From Kua Kia Soong
The imminent GE15 recalls these lines from an old Simon & Garfunkel song:
“Sitting on a sofa on a Sunday afternoon, going to the candidates’ debate.
“Laugh about it, shout about it, when you’ve got to choose.
“Every way you look at this, you lose …”
On May 9, 2018, Malaysians chose to cast their votes for Pakatan Harapan (PH) because their GE14 manifesto had promised to implement wide ranging reforms that made them appear radically different from the governance experienced under Barisan Nasional.
Those were the days of hope indeed. There was much fanfare and excitement with a line-up of new fresh ministerial faces promising important policy changes the rakyat had long yearned for, in critical areas like the environment and education.
We watched and waited and waited as the first 100 days came and went, and even by the end of their tenure, PH’s governance proved to be a disappointment. Perhaps not surprising, as they had chosen to have the old autocrat Dr Mahathir Mohamad at its helm.
There was a lack of commitment and urgency in implementing their manifesto promises. We witnessed flip-flopping over their promise to abolish toxic and noxious institutions in the country. Nor did they give attention to the more urgent and comprehensive list of reforms that civil society had long argued to be of highest priority.
On top of all that, we witnessed a disturbing trend of autocratic decision-making and neo-liberal policies symptomatic of the old Mahathir era of the 1980s and 1990s.
The conundrum we face in GE15 is that we are being asked to choose between two political coalitions which have proven to be equally disappointing. This is the biggest political dilemma confronting the nation today. The unattended high priority issues include the following:
Which coalition is against racism and racial discrimination?
For years now and especially since the New Economic Policy (NEP), “race” (“Bumiputeraism”) has been used to divide the Malaysian masses so that they cannot unite against their common oppressors and exploiters.
Racial discrimination further worsened the plight of workers in the non-Bumiputera communities. Neither BN or PH have categorically pledged to abolish the NEP that has been the racist/populist strategy to try to win over the Bumiputeras and to enrich the well-placed Bumiputeras. Meanwhile, powerful capitalist interests control our resources and markets and thrive on the cheap labour of Malaysian workers and migrant labour.
The capitulation by the PH government to the threats of far-right Malay supremacists over the ratification of ICERD in November 2018 was followed by the decision of the education ministry to maintain the matriculation quota for Bumiputeras at 90%. The NEP that was intended to end in 1990 was continued as the “Never-Ending Policy” to benefit Bumiputeras. It was not surprising when Mahathir himself headed a party that was only open to “Pribumis”.
Dubious funding exposed
We have seen dubious sources of funding in general elections for years in Malaysia, especially since the reign of Mahathir in 1981. The 1MDB scandal is basically about political funding for Umno and BN although there were clearly leakages into private pockets.
After the recent self-congratulatory boast by Daniel Twining, the president of the International Republican Institute that they had been funding the opposition in Malaysia, namely PH, through the US-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED) since 2002, it makes us wonder what real choices there are in the general election.
Among other things, Twining was proud to declare that one of the first things the new PH government did after coming to power in 2018 was to clamp down on China’s Belt and Road contract in Malaysia, much to the satisfaction of the US government. In the recent demonstrations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, the role of the NED in funding the separatist movements there has been further exposed.
For those who are not aware, the NED has been exposed as a CIA “soft power” front for the US government several years ago. Knowing the blood-drenched “regime changing” record of the CIA in so many Third World countries since 1947, can any credible organisation in Malaysia be seen receiving funds from such a dubious source?
When manifestoes are now worthless
For PH to use the excuse of the government’s debt to delay local government elections which had been suspended in our country since 1965 was not acceptable.
It was equally absurd to tell Malaysian Independent Chinese Secondary School graduates that their UEC certificate could only be recognised in five years’ time. The UEC certificate went unrecognised by BN for 61 years even though it has internationally proven its efficacy with thousands of graduates since 1975. This was a serious breach of promise in the PH GE14 manifesto since more than 80% of Chinese voters voted for PH because of this promised reform.
Many lawyers pointed out that the repeal or review of our laws that violate basic human rights could be expeditiously accomplished within the first 100 days of the new PH government. These include abolishing laws that allow detention without trial, namely the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma), the Prevention of Crime Act 1959 (Poca), and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota) 2015.
The PH government also reneged on its initial pledge to abolish several contentious laws, including the Sedition Act 1948, the Prevention of Crime Act (Poca) 1959, the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971, the Printing Presses and Publications (PPPA) Act 1984, and the National Security Council (NSC) Act 2016. This was totally unethical backtracking on their GE14 manifesto.
The implementation of the Independent Police Complaints & Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) and other recommendations of the Royal Police Commission in 2005 was long overdue to ensure transparency and accountability by the police and other enforcement agencies such as the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), but PH failed to do this.
During the PH administration, we saw the Sedition Act and the CMA still being used against activists and prevarication on the issue of child marriages. We also saw the rule of law being flouted when a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department ordered the removal of portraits of LGBTQ Malaysians from an exhibition in Penang. Just as alarming was the statement by another minister that cyanide used by gold miners in Bukit Koman was perfectly safe and non-hazardous to people or the environment.
From the failure by the PH government to fulfil their election promises, we can see that the GE14 manifesto was drafted in a slipshod manner to secure populist votes. These include the promises to abolish toll from the highways within the stipulated time promised; no firm position regarding the PTPTN loan repayments; wavering on the promise to pay a 20% instead of 5% royalty to oil-producing states based on revenue from gross production; the deduction of a percentage from a husband’s EPF contributions to go into the accounts of his wife, etc.
