Stiff challenges ahead for Pakatan

THERE is little sense in grading a new government on its performance in its first 100 days in office especially if it has just replaced the world’s longest running coalition in power.

Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, Board of Trustees Yayasan Perpaduan Malaysia

Pakatan Harapan itself had set the stage for this evaluation by pledging to fulfil 10 promises within 100 days in its election manifesto. The 100-days idea is a political fad that originated with the Franklin Roosevelt presidency in the United States.

It is totally inappropriate in our context when the momentous change that occurred on May 9 and the monumental challenges that have unfolded since then require a continuous and comprehensive appraisal.

Since corruption and abuse of power associated with the Barisan Nasional government was a major factor in its downfall, the Pakatan leadership is doing the right thing in exposing the wrongdoings related to the 1MDB scandal and other financial shenanigans.

Understandably, the focus has been on former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and the expensive acquisitions of his wife Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor. Investigations have revealed the massive debts that the Barisan government had accumulated in recent years.

For the people, especially those who were once unquestioningly loyal to Najib, the realisation that their leader had betrayed their wellbeing could be a traumatic experience. Nonetheless, one hopes that coming to grips with the truth in this painful manner will, at the collective level, lead to a catharsis of the Malaysian soul that will fortify all of us against the scourge of corruption.

The Pakatan government has also sought to address some of the woes of the people expressed during the election campaign. It has abolished the unpopular Goods and Services Tax (GST), stabilised the price of petrol and introduced targeted petrol subsidies, eliminated unnecessary debts imposed upon Felda settlers, and postponed the repayment of PTPTN loans for graduates whose salaries are below RM4,000 per month.

The government has also abolished the Biro Tata Negara (BTN), which many felt was not conducive towards the promotion of better ethnic relations, and the National Service programme.

These are among the many positive measures but one should not ignore the errors and outright fumbles committed by the new government and entities associated with it, one of which led to the country having two Chief Justices. The situation arose partly because in hastening the transition of authority in the judiciary, respect for the independence and integrity of the institution was set aside.

The Pakatan government continues to enjoy the trust and confidence of the vast majority of the people as reflected in a number of surveys. Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s pivotal role in ousting Najib and the commitment displayed by this 93-year-old leader in planning and executing important changes since May 9 explain in part the high level of public trust in this government. Nonetheless, he and his government will be facing monumental challenges in the days ahead even in combating corruption, the first of the stiff challenges it faces.

The government has yet to present to Parliament a Bill to regulate political financing and to make electoral funding transparent. The public declaration of the assets and liabilities of ministers and deputy ministers at federal level through the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission is awaiting implementation.

Other proposals on barring close relatives of power-holders from bidding for federal or state government contracts and projects or on minimising and eliminating the role of middlemen and proxies in procurement exercises involving federal and state entities are not being pursued with vigour.

Strengthening democracy has been largely about rescinding laws such as the Sedition Act and the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, among others. However, enhancing human rights must mean more than rescinding authoritarian laws. Some of the vicious excesses of social media have convinced many human rights advocates of the importance of integrating rights with responsibilities. A more profound commitment to responsibilities at all levels could help develop a deeper attachment to the principle of amanah (trust) which in turn would reinforce the spiritual-moral foundation of life and society.

An equally crucial challenge for the Pakatan government is the plight of the relatively poor and disadvantaged. Increasing and equalising the minimum wage nationally is one of Pakatan’s pledges. It is also highly aware of why improving the quality of public housing, education, healthcare, transport and basic amenities will impact positively on the poor.

But relative deprivation in our society cannot be overcome unless one also regulates the huge salaries, bonuses and perks that the affluent minority regard as their privilege.

The fourth challenge is ethnic relations. Remarks and demands made within and without Pakatan by different individuals and parties in the first 100 days reveal ethnic and religious fault lines that the coalition has not dealt with as a grouping.

For instance, the uneasiness among some Malays over certain senior government appointments indicates not only a lack of appreciation of the Constitution but also points to a superficial understanding of what citizenship in a modern society entails.

Similarly, grossly inaccurate views about the ethnicity of ancient communities in the region, the flow of peoples within Nusantara and the reality of colonial migration and its adverse impact upon contemporary ethnic relations show how much ignorance prevails even among Pakatan’s top political leaders. Indeed, one gets the impression that it has not really imbued its leadership and membership with the knowledge and understanding of how the Malaysian nation state evolved. Without such understanding, it will be difficult to navigate ethnic relations in the country.

Pakatan also has to deal with the rising calls for greater autonomy from Sarawak and Sabah. Enforcing the Malaysia Agreement of 1963 is a Pakatan promise. Genuine autonomy for the two states will require a re-appraisal of the federal structure itself.

Forging a foreign policy that safeguards Malaysia’s independence and sovereignty is a much greater challenge today than it was when Dr Mahathir first became Prime Minister in 1981. The negative response of the US to the rise of China in recent decades has transformed Asean into a potential cockpit of conflict. To reduce tension and minimise friction, Malaysia and its Asean neighbours will have to engage not just the US and China but also other nations in Asia such as Japan, the Koreas, India and Pakistan in constructive dialogue.

The seventh challenge is centred upon Pakatan itself. While we acknowledge that it is a new coalition of four parties, we realise that because it is in power and is forced to grapple with huge challenges, it must demonstrate a high degree of cohesion and unity. On many issues of governance, it has already achieved an appreciable measure of consensus. However, the same cannot be said for issues of identity related to ethnicity and religion. For coalitions linked to ethnic and religious communities, directly or indirectly, the politics of identity would be as critical as the ethics of governance.

To evolve a viable understanding on the politics of identity, Pakatan’s leading personalities from all the parties will have a decisive role to play.