The government needs to add two more thrusts – namely institutional reform and sustainable development – to its Shared Prosperity model, says Denison Jayasooria.
Dr Mahathir Mohamad delivered an outstanding, honest and visionary speech on 9 May 2019.
He was honest about the challenges the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government faced politically; he was conservative about its achievements over the first year; and he set a new economic direction to ensure shared prosperity by 2030 for all Malaysians
Taking politics head on
He was honest about the PH government’s first year in office. It has only accomplished 39.01% of the 464 initiatives undertaken.
But on the issue of tackling corruption and abuse of power, it has have done well in institutional reform, recovery of lost funds, and charging and bringing the former political leaders to trial.
He took the issues of race, religion, political distortion and distractions head on. He acknowledges the shift in public opinion and the blame game – that PH has failed to deliver.
I would think this is the first time in a public address we have heard so openly the challenge for the Malay-Muslims, a large section of whom feel they are being side-lined in development. There seems to be a strong perception that the PH government is a dominated by Chinese Malaysians and the DAP.
A fact check: of the 27 full ministers, 16 (57%) are Malays, four (14%) Indian Malaysians, three (11%) natives of Sabah and Sarawak and five (18%) Chinese Malaysians. So if one uses the term bumiputras, then 68% are under them.
So this political contestation has nothing to do with facts but it is all about political perceptions. The role of the PM and his department has been downsized to ensure that the PM is not too powerful in holding the office of both PM and finance.
In this context too, the setting up of the Ministry of Economic Affairs does focus a lot of the Malay agenda institutions, taking them way from the finance minister.
These facts, however, are not as significant as the narrative – a loss for Umno is being viewed as a loss for Malays.
Another major aspect of ministerial allocation in the PH government is that it is equally shared by all the four political parties to ensure no one party dominates in decision-making. This was different in Barisan Nasional, and we know who dominated all the positions although it was a coalition government.
Mahathir’s speech which clearly identified the critical issues and his call for political leaders to stop the distortion of the politics of race and religion fell short of specific institutional reform, which was a thrust in the PH manifesto and urgently needed.
There is a need to introduce the hate speech legislation and to establish a mediation commission as recommended by the National Unity Consultative Council.
Strengthening national unity, social cohesion and harmony is essential, and this thrust should be central to all the delivery agencies as well as through an independent national unity commission, as previously recommended. This must also include an independent media council.
Mahathir set the agenda for the theme thrust of the Twelfth (2021-2025) and Thirteen Malaysia Plans (2026-2030) – a focus on shared prosperity is significant.
Prosperity can be understood as more than just being high income; it includes social wellbeing. It is about ensuring that in economic growth, we will experience a fair and just equitable share for all communities to ensure that no one is left behind.
It is significant that, in this shared prosperity, the disaggregated indicators of class, race, geographical location are specifically highlighted but gender and age were not included.
Women are among the poorest; unemployment and underachievement can be felt among the youth while the ageing population is without social protection; they too are vulnerable and in danger of being marginalised or left behind.
The UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) which Malaysia adopted has a better disaggregated measurement in SDG 10:2 – “age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status”. The shared prosperity agenda must address these concerns too.
Also positive is the major departure in the measurement of national growth not just by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) indicators but also human wellbeing.
The minute Mahathir mentioned the seven thrusts in his speech on how to achieve this shared prosperity by 2030, I remembered his speech when he tabled the mid-term review of the Eleventh Malaysia plan on 18 October 2018. This was just six months ago and back then he highlighted six thrusts.
It is important to note what is similar and what is different in these new thrusts. What has been added and what has been left out?
|Mid-term review |
(11th Malaysian Plan)
| Shared prosperity ||Comment|
|Reforming government || ||This dimension is left out|
|Inclusive development and wellbeing||Strengthening social wellbeing||B40 strategies, monitoring and impact assessment key|
|Pursuing balanced regional development||Inclusive regional development|| |
|Empowering human capital ||Enhancing talent reformation and national resources |
Building social capital in community
|Enhancing environmental sustainability and green growth || ||This dimension is left out|
|Strengthening economic growth ||Improving the business eco-system |
Generating new growth sectors
Improving labour market and employee income
|Stronger grassroots economy as well as local development is key|
The above table reveals that there is a major shift in the public policy thrusts from its original focus as highlighted in Parliament in October 2018, when both institutional reform and sustainable development were major thrusts, along with economic growth, human development and social wellbeing.
Here I would like to emphasise that a rights-based approach and a framework for development is most essential for addressing both rising inequalities and discrimination in an open capitalistic and free market system,within which we are operating, domestically and globally.
It takes the two aspects of civil and political rights along with economic, social and cultural rights to ensure shared prosperity and inclusive development for all.
The development thrust and discourse does not separate these into two halves. Therefore the PH government is shifting its balanced public policy thrust towards an older model, which will create greater inequality among classes, races and regions.
Popular thought is that we need development but not human rights and institutional reform. What the people want are bread-and-butter issues such as reduced inflation, cost of living and inequalities.
Yes, their concerns are right, but our solution cannot just focus on building the economy and capital markets. It must address the root causes of inequality and discrimination which are structural.
The development thrust, especially the sustainable development goals, is a comprehensive and holistic one – not a segmented one. It is about empowering and promoting the social, economic and political inclusion of all.
My strong proposal is for the government to review the seven and enhance them with two more – which is already a major thrust of the mid-term review of the Eleventh Malaysian Plan, namely institutional reform and sustainable development. Therefore it will be nine and not seven thrusts.
A stronger public policy – targeting the informal sector, grassroots economies and greater local participation in local development priorities – is key to winning the hearts and minds of all local communities.
There is a need for public policy to have much stronger SDG language into the development agenda and policies as already done in the Eleventh Plan. It is essential that all member of the cabinet now host discussions with the grassroots on this ‘shared prosperity’ objectives and thrust.
Here is where delivery and implementation is key along with monitoring and impact assessment.
If the civil service at the district level and local authority level are not part of the shared prosperity agenda, nothing is going to change on the ground.
Yes, we would have had a stimulating intellectual discussion at the top but at the bottom, even the sustainable development goals language has not been popularised, what more a grassroots appreciation of a shared prosperity agenda.
The federal government must ensure greater public discussion and ownership as well as ensure good bipartisan buy-in at the parliamentary level
Prof Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria is Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of Ethnic Studies (Kita), UKM. He is also co-chair of the Malaysian civil society organisation SDG Alliance.