“I’m more interested in what has transpired over these years that has brought Malaysia almost to its knees in terms of image, credibility and so many problems,” the former International Trade and Industry Minister told the programme Insight. “It’s nothing to do with the person. It’s what the action has been – collectively or single-handedly, it doesn’t matter.” At many levels, it is a reminder that building public confidence in the rule of law in the country – and its new government – may start with the investigations into Mr Najib and 1MDB, but will depend on much more.
Propelled to power with a mandate for change, Pakatan Harapan’s biggest challenge lies ahead: Fulfilling that desire for change and living up to its campaign promises, especially in three key aspects. From restoring trust in government institutions, to reducing Malaysia’s fiscal deficit and cost of living, to moving away from racial politics – the ruling alliance will be hard-pressed to meet these aspirations of millions of voters. So what can be expected?
For a start, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad “seems very determined to rid the country of corruption”, observed Associate Professor Maznah Mohamad from the National University of Singapore’s Department of Malay Studies. She described the moves to prevent Mr Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor from leaving Malaysia and to put many more on the blacklist as “fast and decisive”.
It gives all of us hope of understanding what had happened behind the scenes.
For there to be transparency, Parti Keadilan Rakyat Member of Parliament Fahmi Fadzil thinks that nothing less than taking Mr Najib to court is needed, to find out “where all this money came from and where all this money went”. “People who were involved in abetting, or in the actual crimes – if there were any crimes involving 1MDB – should be prosecuted,” said the MP for Lembah Pantai constituency in Kuala Lumpur.
Will justice be served in Malaysia, as promised by Dr Mahathir? Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute visiting fellow Serina Abdul Rahman is optimistic, especially since he has replaced the Attorney-General and the head of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. “Once you have leaders in place and a proper system put up, then we can begin with institutional reform,” she said. “A lot of investigative reporting has already been done, there are already international cases up and waiting to proceed, and so I think it’ll be quite a smooth process because all the evidence and the materials are there.”
ZERO GST BUT …
One election pledge that Pakatan Harapan has already honoured is the removal of the 6 per cent Goods and Services Tax. As announced last week, the GST will be zero from June 1. But some experts wonder how Malaysia intends to meet its revenue requirements from now on, given that the tax contributed RM44 billion (S$14.8 billion) last year alone, which was 17 per cent of government revenue.
Balancing the budget is already an issue. It’s going to become worse. It’s the same with fuel subsidies.
“If the government is going to pay for that, it’s going to take away from something,” said Mizuho Bank senior economist Vishnu Varathan. Ratings agency Moody’s Investors Service has cautioned that scrapping the GST without any offsetting measures would lead to heavy reliance on oil income and narrow the government’s revenue base. And it will be tough to replace the revenue loss immediately, added Mr Varathan. Although the Sales and Services Tax will be reintroduced, he doubts that it will accomplish enough. At its highest, the tax contributed RM17 billion, in 2014.
He is also concerned that Dr Mahathir is “targeting” certain public projects for review. “The worse outcome is seeing that Chinese money isn’t coming in. The peripheral money that … feeds into the ecosystem of whatever investments are being built – will that stop coming in?” he questioned. “That’s bad for the economy as well.” He thinks that at the least, there will be uncertainty in the near term. “That’s going to lead to some slowdown in the economy because of the interruption – the (investor) hesitation to go forward,” he said.
Although Malaysia is enjoying an economic rebound – growth was 5.9 per cent last year and was expected to be between 5.5 and 6 per cent this year – the post-election jitters could have an impact, including on its currency and stocks.
TACKLING RACIAL POLITICS
With the focus on institutional reforms and the economy as two of the pressing issues during this transition period, Pakatan Harapan seems to have put the racial agenda on the back burner. However, with the election results being touted as the country’s readiness to put issues of common concern before ethnic identity, the question remains: Will the new government take more steps to move Malaysia away from racial politics?
Many Malay voters still hope that their interests will be well protected, especially with Dr Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) emerging as the new champion of the Malay cause. MPs from the other Pakatan parties, however, are confident that the time will come when PPBM will tone down its racial rhetoric to achieve common goals with its partners. “We’ll get there,” said Democratic Action Party MP Hannah Yeoh.
Political parties and even politicians are shaped by what the public wants. And I think, based on everybody’s experience in the last General Election … that will definitely shift the mindset.
Her Pakatan colleague Mr Fahmi agrees. “I believe that PBBM itself will, going forward, be quite non-race-based,” he said. “What’s very important is to look at how … the distribution of wealth is currently being done in Malaysia. “The job of Pakatan Harapan is not only to articulate a new kind of politics, using a new vocabulary … but also to ensure that groups who need assistance receive that kind of help.”
As to whether that may entail changing the special Malay rights in the Constitution, Ms Rafidah doubts so, while Dr Serina said that because of the older generation, it would be “very hard” to reverse decades of Malay rights quickly. But both women are putting their faith in the younger generation. Dr Serina said hopefully:
Then their offspring will also be raised in a way that they can see beyond the racial boxes.
“If (the Pakatan alliance) can make the economics work, if they can show institutional reform, if they can show that everybody has a place in Malaysia and that nobody gets left behind, it might work.”
MAHATHIR AND ANWAR: REAL RECONCILIATION?
At the same time, with so many hopes pinned on the new government, Dr Serina called for a reality check. “We wanted everything fixed overnight – it’s not possible,” she said. Referring to Pakatan’s first set of promised changes at the state and national levels, she added: “I’m not sure if they can achieve everything in 100 days, but I think the people will be waiting and watching to see that a lot of it is achieved.”
Perhaps nothing will be more closely watched, however, than the relationship between Dr Mahathir and Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s de facto leader and premier-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim. Is their reconciliation strong enough to not only lead a disparate alliance of parties to a historic victory at the polls, but also keep this new era in Malaysian politics going?
Many people are sceptical, noted Dr Maznah. “It’s an old partnership, a kind of a rebooted, old partnership. So people are still in a very critical mood now,” she said. “On the other hand, a lot of people think we should (trust) them … because trust is important. If you don’t have trust, then everything will be so negative. And again, it’s to give them the benefit of the doubt.”
Personally, she thinks a lot has changed between them. “They’re 20 years older than they were before, and so much water has gone under the bridge as they say. Perhaps both have mellowed in different ways,” she added. For now, Dr Mahathir shoulders the hopes of Malaysians that the wrongs of the past decades are set right and faith in the country’s institutions is restored. Do so, and he would leave behind a lasting legacy for the people.