encourage more people to switch from cars to public transport.
Buy more buses, increase the frequency of bus services and improve first and last-mile connectivity in major cities and towns. Increase the frequency of KTM Komuter trains to reduce waiting times and to ensure they are not packed like sardines.
Upgrade and improve the railway stations at key stops, such as the new station in Butterworth, which is already congested. Improve the connectivity between this railway station and the cross-channel Penang ferry service. Increase the frequency of the ferries and introduce cross-channel mini-buses that can board the ferries to take passengers from Butterworth to various key points on the island, especially during rush hour.
It is OK for the government to lose money on buses, trains and other public transport services as these are essential services.
5. Improve amenities and services
Instruct local councils to improve the cleanliness of parks and beaches and spruce up and upgrade public markets – anywhere that people gather. Fine litterbugs. Fix broken and uneven pavements and remove obstacles from pedestrian walkways.
At government departments, plan for bigger spaces for crowded offices to make it easier for the public to breathe! If necessary, decentralise key offices – such as the Immigration Department and the Road Transport Department – to smaller towns and other locations. Redeploy officers to overcome bottlenecks. Aim for most people to get their passports or driving licences renewed in less than an hour.
Even if all the above cannot be done in six months, get cracking now. Show people that things are improving. Meanwhile, start work on making available more genuinely affordable housing – although this will take longer.
Get ministers to use public services
One quick way to improve public services, especially public education and healthcare, is for Anwar to instruct all cabinet ministers to use general hospitals for their medical care, to send their children to national schools and to take public transport to work at least once a week. You’ll be surprised how fast things will improve then!
Check out how reluctant UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was to admit he uses private medical healthcare at a time when the UK National Health Service is struggling with challenges, including outsourcing:
People there take a dim view of ministers resorting to private services when public services are neglected and left to rot.
The public in Malaysia should take a similarly dim view of ministers who use expensive private services while neglecting to improve essential public services.
So, Anwar must tell his ministers to use public services as far as possible so that they can experience what ordinary people go through every day.
If Anwar and his team can go beyond the optics and improve the people’s lived experience on the ground, he will go a long way in winning over sceptical fence-sitters ahead of the elections in six states later this year.