Lessons for Malaysia’s next government

Malaysia has experienced a tumultuous week in politics – with the prime minister acknowledging he does not have a majority and the opposition publicly rejecting his disingenuous offer of reforms.

Friday the “backdoor” prime minister offered various parties in the opposition the “side door” not fully appreciating that his own house and the country are on fire facing the most serious effects of Covid-19 yet.

Muhyiddin Yassin and his PN 1.0 government have had 17 months in office. He himself has admitted his government does not hold a majority. He is expected to resign tomorrow. His government should go as well as they are an integral part of why his government has failed. They should step down without delay.

There are those within the current PN 1.0 government that would like to reconfigure the leadership, become a PN 2.0-MuyhiddinLight alternative. Tomorrow shall see whether those in power respect a parliamentary system, the idea of a loss of majority, the Federal Constitution and assure a peaceful transition.

At this juncture, PN 1.0 leaders staying on is not helping Malaysia; delaying a departure is damaging Malaysia’s reputation abroad and reinforcing anxieties at home.

The most important question ahead is what should come next. Given the seriousness of the Covid situation, an election is not safe. The best option is a fundamentally new government led by leaders who were not prominent in the PN 1.0 government.

Contending groups

Currently, there are three major contending groups – those within the current government changing the leadership hierarchy (a PN 2.0), Pakatan Harapan and compromise figures such as Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah or Shafie Apdal that bring the different factions together in a new configuration. None of the contenders currently have a majority. Intensive negotiations are ongoing.

Whoever/whichever group manages to secure the majority of 111 or higher votes should show its majority in Parliament and come together, to move beyond political traditional barriers and personal antagonisms for the nation. Whoever manages to form the numbers will need to make difficult choices to secure support. Some of these will not be palatable to others or many in the public.

Contenders will need to grapple with five difficult issues: 1) the reality that the rejection of Muhyiddin is a rejection of all the main leaders in his government, 2) handling of those facing legal charges, 3) the inclusion of parties/factions seen as unacceptable to others – Azmin Ali’s faction, PAS and DAP, 4) curbing the greed/egos of politicians for positions/patronage, and 5) bridging the polarisation in the public at large that continues to see different parties as “enemies”.

There is considerable opposition united against Muhyiddin and his crew. If PN 1.0 rather than those outside of PN are given the chance to lead again, the anger and frustration in a society traumatised by poor Covid management will likely gain further momentum. This will further tear at the fabric of Malaysian society.

Frustration has been growing. The loyalty to all of the leaders of the major parties is not what it was. This is especially true among the young. Negotiations and politicking will expose Malaysia’s political elites once again.

Elites do not fully appreciate how negatively they are being seen by the public across political parties and, as such, ignoring public needs and concerns will only undermine the viability and needed public support for any new government at this critical juncture.

A new and significantly different government is the best way forward. Malaysia needs leadership that can ameliorate the damage caused by Covid and poor governance, navigate her through the ongoing pandemic and position herself for what will inevitably continue to be serious challenges ahead.

She will need leadership that can put aside its usual self-centred politics to lead for people, not themselves or their party’s interests. This will involve new ways of thinking and stepping back from the posturing of the past, much harder for those long established in old practices.

Public service as opposed to personal servicing needs to be centre stage. Care needs to be taken to show the public that efforts are in their interests, not those of the elites. Sadly, few believe most of the leaders are capable of needed responses.

Whoever assumes the leadership mantle will face a trust deficit and a politically fatigued population suffering the worst trauma in the country’s history. There will be a very short honeymoon (if any), as much of the goodwill of Malaysians has been tested.

Challenges and lessons

From the onset, it is important to appreciate the scope of the challenges ahead. The current political crisis is not just one of the PN’s poor governance and shortcomings. Issues tied to political polarisation or race, religion and reform, abuses of power, weakened institutions and resistance to reform have
(and will) come to the fore and continue to hold Malaysia back from a stronger future.

Any new government will face similar structural problems and comes in at one of the most difficult times in the country’s history – when there is a lack of revenue and an ongoing pandemic that remains far from over (despite heartening gains in vaccination rates).

Muhyiddin’s (and Harapan’s and Umno’s) tenures offer important lessons for moving forward.

Compromise: First, a viable coalition government needs compromise, and a willingness to work together, both in the formation of government and while in government. In its too many contradictory announcements/reversals in Covid-19 management, PN 1.0 showed that it did not work effectively together. Harapan was arguably even more fragmented.

Any new government for Malaysia should include people who can work together, or at least for a period of time of the next government until elections able to put aside their differences for the interest of Malaysia. PN (and Umno) focused too much on their own interests rather than those of citizens. Harapan similarly suffered from a lack of trust in each other.

Malaysia cannot afford the political egos and grandstanding of the past. Politicking needs to be significantly reduced. Too much bruising in the negotiation process for power will undermine the urgent need for cooperation, and public contention for positions will erode confidence in any new government.

