Is PH the new BN when it comes to reforms?

The reliance on alliance parties like the Barisan Nasional and Gabungan Rakyat Sabah means Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s hands are bound when it comes to implementing reforms as political compromises have to be made.

(FMT) – Once there was hope that the Pakatan Harapan administration would transform Malaysia and its institutions, but recent events have proved disappointing.

The reformist prime minister has instituted no reform, the infamous anti-kleptocratic campaign has turned to nought, the equality agenda has been forgotten, and the promise of institutional reforms has been broken in such a way that what was once detrimental to the current leaders has turned into a political tool.

Basically, the same system is in place; the only difference being the role reversal. In other words, PH has become the new BN.

Now, there is a lot of discontent amongst the public. Between December 2022 and November 2023, that is over a period of one year since the last general election, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s approval rating dropped from 68% to 50%.

Opinion polls conducted by the Merdeka Center show a negative outlook on the country’s direction, with 60% of its respondents saying  the country is headed in the wrong direction.

On top of economic dissatisfaction amid the rising cost of living and a continued adherence to racial politics and policies, the reduction of former prime minister Najib Razak’s sentence for corruption and the earlier granting of a discharge not amounting to acquittal (DNAA) to deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi expose the current administration’s false promises.

Malaysians – who once went to the streets to advocate against corruption, sacrificed money, time and effort to put in place a government that was expected to lead us towards prosperity, and thought that justice had prevailed and the country had been “saved” with PH finally in power – are now left wondering what has gone wrong following recent events.

After decades of struggle, mass protests, dissent and civil society activism, what real progress have we made as a nation beyond shifting the dynamics of power from one hegemon to the next? Will there ever be real reform, institutional change and improvement in Malaysia?

Civil service as the blockage for change

Many of us think change will permeate the whole structure of the nation when top leaders are replaced. We imagine a leader at the top flicking fingers to bring in talented administrators, introduce new policies, and reform the civil services through effective leadership.

That is hardly what has happened. The leadership often has had to navigate the country’s vast and powerful civil service with caution. With 1.6 million civil servants or 5.3% of the 32 million population – the highest number per capita in the world – the civil service is the functioning arm of the government. The challenges faced by the PH government between 2018 and 2020 highlight the difficulties in doing so, with certain segments of the civil service appearing to resist PH’s perceived progressive stance.

Not accustomed to receiving directives from a non-Umno government, pockets within the civil service either ignored ministerial orders or actively obstructed them. This hindered PH’s efforts to implement its agenda and ultimately contributed to the political crisis that resulted in that government’s downfall.

Anwar faces similar challenges. The civil service does not favour him. An Ilham Centre survey prior to the 2023 six-state elections found that many civil servants supported PN, breaking the norm of the civil service being BN’s traditional voter base. The eroding support also means Anwar has to balance whatever reforms he hopes to make with the ideals of his supporters and the conservatism of the civil service, Malay nationalism, and economic interests.

This suggests that achieving the institutional reform desired by PH voters has become exceedingly difficult and even borderline impossible, regardless of which party governs the country. An entrenched civil service, deeply embedded at all levels of government, appears resistant to change, preferring to maintain the current system that has worked in its favour all this while.

For some public servants, the government’s crackdown on corruption has reduced extra earnings. Meanwhile, improving public service efficiency would mean a heavier workload, implementing new systems or policies would entail additional effort, reducing the size of the public sector would result in job losses, and championing equality means a loss of rights and benefits. These challenges make any attempt at reform a protracted and arduous process.

The political complications

In addition to the woes of the civil service, the PH-led administration does not have a clear mandate to fulfil many of its promises. The reliance on allies like the BN and Gabungan Rakyat Sabah, the ruling coalition in Sabah, means that many political compromises have to be made. Colliding interests, such as corruption cases and ethnic Malay rights, could make or break the government. These bind Anwar’s hands.

Many progressive urbanites, including Bersih, and many who have supported the movement and attended protests in the past, have been frustrated by the government’s lacklustre attempts at institutional reforms that have plagued our country for decades and caused an erosion in harmony, efficiency, economic growth and progress. However, it is an undeniable fact that Anwar does not have a majority mandate to introduce the desired reforms.

Progress will continue to face obstacles if progressive movements remain in the minority. While democracy has its merits, it has also revealed a challenging reality: the system tends to prioritise the interests of the majority. In this context, the prevailing priorities are Malay nationalism, Islamic conservatism and race-based policies.

Reform becomes an elusive goal when dissenting voices are marginalised and the majority opposes progressive initiatives. Even if leaders sympathetic to progressive ideals assume power, achieving reforms becomes daunting. Such leaders must navigate a dilemma between implementing unpopular reforms and risking the loss of power, or compromising with the masses to maintain stability while introducing gradual changes.

This scenario underscores the impossibility of achieving meaningful reform while societal resistance to change persists, making top-down transformations appear illusory. That is the impossible conundrum we need to recognise and comprehend.