PH Reforms: We’ll Be Watching You
“There is many a slip between the cup and lip”
Ancient Asian proverb
1. The impetus that mobilized thousands of Malaysians onto the streets and millions to cast their votes for Pakatan Harapan is the yearning for reform. With the full cabinet in place and the 14th Parliament first sitting repealing the Goods and Services Tax Act and the Anti-Fake News Act and enacting the Sales and Service Tax, Malaysians look forward to the implementation of the other long-awaited policy changes. The abovementioned ancient Asian proverb reminds us, in the short time gap between the two events that is, obtaining the electoral mandate to implementation of the reforms, certain forces can intervene and things can go wrong.
2. It has been a long and difficult road to elect PH into government. Many sacrificed not only their time and efforts but also their careers, faced baton charges, tear gas, suffered physical injury and loss of personal liberty to secure the historical change in government. However, the journey for reform is far from over. In fact, it is only the beginning. Winning the election is merely the first phase - obtaining the electoral mandate. We are now at the second phase - the design and formulation of the detailed reform policies. The third and most challenging phase is their implementation to secure and consolidate public acceptance of these reforms.
3. Vigilance is needed to ensure the electoral mandate given to PH is translated into the desired reforms and successfully implemented. Public opinion and public support are important both to prevail upon the PH Government to keep its promises and ensure the final form of the policy changes are in line with the voters’ aspirations as well as to guard against intervening forces blocking and snatching away the reforms from the jaws of victory.
4. The obvious parties who will seek to block the reforms are:
a. First, the new opposition, UMNO and what is left of BN together with PAS;
b. Second, economic elites whose business interests are intertwined with the previous regime, these are the rent-seekers; and
c. Third, due to the politicization of the civil service and system of political patronage, those civil servants whose sympathies remain with the previous regime or whose personal interests lie against these reforms.
5. The PH Government faces its own difficulties in implementing the reforms in the PH Manifesto. This is because the government debt and financial position are worse than reported or have not been disclosed. The Government debt and liabilities including contingent liabilities and off-balance sheet financing exceeds RM 1.087 Trillion. There is a total shortfall of RM19.248 billion for GST refund from 2015 to 2018. The Prime Minister has said that the PH Manifesto should not be taken to be followed like a bible. PH must now do its best to fulfill the promises and find justifications for pledges that cannot be met.
6. One of the reasons the PH Government finds it difficult to implement its promised reforms is the crucial Malay/Muslim vote. UMNO/ BN and PAS have continued unabated their rhetoric of “Race, Religion and Royalty.” The organizers of the “Himpunan Kebangkitan Ummah” (Gathering for Muslim Revival) held on 28 July 2018 at Kampong Baru, claim the interest of the Malay-Muslim majority are being eroded after PH led by Tun Mahathir won the elections. UMNO/PAS naturally aim not only to retain the support of the 50% who voted for them (36% for BN and 14% for PAS) but also to win back the voters they lost to PH. Merdeka Center reports that only 25-30% of the Malays voted for PH while 34-40% voted BN and 30-33% supported PAS. The “swing voters” in this group is a significant intervening force to the successful implementation of reforms because of their capacity to determine electoral success or defeat in future elections.
7. In the circumstances it must thus be acknowledged, the PH Government must tread carefully in framing issues deemed sensitive to Malays if they are to gain their trust. However, the PH Government must at the same time demonstrate its courage and leadership to chart a new trajectory for the nation. This is where the previous government failed. It was unable to muster the political will to push through the New Economic Model. When the going got tough, the then government quit. The PH Government must demonstrate it has the courage to act in the best interest of the nation. It will need much intestinal fortitude to carry out public engagement to explain the reforms and correct the misleading argument that inclusive economic policies are a zero-sum game. It is not true that what is good for one group means it must be bad for the other. Public engagement and public discourse are thus important to provide the people with the necessary information and explanation of the issues involved. Public opinion and public support are therefore important to sustain our policy makers in addressing the issues raised by the opposition political parties in their efforts to block the reforms.
8. The second group, the rent-seeking entities, still have substantial commercial influence although their principals no longer hold the reins of political power. They have much to lose if these reforms are implemented. They will seek to obstruct and engage in a war of attrition to block the reforms in the hope for their mentors to be returned to political power.
