The single biggest event in Malaysian politics has come and gone. There will never be another 9th May 2018 – the day that the world’s longest ruling democratic government lost the mandate to guide and lead the country, and Malaysians awoke to a new dawn ushered in by a familiar hand in the 4th and 7th Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad.
The ensuing months that followed were as fraught and challenging as any in Malaysia’s history. Pakatan Harapan, now the first ruling coalition in Malaysia that is not Barisan Nasional, would have to wrestle with the struggle of governance. With a decidedly unexperienced cadre of leaders notwithstanding Dr. Mahathir himself and several key personnel in the coalition, the transition of power may have been peaceful, but not always smooth.
A TRANSITIONAL PERIOD
Malaysia held its breath as the fears that the ruling government would not go quietly into that good night began to dissipate, and life took on its usual humdrum routine. While it was clear that for the immediate future, daily life would not change, in the highest corridors of power a tectonic shift was occurring that had the potential to reshape the direction of the country. Tommy Thomas became the first practicing barrister to be named AG. Lim Guan Eng rose to the position of Finance Minister, the first ethnic Chinese to be named to the position since Tun Tan Siew Sin stepped down in 1974. Dato’ Seri Wan Azizah, wife of Anwar Ibrahim, became the first female Deputy Prime Minister in Malaysian history.
Unfortunately, the more things change, the more they stay the same. As the wheels of progress chugged along, it became evidently clear that the new government was still very much finding its feet after having spent so long chasing after the elusive seat of power. As change in either extreme is bound to provoke a response from the opposing side, the more liberal tendencies of Pakatan Harapan incensed hyper-conservatives all over the country, culminating in protests that were originally held to oppose the ratification of a United Nations anti-racial discrimination treaty ICERD. Today, on the political front, the second Mahathir administration seems to have found its ground, but is wary of losing support amongst the indigenous majority. Having recently lost the Semenyih by-election by less than 2000 votes, Pakatan must make its moves forward wisely if it intends to retain power in 2024-2025. If it got elected thanks to a broad majority across all the major demographics in Malaysia, it must retain that appeal to the more moderate and liberal sectors of society w’nile assuring the conservatives that their power and privilege is not being challenged or taken away. One must put into consideration, after all, that had Barisan Nasional and PAS officially agreed to form a coalition early, their command of 50% of all votes tallied might have been enough to stop PH in its tracks.
It is a fine balancing act to pull off, but if anybody can it is the good doctor. That said Dr. Mahathir pledged that his time in office would be short. While a concrete timeline for Anwar’s ascension to the highest public elected office in the land has not been established, it is expected that the question will become more of an issue as we draw closer to the two year mark. What happens then will be anybody’s guess.
OPENING UP THE ECONOMY
As for the real impact of Pakatan’s ascension on the Rakyat’s wallet, some positive signs of stewardship were seen in a 1% inflation rate for the year of 2018, lower than the 3.7% inflation rate recorded in 2017. As a further credit to Pakatan, their moves to tame the pressures of inflation did not unduly affect the economy, which grew 4.7% in the last quarter of 2018. We cannot hold the government accountable for winds from outside that buffeted its attempts to steady the ship, however – the long-reaching side effects from the US-China trade war has impacted economies all over the world and forced a rethink of the former world order where the United States was the preferred and privileged trade partner of choice for almost any country.
The Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER) reported that the Consumer Confidence Index had fallen below the 100-point confidence level, mostly due to stagnant working wage conditions and nervousness over rising prices. This is despite the reportings of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which reported an increased level of exports, which grew year-on-year by 7% in 2017-2018 and total trade volume by the end of December 2018 was recorded as RM1.88 trillion. The discrepancy between the two reports, however, can be attributed to strong performance in late 2017 and early 2018, and the performance of the economy at the end of 2019 will give us a clearer idea of PH’s economic performance and impact.
Perhaps the single biggest economic move visible to the public was the abolishment of the Goods & Services Tax LOST). Pakatan had campaigned on a platform decrying the value-added tax, proclaiming it single-handedly responsible for the rising cost of living, but the truth is rather more complex than that simple characterisation. That being said, for a short time the new governments strategy worked, with the Consumer Price Index dropping steadily only to rebound as the Sales & Services Tax was implemented, which undid the narrative of the GST being the reason for the rising cost of living in Kuala Lumpur.
While it is still too soon to say whether Malaysia will ever be referred to as an ‘Asian Tiger’ ever again, PH’s focus on good governance must now be trained on the economy, as the taxpayer’s wallet can be an important bellwether in determining how an election will swing. On the bright side, good governance means less corruption, which will hopefully see lower costs on the public coffer, and more benefits for the Rakyat themselves.
‘Wawasan 2020′ was a concept mooted by Dr. Mahathir in his first term as Prime Minister, calling for Malaysia to become a fully self-sufficient industrialised nation by 2020. 28 years later, however, it has become clear that we aren’t getting our flying cars and contact lens HUDs, but instead are on a slow drudge towards a future that may be grimmer than any of us would like should scientists’ predictions about climate change and the lack of political willpower around the globe see us through the next 12 years. 2020, however, is just two years away, and in light of our failure to live up to this vision, a bit of reflection would do wonders before we square away 2020 and set a new goal to work towards as a people.
The previous Prime Minister Najib Razak, had it right in his 2009 observation that Wawasan 2020 needed to be calibrated to consider the national and global economy. He would go on to launch the idea of National Transformation 2050 or TN50, vaguely calling for Malaysia to be -country of calibre, with a new mindset”, and though it might be less than a clear and succinct statement of intent, credit where credit is due. We are in dire need of a new lodestar for the direction of the country, and political willpower to see it through.
A few economic and social agenda must be put forward by the government, whose grace period with the general public has expired. People want to see vision, and more importantly, they must see action backing up that vision because change and leadership starts from the top. Wawasan 2020 outlined 9 problems, which are as follows:
- Challenge 1: Establishing a united Malaysian nation made up of one Bangsa Malaysia (Malaysian Race).
- Challenge 2: Creating a psychologically liberated, secure and developed Malaysian society.
- Challenge 3: Fostering and developing a mature democratic society.
- Challenge 4: Establishing a fully moral and ethical society.
- Challenge5: Establishing a matured liberal and tolerant society.
- Challenge 6: Establishing a scientific and progressive society.
- Challenge 7: Establishing a fully caring society.
- Challenge 8: Ensuring an economically just society, in which there is a fair and equitable distribution of the wealth of the nation.
- Challenge 9: Establishing a prosperous society with an economy that is fully competitive, dynamic, robust and resilient.
There is nothing wrong or wanting with the 9 challenges outlined above. But this time, there must be a roadmap, a plan to get us to the destination that people can understand and believe in. Pakatan must know that the training wheels are off, and they must take up the mantles of leaders in earnest to ensure the continued growth and prosperity of the country. They must listen to the Rakyat, who are uncertain and fearful for their livelihoods in an era of unprecedented global upheaval. Tall orders, but ones our leaders signed up for when they volunteered to lead.