100 days gone, are we satisfied?

Posted by Super Admin
Monday, 16 June 2008

We have reached the first 100 days of the political tsunami spawned by Election 2008 on March 8. Over the course of the week The Malaysian Insider will run a series of reports to give an overview of what has happened and to help make sense of the new Malaysia that has evolved. We kick off with Khoo Kay Peng’s observations on politics not-as-usual in the country.

Although it was the second time the ruling coalition lost its two-third parliamentary majority, it was the first time the results were received peacefully and calmly. Voters, regardless of race and creed, wanted more or less the same thing – good governance.

However, post-elections Malaysia offers more unpredictability than assurance. Since then, several Opposition parties have formalised their working relationship by forming a new coalition. The newly-minted Pakatan Rakyat heads the state governments of Kelantan, Penang, Kedah, Perak and Selangor.

Its de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has repeated his claims that there will be a change of power at the federal level, through defections, before the Sept 16 deadline. This has resulted in an uncertain political environment and put doubts in the Malaysian democratic process. Despite Anwar’s argument that the crossovers are permissible, any attempt to tinker with the election outcome is still undemocratic. Moreover public resources, e.g. oil royalty, have been used as the biggest inducement.

Sept 16 or Malaysia Day is a symbolic date to the elected policy makers in Sabah and Sarawak Anwar is trying to lure over to his coalition. Both Sabah and Sarawak joined the federation on that day in 1963. Ironically, this date is not officially celebrated as a public holiday in Malaysia.

Anwar’s claims have since fueled intense political negotiations between the peninsula-centric BN and their colleagues in both Sabah and Sarawak. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi met up with BN parliamentarians in Sabah and announced a number of special development allocations for the state. Some of them were not impressed and wanted the federal government to do more to address the illegal immigrants’ issue and the marginalisation of Sabah from mainstream politics.

In the last 100 days, the political situation in Sabah and Sarawak has kept many guessing and the tension is expected to persist if their immediate requests and demands are not met. At present, both Sabah and Sarawak are the bulwarks of BN’s hold on federal power.

In an immediate reaction to the hefty loss of popular votes in peninsular Malaysia, Abdullah recalled a few credible Umno leaders into his Cabinet notably Datuk Zaid Ibrahim and Datuk Shahrir Samad. De facto Law Minister Zaid has announced his commitment to restore judicial credibility by promising key Constitutional amendments to restore its original position in the Constitution.

Through his recommendation, the government restored full gratuity payments to all judges sacked in the 1988 judicial crisis, but fell short of an outright apology. The government is widely expected to act according to the recommendations made by the Royal Commission which investigated the V.K. Lingam video clip.

The premier has vowed to strengthen the Anti-Corruption Agency. He is expected to approve a higher allocation to the agency to recruit more manpower to tackle a backload of cases and strengthen its enforcement.

During the first Parliament sitting, he announced that all MPs, including the Opposition, will be given an annual development allocation of RM500,000. This move is yet to be duplicated by state governments ruled by the Pakatan Rakyat.

Unfortunately, Abdullah’s reform initiatives are seen as attempts to try to resurrect his fading leadership. Just like his recent decision to scale down fuel subsidies, the move was severely criticised by several BN leaders and the Opposition. A top Opposition leader called this move his Waterloo and suggested that it will speed up the downfall of Abdullah.

There is nothing wrong in Abdullah’s efforts to reverse his administrative fortune. However, he should realise by now that he ought to muster enough support from his BN colleagues to strengthen his efforts. In the last 100 days, Abdullah did not focus enough attention on regrouping his component partners in BN.

Challenges from within Umno, especially from his chief critic Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, are sapping away his energy and ability to focus on other more pertinent issues such as rising inflation, potential global economic slowdown and most pertinently the consolidation of the BN.

Abdullah is learning the hard way that any of his moves will be met with strong opposition if he does not reach out to include leaders of other component parties to support his reform initiatives. For the first time, top leaders of his senior component members are not sitting in his cabinet. He cannot afford to project BN as simply Umno-run and dominated at a time when the coalition is finding it hard to lure support from other minorities in the PR-led states.