Common Ground: A new government should have clear priorities and a plan to get there. The common ground is clear: address the health crisis, open and strengthen the economy safely, get students back to school in a safe environment, address the effects of those most vulnerable/affected by the pandemic and prepare the country for a safe and fair election.

Setting realistic expectations and focusing energies (including those within the government itself) will earn public support and build trust within what will likely be the most diverse set of actors working together. The PN 1.0 government failed in all of these areas.

To date, none of the major contenders/parties has offered an alternative programme to move Malaysia forward. Greater attention needs to be spent on what will be done in the office. One should not underestimate the distrust that exists among the different parties, and from the public. Over-promising is foolhardy. Leaders cannot assume trust in themselves as individuals – this will only come through concrete plans and governance.

Competency: Now more than ever the right people need to be put into the right positions. Key ministries involving health, the economy, education and other social services. All of these areas need better leadership than has been seen so far during Covid, ideally in a considerably smaller cabinet in line with limiting waste and forging cooperation to address the serious tasks at hand.

Senior bureaucrats that have also lost trust or taken intractable/politicised positions without a willingness to compromise should be replaced. The witch hunt politics of going after enemies and seeing enemies however should be avoided.

Openness to Reform: While there have been some important shifts in governance in areas such as e-governance in the past few months, there continues to be resistance to relearning knowledge and even greater resistance to implementing new procedures and accepting constructive criticism and reform.

Arguably PN’s most successful minister Khairy Jamaluddin was able to introduce some new measures by going outside of the system. He faced considerable resistance. Today’s crisis situation requires even more willingness to embrace different practices and step out of existing mindsets.

The issue of reform has been couched to date as zero-sum. PN 1.0’s Covid-19 has shown that Malaysia needs to improve civil service quality, work with experts, change governance practices, strengthen accountability, reduce corruption and deepen public engagement. These changes are not about the interests of one side or another but are needed for Malaysia as a whole.

Empowerment: PN 1.0’s approach to Covid-19 focused on controlling, relying too heavily on lockdowns that lost their effectiveness. An approach that empowers businesses, citizens, non-governmental organizations, private health professionals and more is a needed change.

 

Repositioning and targeting the government’s role toward those who need assistance and in areas where there is hardship is more strategic, especially given limited resources. The police, for example, should not be at roadblocks or questioning critics but protecting the security of those who are going hungry and addressing the reasons for protests.

A careful review of finances will be needed to find funds to inject capital and strengthen the social safety net. This could mean potential temporary salary reductions from those in government and cost-cutting measures in other parts of the government.

Letting go and empowering involves decentralising power. PN 1.0 has shown that the federal government cannot solve the problems of the pandemic – it should empower state governments, local communities, the private sector and civil society to be an integral part of the caring needed during this difficult period.

Borneo should be given more control over its own governance, in line with their demands for greater autonomy. Injecting capital and creating space will allow Malaysia’s real strength – its people – to move the country forward.

Open Parliament: Parliament is the bedrock of Malaysia’s democracy. In a spirit of multiple-partisanship, the legislature should be open. Its standing committees can serve to provide valuable inputs with new committees created to address Covid-19.

These committees can reach out to experts and contribute ideas for policy measures and reforms. The meetings can be done in a hybrid way and involve new parliamentary leadership to foster bipartisan cooperation and bring back integrity to the institution.

Inclusion: Malaysia is a complex society and the pandemic has added to the complexities. Multi-racial, religious, regional, gender, and generational inclusion is necessary for leadership and engagement.

Muhyiddin’s government lost trust because of exclusion and poor performance. His policies were less effective because they were focused on elites (themselves) with appeals made to his traditional political base. A new cabinet needs diverse and younger voices. Borneo leaders should have more prominent roles. Inclusion should not be solely based on an ethnic paradigm or inclusion of different elites.

Communication: Finally, the new leadership will need to share information in a targeted and coordinated fashion. This can be done with weekly sessions in parliament to answer questions and through regular public engagement beyond laying out new rules, case numbers or “offer” speeches. PN 1.0’s government started with the benefit of the doubt from many but evolved poorly. By its end, it made frequent announcements that spoke at the (frustrated and exhausted) people rather than with the people. It was and is totally disconnected from realities on the ground.

As Malaysia faces its second post-coalition transfer of power during Covid, the choices here are much more than who and what parties are in office. PN 1.0’s failure in crisis management showed inadequate care, as its focus was too much on the “take”.

Harapan focused on getting into power without a plan while in power. Umno believed it was entitled to power without recognition of its abuses while in power. All three – along with the pivotal roles of Borneo parties – will have to grapple with these legacies.

Whoever comes into office will only have a short tenure before elections will have to be called – two years at most. Every day Malaysians are suffering. A change toward a new government is an opportunity to move Malaysia forward if elites remember the purpose for which they were elected, to serve Malaysians rather than themselves.

Only a fundamentally new government offers even the promise of change needed for the country ahead. Even then there is considerable work ahead.

Given the uncertainties, psychological warfare in different news reports and intensities of ongoing negotiations and posturing, it will be an even more tumultuous week ahead.

Published on malaysiakini.com

Lessons for Malaysia’s next government