Simple tips for minister Rafizi Ramli in 2023

From Ibrahim M Ahmad, Free Malaysia Today

Perhaps economic affairs minister Rafizi Ramli is finding the transition from vocal opposition member to Cabinet minister more difficult than he expected.

It was surely much easier for him to be critical of the government of the day, and even his party’s own leadership, from the outside.

At PKR’s general assembly last year, he practically branded party president and current Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim a “has been”.

This outspokenness was what propelled him to win the race to be PKR deputy president. Success at party elections also brought him considerable power, with many aligned to him winning their respective races for seats in the party’s central leadership.

Over the years and in the buildup to the 15th general election, he took the government of the day to task on multiple occasions, largely calling it out for corruption and bailouts. Without doubt, it was his constant rebuke of governmental corruption and criticism of its economic and fiscal policies that put him in the national spotlight.

Prior to the first iteration of Budget 2023 by former finance minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz, he appeared on public television to articulate his thoughts on the economy and fiscal policies – a task he unfortunately didn’t particularly excel in.

In any case, his outspokenness endeared him to the electorate, allowing him to wrest the Pandan seat by a whopping 48,296-vote majority over his nearest rival. He was even touted as a strong contender for finance minister when Anwar was pondering his Cabinet lineup.

Instead, he was given the economic affairs portfolio – still an important position given the plight of the national and world economies.

Shortly after taking it on, Rafizi, presumably giddy from all that success, challenged the opposition to do their job properly, brandishing his “record” of 16 lawsuits and multiple detentions like the decorations of a top soldier.

Barely one month later, however, he appears hapless and out of his depth, with nothing of note to show to date, but already on the receiving end of a barrage of criticism.

With the prices of chicken and eggs soaring and items in short supply, Rafizi brought much annoyance to economists, consumer groups and the general public by appearing to blame the man-in-the-street for the increase in the prices of food.

“By right, when the price of chicken goes up, people should avoid buying chicken,” he said.

It was a statement which drew much rebuke from many quarters, but instead of engaging them, Rafizi doubled down on his position.

Citing his “record” of speaking up and insinuating that those who criticised him were not “intelligent”, the minister insisted that he was simply talking about controlling the cost of goods through “price elasticity”.

Prominent economists had their say on his initial statement and subsequent comments.

Noor Azlan Ghazali branded Rafizi’s statement “wrong”, “too simplistic” and “not among the measures to arrest rising costs”. Carmelo Ferlito said the minister’s “communication” was “not precise”, while Geoffrey Williams suggested he may need “better economic advisers”.

This comment is not intended to analyse the relative merits of economic arguments at play, and who among the minister and the economists are correct.

It has simply one purpose, that is to point out to our economic affairs minister that he is not the ultimate authority on economic matters, or indeed on anything. In any case, that was not why he was elected a Member of Parliament, and not why he was appointed to the Cabinet.

Rafizi, and indeed all Cabinet ministers, should instead understand and take to heart some very basic principles at play in a democracy.

Firstly, it is the individual citizen who is the most important person.

MPs are elected to their office on account of the trust which the rakyat has in them as measured by votes cast in their favour at an election. The executive branch, led by the prime minister and his Cabinet, which is made up of these elected MPs, is entrusted with the role of running the administration.

That trust is not premised on any superior knowledge which they may possess. Yes, they may have shown some knowledge to get themselves elected, but knowledge was not the determining criterion.

No, Rafizi – and indeed every minister and MP – must know that they were put in power so that they will be accountable to the rakyat for every action which they and their ministries take in the office entrusted to each of them.

In Rafizi’s case, that involves taking advice from reliable economic advisers when drawing up measures to strengthen the economy and when speaking in public on such matters.

It also requires him to learn to communicate better and to deal more appropriately with criticism of policies and actions taken both personally and by his ministry.

The beginning of the year seems like a good time to start. Here are four basic things which Rafizi must do better at:

  • Take Geoffrey Williams’ advice. Rafizi should strengthen his team of advisers. Make sure that they are filled with personalities which the business fraternity and the public have confidence in.
  • Take Carmelo Ferlito’s advice, as well. Rafizi must improve his and his ministry’s communications. Economic matters call for precise messaging. Rafizi’s style of rambling press conferences and generalised statements are simply not good enough.
  • His use of a “rojak” form of speaking – interspersing English and Malay words and phrases in the same sentence – is particularly annoying and makes what he says imprecise, and even incoherent. Discard it. Speak full sentences in English or in Malay.
  • Be open to criticism. Rafizi must understand that he is not the best there is. Even if he were, he is not infallible. Belittling members of the public and calling critics “irrational” and “unintelligent” is unacceptable.

I am sure by now the minister has come to realise that being in power is very different from being in the opposition.

Hopefully, 2023 will see a change in him for the better. Our economy depends on it.