Without the support and participation from other component parties, his political opponents will wait to pounce on him at any available opportunity with the aim of wresting power from his government.

From the first 100 days of his new term, Abdullah should realise that any half-hearted initiative is better left on the back burner. Any reform initiative which requires a change of personal habit or mindset must come with a proper implementation plan. A top BN leader said his coalition is facing a credibility gap. This is an accurate observation. As such, a proper plan and a thoroughly thought through implementation process will go a long way to help bridge such a credibility gap.

For example, the government should refrain from making populist moves to curb public sector expenses when the cuts announced, such as a 10 percent reduction in the personal allowance to ministers and deputy ministers, were so insignificant. He must show enough grit and political will to tackle the big issues such as curbing corruption, ending preferential policies which can be easily manipulated, streamlining his bureaucracy by focusing on efficiency and review all non-productive projects.

If the premier does not pull up his socks now, chances are his reform initiatives may even backfire on him. Announcing his leadership transition plan in the first 100 days may help to take some political pressure off his back but he must not lose sight of the larger picture in making the reforms work and in ensuring that these reforms will continue to progress even after the leadership transition.

A leadership transition alone cannot assure that the Barisan Nasional, since its inception in 1974, can ward off a possibility of disintegrating if members of the coalition were to lose faith in its viability.

It is obvious that BN is at a crossroads. Its mandate to rule is also its burden. BN has been very inconsistent in its attempts to reach out to its supporters in the PR-led states. Political contestations between the state and federal governments will end up with BN at the losing end.

The federal government’s decision not to channel funds needed for state tourism promotion and entrepreneur development directly to the PR-led States was a myopic one. In the end, it might provide a good justification for these state governments to blame the federal government for their failure to develop and manage their states well.

Over the last 100 days, these state governments have been doing precisely that by highlighting and harping on past abuses and mismanagement. The governments of Penang and Selangor are in the process of building up cases against several ex-administrators and policy makers for their involvement in land scams. If these cases are proven in court, BN’s chances to wrest back power in these states at the next general elections will be severely dented.

For a start, some PR states have announced the granting of permanent land titles to individual farmers. This is a good move to ensure that lands meant for agriculture use are not converted for housing and commercial developments. Penang has decided to gazette its more than 12,000 acres of padi fields to promote food security.

These state governments have made several social contributions and handouts to the poor in order to offset rising inflation and food prices. Selangor has gone a step further by announcing free water up to 20 cubic metres for all households. PKR and PAS, both members of the tripartite Pakatan Rakyat coalition, share a similar vision of creating a welfare state.

PR de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has pledged to restore the fuel subsidies and bring down retail fuel prices if his coalition is able to wrest power from BN. His promise, although economically not viable in the long run, is very popular among common folk especially those from the lower income strata. Earlier, Anwar had promised to share up to 20 percent of oil royalty with oil-producing Sabah.

However, these equally populist moves are viewed with great suspicion by several pundits who are growingly uncomfortable with politicians using public resources as their political pawn. By providing free water or subsidised oil, it is impossible to promote prudence and appreciation of our shared finite resources. Instead, PR should help to promote a more viable, efficient and effective way of managing our scarce resources.

So far, some PR leaders may have scored a few brownie points from their actions e.g. refusing to buy new cars, furniture and computers or to fly business class. However, they must remember that this goodwill will eventually wear off and the real business of governing their states will start sooner than they thought.

Like the BN federal government, the PR-led state governments will have to grapple with rising inflation, slowing down of global economy, attracting new investments and facing up to serious socio-economic bottlenecks.

At the end of the 100-day honeymoon period, the PR should tone down its political rhetoric and start acting like a serious government responsible for the well-being of five states including four of the most developed ones in Malaysia.

The previous 100 days have given them a head start over the sluggish and battered BN but to survive and thrive over the next four years, the PR cannot count on the failure and mistakes of the BN alone to take them through.

Like I have said previously, all Malaysian voters want the same thing – good governance. Until and unless this is delivered, both BN and PR cannot rest on their laurels and take the mandate given for granted.

Khoo Kay Peng is a corporate consultant and an independent political analyst. He can be contacted at www.khookaypeng.blogspot.com .

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