Malaysia’s shortest reigning government: The highs and lows of PH rule

Members of the Pakatan Harapan Cabinet pose for a snapshot with students during a Chinese New Year visit this year.

PETALING JAYA: The recently collapsed Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration was the shortest reigning government the country had had since independence, but its 21-month rule was perhaps one of the most eventful in Malaysian political history.

Apart from its record as the first federal government that failed to complete its five-year mandate, there were other records of sorts, including the appointment of the first woman deputy prime minister.

We take a look at the ups and downs of the PH administration.

Minimum voting age

There was unanimous support from politicians of all sides for PH’s move to lower the voting age from 21 to 18, giving millions more people the chance to choose their government in a general election.

It is estimated that some 7.8 million additional voters will go to the polls in 2023.

Clean air

The PH government’s ban on smoking in public areas, especially at open-air eateries, was among policies welcomed by the public and health activists.

High-profile arrests

Among the promises fulfilled was the arrest of former government leaders. Two former top leaders, Najib Razak and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, are currently facing scores of corruption and power abuse charges involving billions of ringgit.

PM’s powers

The prime minister’s sweeping powers have been under scrutiny by the opposition and civil society groups. In a move to show its commitment to reforming the top office, PH barred the prime minister from holding any other Cabinet portfolio – a break from the past when he helmed the all-important finance ministry as well.

Press freedom

While the freer online portals thrived even under the Barisan Nasional government, the so-called mainstream press was seen as more vocal in running articles critical of government leaders.

There was greater access to official government events for the online press, with reporters allowed to grill leaders with hard questions.

U-turns

PH’s failures revolved around its inability to meet key election promises, including those it had said would be implemented within 100 days of taking power. These included abolishing draconian laws and study loan debts as well as debts incurred by Felda settlers. PH also went back on its word by allowing political appointments in government-linked companies, agencies and local councils.

PR problems?

One of PH’s greatest drawbacks was its ability to handle crises.

Its move to introduce Jawi in the Bahasa Malaysia syllabus was plagued with confusion, generating conflicting statements from government leaders and ministers. This came amid pressure to speed up reforms in the education sector. A series of controversies culminated in the resignation of Maszlee Malik as the education minister, with the position temporarily taken over by Dr Mahathir Mohamad himself.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s criticism of India at the UN General Assembly led to a call to boycott palm oil. (Bernama pic)

Mahathir’s comments on India’s Kashmir conflict as well as other domestic issues also triggered calls for a boycott of Malaysian products, at a time when Malaysia was looking to promote its palm oil amid a boycott in the West.

The government was also criticised for not handing over Indian preacher Dr Zakir Naik despite repeated requests by New Delhi.

Asset sales

Former prime minister Najib emerged as the most vocal critic of the PH government’s move to sell assets owned by government institutions, most notably Khazanah Nasional.

These included the 16% stake purchase in IHH Healthcare for RM8.4 billion by Japan-based Mitsui. Najib claimed that Khazanah’s value of assets dropped to RM73 billion last year from RM116 billion two years earlier.

Policy maze

Ministers had issued conflicting statements on the future of the Lynas plant in Pahang.

PH government leaders also failed to act as one on key issues. The most well-known example of this is that of Lynas Malaysia. There was a clear division among Cabinet members on whether the rare earths plant should be allowed to continue operations due to concerns over hazardous waste. It received a three-year licence extension just after the federal government collapsed last week.

While PH went to the polls united, its tryst with power showed that the coalition was made up of strange bedfellows.

From bickering over policy matters to the push for Mahathir to make way for PKR president Anwar Ibrahim, PH’s enemies saw these as an opportunity for a comeback, even if it meant sleeping with the enemy.