Pakatan Harapan, are you listening?

Zainah Anwar, The Star

Pakatan Harapan, are you listening?

What kind of Malaysia Baharu do we want to live in? How can we work together to bring into existence the Malaysia that we want and we deserve, that we actually voted for on May 9?

How do we build common ground to share this nation? How do we stop politicians and hateful ideologues from preying on our fears and exploiting our vulnerabilities for their own short-term self-interest?

Make no mistake. It is not us they care about. It is their own power, privilege and entitlements.

My greatest prayer as we welcome our 62nd year of Merdeka is for the good citizens of this country to send a clear and unequivocal message to the politicians and the hate mongers that they can no longer win elections nor make money peddling their politics of fear and division, and trumpeting a Malaysia based on a supremacist ideology.

Obviously, this is not an easy task, as the forces driving polarisation continue to use the emotive appeal of race and religion to exploit our vulnerabilities. It is the only currency they know to undermine this new government and its efforts at reform.

But what is tragic is that the political leaders we believe in, are caving in in fear, or complicit in their silence. Instead of listening to the voice of the rakyat on their myriad issues of concern over all that have gone wrong with Malaysia in the past decades, they, like the previous government, are responding to the baying of ethnoreligious supremacists. It was that choice that hammered the final nail in the coffin of Barisan Nasional.

Is Pakatan Harapan on a hara kiri mission to be a one-term government, betraying their supporters who voted for change?

It is astounding that we have allowed a foreign preacher, a wanted man in his own country, unwanted in countries that had once welcomed him, and banned from entering many other countries, to create such havoc here.

This is the man who called on Umno and PAS to work together to prevent the “enemies of Islam” (a favourite phrase of his) from gaining influence.

This is the man who said it is better to support a corrupt Muslim politician than a Muslim who joins hands with non-Muslims to come into power.

It defies logic that a man accused of preaching hate, instigating communal tensions, and radicalising Muslim communities could have been awarded permanent residence status and treated like a rock star by some state governments, past and present, and welcomed by the privileged and powerful.

The rakyat did not bring change on May 9 only to see more of the same.

This new government needs to listen. Not selectively, but carefully. And intelligently.

And it needs to act wisely on the very grave and fundamental issues confronting us as we rebuild this nation to be an inclusive and just society for all.

If we cannot depend on the political leaders to listen and in so doing, generate a constructive national dialogue on many of these issues, the rakyat will once again need to step up and make the case for reform and build public support and pressure to move forward.

Look at the current debate on poverty. It is disappointing to say the least that the Minister for Economic Affairs has responded to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights in the same predictable way that a Barisan Nasional minister would have reacted.

He has dismissed the report out of hand, instead of taking this opportunity to recognise that yes, the government’s decades-old national poverty line income of RM980 per household per month is ludicrously low to be used as a benchmark in 2019. You don’t need to be an economist to figure out that an urban family of four cannot survive on RM8 per person per day. You just need to be poor and hungry.

While the minister believes that RM980 is adequate for a family in peninsular Malaysia to “live healthily and actively”, Bank Negara calls for a “living wage” in Kuala Lumpur of RM2,700 for a single adult, RM4,500 for a couple without a child, and RM6,500 for a couple with two children.

In introducing the “living wage” concept, Bank Negara stated that as Malaysia moves into a high-income category, it must begin to introduce a minimum acceptable standard of living where citizens are able not just to meet their basic needs, but also able to participate meaningfully in society, with the opportunity for personal and family development, and freedom from severe financial stress.

If the government does not want to listen to a foreign expert, it can start by listening to its own Central Bank. It can listen to its own Khazanah Research Institute and its call for a revision of the poverty line income and the methodology to reach consensus on what constitutes the new minimum income given the higher cost of living in Malaysia.

It also questioned the wisdom of treating the B40 as a homogenous group, lumping those in absolute poverty with those in relative poverty when different strategies and policy instruments are needed to address two different types of poverty.

This is the kind of policy discussion to build a new Malaysia that should be hitting the news pages.

I hope by now, too, the Education Minister has begun to realise why he gets himself into a hot soup every time he hits the headlines.

The rakyat are desperate for a comprehensive reform of the national education system, not dribs and drabs about the colour of school shoes, hotels opening up their swimming pools to students, or introducing khat into the Bahasa Malaysia syllabus.

We understand most of the ministers are new to governance, and some even to leadership, but they must learn fast – how to make policy, how to consult, how to listen, how to build trust and confidence, how to communicate, how to give hope and clarity of vision. If they cannot shape up, then ship out.

They must realise the sense of panic and despondency that the rakyat who voted for change feel today.

May 9 was a monumental achievement. We don’t want the leaders on whom we placed our trust to now ignore the realities on the ground.

Many of my friends have given up hope that change could ever take place. But I refuse to believe this, simply because we cannot afford to.

Many people are despondent over the outrageous High Court judgement on the Sisters in Islam case, but some of us are priming for battle at the Court of Appeal. The outpouring of support and donations to SIS, and the over 1,000 new Twitter followers gained within 48 hours show Malaysians are still invested in the change they want to see. And I still have faith in the many good women and men in the Judiciary that rule of law and constitutional supremacy will prevail over reckless efforts to turn this country into a theocratic dictatorship.

We must continue to speak out and hold this government accountable.

We must continue to mobilise and organise and build support for the change we want to see.

We were Bersih. We made May 9 happen. We can do it again.