KUALA LUMPUR: Eight months after coming into power, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government has not lived up to expectations, a political analyst said today.
Bridget Welsh said that this could be due in part to the high expectations among Malaysians towards the new government.
She also noted that while the 14th general election had a common element of nationalism of moving Malaysia as a unified country towards the future, there were a number of worrying observations.
Welsh said race relations continued to be the dominant paradigm for understanding society, with the government “still obsessed” with having more Malay representation.
“This level of insecurity has fuelled some of the leadership, some of the challenges and conflicts within the government. It does not reflect differences within the Malay community as a whole.
“It has meant, however, that the government has not responded to its political base. Unlike US President Donald Trump, who has responded to his political base and held on to power, in the Malaysian context, we don’t see that.
“So, in the implications of a racialised framework of assessing performance and composition, all sides are somewhat disappointed,” she said at a forum on “Building a New Malaysia: Agendas and Aspirations” here today.
Welsh claimed that race relations among certain communities had significantly worsened, based on survey data, and this was worrying “given this is a short reversal over the last eight months”.
“Malaysia remains a deeply religious and conservative society. About 60% to 70% of the Malay community score on the conservative side.
“We have yet to see meaningful dialogue on religious issues. The general aim has been to push them aside. This will be a big challenge as Malaysia moves forward,” she said.
She admitted while there had been some modest movement towards reforms – within the judiciary, prime minister’s office, the media and parliament, along with several promising appointments – that momentum had slowed considerably in the last few months.
This was partly because of the way PH had conceptualised it, she said.
Welsh stressed that reforms cannot be focused on legal dimensions, and must be multifaceted.
“Reforms must be focused on institutions, such as strengthening the MACC (Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission), carrying out prison reforms and police reforms.
“The nature of reform must be broader. It has to be about changing mindsets and behaviour.
“This particular dynamic, change in the nature of reform, looking at it more broadly, engaging and empowering segments of the private sector, is a very important aspect,” she said.
She said there was also the problem of resistance in the area of reform, including within the civil service.
“Many appointments have not changed. For instance, in MACC, the top three people are still the same as the previous administration (and) within the police force, the inspector-general of police and his deputy.
“We need to change people, bring in new ideas. It is not about individuals. It is about the system itself. It has to incorporate different actors,” she said.
Welsh noted that Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s focus has been on the past, dwelling on issues such as the national car and those concerning the Malay community, and not recognising that it had considerable differences within it.
She also pointed out that in his past tenure as the prime minister, one of his weakest points was never to groom young people.
“GE14 was a result of predominantly young people embracing the future. What we should be doing is to not look to Mahathir or Anwar Ibrahim, but the second generation and the lessons they will learn.
“This will be extremely important. Malaysia needs to groom younger leaders with sets of skills. This is a deficit we see in the current context,” she said.
Power transition between Mahathir and Anwar
Welsh noted the “ongoing power struggle between Mahathir and Anwar”, which she said was fuelled largely by the people around them.
She said this was partly due to a lack of trust among individuals within the system, and that it was actually quite destabilising for the country.
She cited three ways for the current scenario to play out – health, the different configurations of numbers, and managed transition.
“It is a numbers game, about how many people they can have.
“My personal view is that there is a stalemate. They will have to work together in some form. Neither individual has enough without the other. They are dependent on each other.
“The efforts to win people to different sides is ongoing,” she said.
She described managed transition as “one where they work together more cooperatively than what we have seen in the last eight months”.
“It is not a zero sum game where ministers will be replaced by other ministers, and that there will be continued learning processes that will negatively affect the business community.
“It (this transition) is a problem because it has not been handled well so far despite the assurances,” she said.
‘Umno not a viable opposition’
Welsh said in the last eight months, Umno as a political party had collapsed, and that in the last 10 years, there had been considerable erosion of support within the party.
She said the question remained on how one can fix a party that was dependent on patronage, still not operating effectively, and practising a racialised agenda.
“My own view is that the process will be difficult. It will take the next party polls to clean things up.
“I do not believe that despite the provocative books I have written about Umno, that the party is done for, but it needs significant reform within itself, in order to inject young leaders.
“It continues to have large sections of support. But as a viable political opposition in the current context, it’s no longer viable,” she said.
Former Sungai Benut MP Tawfik Ismail agreed, saying it was difficult to get rid of Umno as a force.
“It is quite an irony that the man that started Umno Baru is the one to see its demise.
“PPBM, by absorbing Umno members, you get the ghosts of Umno haunting you.
“It is not just PPBM, PKR also has Umno genes. All Malay parties have Umno genes, including PAS,” he said.