9. Public discourse will reveal the difference between the interests of genuine businesses and the narrow interests of the “rent-seeking elites.” Public discussion will also expose the fallacies of the arguments by these “rent-seeking elites.” Public discussion will help channel public opinion towards policies that are in the interests of the greater good. It will show that policies valued by the public are consistent with the interests of responsible corporations and good business practice such as good governance, economic stability, welfare of all citizens and provision of assistance to all in need regardless of race and religion.
10. The Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have repeatedly warned and reminded the third group, the civil servants, to carry out their duties professionally. They are bound to ensure the policies of the government of the day are successfully implemented. Despite such warnings and reminders, it appears certain civil servants may have abused their position to block the reforms. The situation has reached a level where the Attorney General, himself, has to issue a warning that those who leaked information to the previous regime in contravention of their obligations of confidentiality will be investigated and charged.
11. In order to deal with this third group, the PH Government may have to seriously consider implementing a policy of lustration and vetting. Lustration (from the Latin verb “lustrare”, to ceremonially purify) refers to a policy that seeks to cleanse a new regime from the remnants of the past.
12. Until recently some scholars and practitioners believe transitional justice and its mechanisms of truth seeking, prosecution, reparations and institutional reform are meant to apply only to violations of civil and political rights involving physical injuries, killings or loss of personal freedom. There is now a growing number of advocates who believe that transitional justice mechanisms must apply also to violations of economic and social rights including crimes such as large-scale corruption and despoliation. Otherwise by leaving large scale corruption and plundering to ineffective domestic institutions and ordinary criminal trials, there is perpetuated an impunity gap with no accountability for economic crimes.
13. Ukraine is among the first to include corruption in its lustration and vetting policy. Lustration is a policy that was put in place by post-conflict or post-authoritarian governments such as Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, the Baltics and Georgia to remove from public institutions personnel who have been implicated in activities that call into question their integrity and professionalism, such as human rights violations or abuses or corruption, as a way to build confidence in the public sector. Vetting is the process by which a lustration policy is put into effect. Vetting is a form of administrative, rather than criminal accountability. Lustration and vetting help to reform public institutions from being instruments of repression and corruption into entities dedicated to public service and marked by integrity and accountability. Criminal investigations and prosecutions take time, while a truth and reconciliation commission will not offer the people a proper catharsis when culprits may not seize the opportunity to tell the truth. A lustration and vetting policy will ensure those who have violated the trust repost in them by engaging in large scale corruption and massive embezzlement of state funds are not allowed to act with impunity and continue in office totally absent of accountability. Public discussion on the need and viability of a lustration and vetting policy will assist the policy makers in their deliberations.
14. The successful implementation of reforms is dependent on countering the first, second and third groups and winning the hearts and minds of the swing voters. Public opinion will remind the PH Government that taking care of its core supporters, especially on salient issues in the PH Manifesto are of critical importance. Where the people care about the issue, have meaningful opinions on it and support the political party and its candidates based on it then the politicians have to pay attention and respond to the public opinion on it.
15. The point is a simple one. The Government of the day has to honour its election promises, be responsive to public opinion and the wishes of their constituents or face defeat in the next election. It will be highly irrational for policy makers seeking re-election to respond to pressure from the three groups; the opposition political parties, the rent-seekers and civil servants in a manner inconsistent with public opinion and wishes of the constituents who put them into government.
16. The corollary to this is the public must pay attention to what the PH Government does or does not do with regard to implementation of the reform policies. Without such public scrutiny and responsiveness, policy makers may become complacent. They may have little incentive to carry out what the public wants or are lulled into believing there is no real cost for not doing so. For this reason the majority cannot afford to remain silent. Public opinion must reflect the voice of the majority, otherwise a vociferous minority may be wrongly taken as representing the opinion of the public when it is not so. All Malaysians have a duty to be watchful of the reforms and a right to express his or her opinion.
17. In the final analysis, it has been often said but it bears repeating that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. It is worthwhile for Malaysians to remind both the PH Government and BN/PAS opposition the following words written by Sting in the 1983 album “Synchronicity” :
“Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
I’ll be watching you”
William Leong Jee Keen
Member of Parliament Selayang
17 August 2018