Back to privatising national assets and Proton 2.0
The new PH government did not spell out their fundamental difference in the economic policy from the old BN regime. What we heard was the alarming news of the return of the old discredited Mahathirist policies, namely privatisation of our national assets in the name of Bumiputeraism, and the revival of the national car, Proton 2.0.
Mahathir also said the sovereign wealth fund, Khazanah Nasional, would be privatised for the benefit of Bumiputeras.
During the financial crisis of 1997/98, it was Khazanah that had stepped in to take over the assets of the failed companies owned by Bumiputera crony capitalists in Renong, MAS and TRI. After taking over the assets, Khazanah revamped these GLCs with professional managers and better rules of governance. In 2018, Khazanah owned 51% of PLUS Expressways, with EPF owning the other 49%. By the end of 2017, the net worth of companies under Khazanah was RM125.6 billion. Thus, Khazanah was successfully achieving its purpose of creating a sovereign wealth fund for the benefit of all Malaysians, not to be privatised to Bumiputera crony capitalists.
Mahathir then announced the revival of yet another national car, or Proton 2.0. After the fiasco of Proton 1.0 and the huge cost to Malaysian taxpayers, our public transport system, and Malaysian consumers, it is unbelievable that such a failed enterprise could be supported by a PH leadership full of former critics of the first Proton project. Another national car project would surely fail with further losses to the national coffers, and we would have to underwrite the losses.
Non-transparent economic projects
Behind the smokescreen of the anti-Najib Razak kleptocracy campaign, the PH government was pushing through multi-billion-ringgit projects that had been started by the Najib regime but with just as little transparency, showing that the difference between BN and PH is who gets to handle and control these multi-billion projects, namely the questionable ECRL, Bandar Malaysia, and the Penang Transport Master Plan projects.
As far as the ECRL is concerned, the PH government did not fully recover the money lost in the overpriced contracts. Furthermore, despite the realignment of the ECRL route through Negeri Sembilan, there was no mention of any new feasibility study or a new environmental impact assessment (EIA) being done.
How did the non-elected Daim Zainuddin single-handedly achieve all that new agreements without the need for a team of professionals?
As for the Bandar Malaysia project, the Najib government had terminated the contract with the Malaysia-China consortium because of non-fulfilment of the contract by the purchasers. Mahathir reinstated the agreement with the consortium only having to pay a further RM500 million, in addition to the original RM741 million deposits.
As with all the other privatisation plans of the new prime minister, why couldn’t Bandar Malaysia initiate the master plan itself and then sell the land to be developed according to this plan and make all the profits itself instead of what the private consortium was going to make?
Then there was the Penang Transport Master Plan costing RM46 billion and involving the reclamation of three man-made islands giving no indication of how much the cost of reclamation would be, the time the reclamation would take place, nor feasibility reports or EIAs of the project.
Politicians in publicly funded investments
The PH manifesto prohibited the prime minister from also taking over the finance portfolio, but Mahathir took over the choicest companies, namely Khazanah, PNB and Petronas, under his prime minister’s office. It was the return to the old Mahathirist autocracy. Was the Cabinet consulted in the decision to start Proton 2.0, privatise Khazanah, Malaysia Incorporated and the revival of the failed F1 circuit?
The appointment of the prime minister and economic affairs minister Azmin Ali to the board of Khazanah Nasional also went against the PH manifesto promise of keeping politicians out of publicly funded investments since it leads to poor accountability.
Only by insisting on boards being comprised of professionals and on rigorous parliamentary checks and balances for bodies such as Khazanah can we ensure a high level of transparency and accountability.
Mahathir’s response to this criticism was the old feudal justification: “I started Khazanah, so why can’t I be in it?” In other words, “Stuff your high ideals and democratic principles.”
Conflict of interest having corporate heads in councils
The constitutional status of the appointed Council of Eminent Persons had already been called into question, especially when its chairman, Daim Zainuddin, could call up judges and even represent the government in negotiating with the Chinese government over their investments in Malaysia.
In addition, the Perak government established the State Economic Advisory Council (SEAC) with corporate heads of MK Land Bhd, KL Kepong Bhd and Gamuda Bhd as “eminent advisers”.
There is gross conflict of interest with such arrangements when these corporate leaders still have interests in the local and international corporate scene. It is well known that Daim has corporate and banking interests all over the world. His business interests extend beyond banking to other key sectors of the country’s economy such as plantations, manufacturing, retailing, property development and construction. Who voted for this “eminent person” anyway?
Which coalition is committed to sustainable development goals?
Because our electoral system functions on a five-year time frame, this limited time frame tends to put the brakes on serious efforts to honour our 2015 commitments to the 17 sustainable development goals centred around climate change and effectively tackling our global ecological emergency.
Political parties and MPs are lobbied by powerful corporations, seek sympathetic media coverage, and calculate their policies based on potential media and public reactions, as measured by opinion polls. This means politicians often feel unable to propose bold changes necessary to address the emergency. Some are induced by developers to pass environmentallydestructive projects through corrupt methods.
Malaysian politicians and political parties have a long history of being in the pockets of big developers, evident in the plethora of socially-disruptive, environmentally-destructive, and economically dubious projects which are passed down by the respective authorities, despite objections from affected citizens.
So, until we have a third progressive coalition, pray tell, how to vote in GE15? If you do choose to vote, be sure to ask your candidates how they will address the issues above before you vote.
Kua Kia Soong is adviser for Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram).
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.