A one-way ticket out of Putrajaya

Pakatan Harapan (PH) has lost two by-elections in the span of just one month.

Last month, Barisan Nasional (BN) won its first post-GE14 by-election in Cameron Highlands. On Saturday, in Semenyih, it claimed its second victory.

In Cameron Highlands, the majority was 3,239 votes, and in Semenyih it was 1,914. Voter turnout in the Balakong, Seri Setia and Sungai Kandis by-elections were below the 50% mark. Cameron Highlands and Semenyih commanded higher percentages, 68.7% and 73.24% respectively.

What do these numbers tell us?

They reveal that Malaysians are seasoned democratically. We are capable of voting one party out, in search of a better alternative. This comes only nine months after a previous “better alternative”.

The burning question now is, how will all the elected individuals in government chart their trajectory towards the fundamental task of “making our lives better”?

Since PH’s loss in Cameron Highlands, harebrained policies and schemes have been dished out to us. We may see more of these disappointments, post-Semenyih.

The latest flying car dream is a glaring disappointment. Entrepreneur Development Minister Redzuan Yusof claimed a week ago that it is a prototype targeted at transport service companies, and is not for sale to the general public.

Why embark on this project now when there are millions of other housing, health, “rice, fish and vegetable” issues facing the public? These are the unsolved problems that are turning the public away from PH.

I have not heard or read of any member of the public who is jumping for joy with the flying car prototype. The minister tried to calm nerves by saying that local technology would be used to attract foreign investment. The voters of Semenyih have proven that there are egalitarian, more democratic ways of attracting foreign investment.

Needless to say, spending about RM1 million on flying technology is a “cheap” way of skirting the problem of our public transport system.

On March 1, Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad said his ministry was open to the idea of building a new hospital in Semenyih.

One day after the by-election, Mahathir blamed the Umno-PAS alliance and the nation’s debt for PH’s loss in Semenyih.

We hope this means that PH will scrap the plan to build the hospital in Semenyih. Building hospitals do not come cheap. Semenyih residents are not interested in a hospital. Instead, re-allocate funds towards widening the roads, easing traffic congestion and upgrading the public transportation system.

These are what the residents want, but nobody is listening to them. I should know, because I am one such resident.

The Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) has still not been recognised. It is a black mark in PH’s report card.

The public is convinced that PH is still committed to the “Malay agenda” when Dr Mahathir Mohamad said the government “needs to consider the feelings of the Malays”.

Even Arshad Ayub, Universiti Teknologi Mara’s (UiTM) founding father, believes that Malaysia has reached a point where UiTM is ready to accept non-Malay students, albeit at the post-graduate level.

The public is fed up with the lack of meritocracy exercised by our institutions of higher education. It is not alien to me. Our culture of meritocracy is stunted, and it is driving PH supporters away.

The abolishment of the goods and services tax (GST) has increased the price of goods. Tolls have not been reduced, nationally. The recent move to replace the toll system at four highways with congestion charges does not impress the public.

The Finance Ministry’s “zero-based budgeting approach” is goal-specific, rather than based on the BN-era budget calculation. The share for development has decreased to 17.4% of total expenditure. Instead, the share of the operating budget increased by 10.4%, reflecting sizeable emoluments attributed to the bloated civil service.

Despite Mahathir’s bemoaning the huge size of our civil service (almost 1.6 million), there are no policies in sight to trim it.

Rural Malaysia has accepted their lot at the bottom of the social hierarchy. They are less interested in former PM Najib Razak’s conviction in the 1MDB scandal. This explains why BN is still very influential in grassroots Malaysia.

The reason, of course, is BN’s (in collusion with PAS’) ability to contextualise development within an ethno-religious framework. PH seems to be following suit, as indicated by the abrupt U-turn on ICERD late last year.

But BN has more magnetic power, backed by decades of “familiarity” among the rural masses. PH will not have the staying power if they do not pay attention to economic and education reforms that would otherwise benefit the grassroots.

Reform-minded, urban Malays will be the first to re-orientate their loyalties after feeling cheated and disillusioned. Will the non-Malays then resort to forming a third coalition out of desperation?

The Malays, Islam and the “war for Malay support” have resurfaced as the stalwart of post-GE14 politics. As we race towards GE15, another scenario awaits us. A growing prejudice based on religio-ethics has started to boil.

The door to ijtihad seems to be closing rapidly. TV1 airs daily religious programmes dedicated to textual interpretations of the Quran. Contents are restricted to deconstructing Arabic words and sentences. These programmes are not focused on the cognitive processes needed to adapt the Quranic message to our pluralistic, socio-cultural milieu.

Mahathir has often lamented how our national schools have become religious schools. Since PH came to power, though, I have not noticed any changes to our national television stations.

Besides our schools and universities, the television functions as an education tool as well. It is time our ministries affect policy reforms that reach the grassroots level. It is not good enough to “look into the issue” or delay by forming one intra-ministerial committee after another.

BN continues to capture the rural Malay psyche by latching onto a skewed interpretation of Islam through the print media and television. A sizeable group of progressive Muslims in Malaysia are aware of these tricks but seem to accept the lesser of two evils.

In the midst of PH’s mounting setbacks, (in fulfilling their election promises), reform-minded Malays are finding comfort in BN and PAS.

The by-election in Semenyih, home to 46.3% Malays and 33.7% Chinese, is proof of this.

Muhammad Aiman Zainali’s candidacy proved a disaster because he was simply the wrong choice. He did not constructively address an iota of the issues facing Semenyih residents.

Neither did he try to win over the community by recommending solutions to the problems residents face. He did not even play the race and religion card, the way BN did.

Twenty million Malaysians realise that it was ridiculous for Aiman to contest. Merely being of “likeable personality” or the son-in-law of the deceased is not a game-changer. Lest we forget, nepotism was one of the main reasons BN fell from power.

We can expect the next few years leading up to GE15 to be checkered by communal politics. Prejudice and growing extremism are on the horizon. PH needs to work in unison, to implement reform-oriented policies amidst the racial and religious divide we are experiencing.

Most importantly, PH has to make inroads to the grassroots. It takes courage, effort and political will.

Our leaders have to be humble, work hard and listen to the people. Our democratic system implores them to do so. If they do not, greed, arrogance and megalomania will be their first class ticket out of Putrajaya.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.