SINGAPORE: Their arms were raised and entwined, their faces full of smiles.
It was an iconic moment, as leaders of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition stood alongside one another to mark an end to Malaysia’s 61-year rule under Barisan Nasional (BN) on May 10, 2018.
At the centre of this group was Dr Mahathir Mohamad, a veteran politician whose popularity and leadership was key to the coalition’s victory.
The victory was built on promises of Malaysia baru, or new Malaysia, with lower cost of living, multiracial diversity and zero tolerance for corruption.
One year on, while PH has some encouraging results to show in terms of combatting corruption and reducing national debt, the government has been hamstrung by the sluggish economy and racial politics.
Former prime minister Najib Razak, leveraging his strong social media presence, has also played up the discontent on the ground.
For now, it appears that the euphoria has died down and the honeymoon period for the new leaders is over.
Public support for PH and Dr Mahathir has fallen. Independent pollster Merdeka Centre published a survey conducted recently which showed that less than 50 per cent of voters surveyed were satisfied with Dr Mahathir, a sharp drop from the 71 per cent approval rating he received in August 2018.
Furthermore, only 39 per cent said they approved of the ruling government.
READ: Commentary - Almost a year since Pakatan Harapan swept into government, has Malaysia lost its mojo for reform?
PROGRESS IN COMBATTING CORRUPTION
In PH’s election manifesto, one of the key promises was to investigate scandal-plagued institutions, including state investment firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), in an effort to eradicate corruption.
There has been some progress on this front. In the immediate aftermath of PH’s win last year, police raided Najib's house and found bags of cash, jewellery and luxury handbags.
Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor are now both facing trial on corruption charges linked to 1MDB and other charges.
Additionally, PH has also forced a change in leadership for many key leadership positions in the public sector, including the police force, the election commission, the anti-corruption commission, the judiciary and attorney-general chambers.
However, this does not immediately translate to “democratic dividends”, warned Dr Wong Chin Huat, a Senior Fellow from Sunway University.
He noted that the government’s efforts to eradicate corruption is being obstructed by delays in Najib’s trial and a possible conviction.
“This is a sign that the government doesn't control the judicial process, and this allows Najib to play up the perception of him as a victim of political witch-hunt,” he told CNA.
Furthermore, PH itself has not been immune to corruption allegations. Anti-corruption activist Cynthia Gabriel, during a recent presentation at the National University of Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, noted that an aide working for Minister for Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Salahuddin Ayub was recently arrested by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission for allegedly receiving a luxury watch as a bribe.
“This is the same practice as UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) used to have. So where really is the commitment and political will to reform important institutions that are linked to the economy?” said the member of activist group Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4).
THE NAJIB EFFECT
Publicly, Najib has been recalcitrant and seems determined to go down fighting.
He masterminded a social media campaign on “What’s there to be ashamed of, my boss” or “Malu apa bossku”, a clear act of defiance against the government.
The campaign and tagline has become popular with youths, with many creating their own videos, memes and stickers of it.
Commenting on this, Dr Wong said: “Najib has successfully rebranded himself as a social media celebrity, out of his old image of extravagance, corruption and disconnect, and capitalised on popular discontent on PH for not delivering democratic dividend and manifesto promises.”
The former prime minister has been making his presence felt on the by-elections campaign trail.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia political scientist Associate Professor Kartini Aboo Talib Khalid noted that Najib’s strong campaigning presence during three of the recent by-elections - Rantau, Cameron Highlands and Semenyih. – was one of the reasons for PH’s defeat.
“His presence somehow shows that he is immune to all allegations, accusations, and cases brought upon him. He is a fighter and will not bend his knee so easily. His image has now turned from a kleptocratic villain into the indigenous hero,” she said.
She added that Najib has raised various issues that resonated with the voters, including more support for the B40 (individuals with income in the bottom 40 per cent) as well as policies to overcome poverty in these areas.
Additionally, she said Malaysians have started to feel that the country was more prosperous during Najib’s leadership than it is presently, and this was reflected in the results of the three by-elections.
“Though these three by-elections did not affect the decision-making at the parliamentary level (because these are state assembly seats), the voice of the people, especially the Malays and Bumiputeras will be significant in the next GE (General Election),” she added.
SLUGGISH ECONOMIC OUTLOOK
The PH government has pledged to reduce national debt and one of the ways this has been done is through the renegotiation of economic agreements. Putrajaya has reduced the contract value of the East Coast Rail Link by over 30 per cent, while postponing the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR) till the end of May 2020.
Last month, Dr Mahathir announced that the national debt figure stood at RM686 billion (US$168 billion), down from an earlier estimate of RM1 trillion.
This was a more manageable figure, he said, adding that the government is still considering selling some assets to trim the deficit further.
Despite reducing national debt, serious economic challenges are on the horizon.
In March, Malaysia’s central bank forecasted economic growth to be between 4.3 and 4.8 per cent this year. This was a drop from the 4.9 per cent growth forecasted last November.
Possible reasons include global economic headwinds and weak demand for commodities.
Observers say the condition of the economy has been a main reason for PH’s declining approval ratings.
In particular, there appears to be frustration on the ground over the rising cost of living as well as the lack of employment opportunities for youths.
Dr Wee Ka Siong, president of the Malaysian Chinese Association, a party in the opposition coalition, told CNA that the bottom line for a majority of Malaysians is the economy, and the PH’s approach to this major issue has worsened its public perception.
He pointed out that investor confidence has dwindled in recent months, citing how Moody’s Investor Service has cut Malaysia’s 2019 gross domestic product growth forecast for Malaysia to 4.4 per cent, down from 4.7 per cent projected in January.
He added that DBS Research recently downgraded Malaysian government bonds to “neutral”, citing “limited scope” for the Malaysian Government Securities to record further gains.
He attributed this to PH’s decision to postpone mega projects like the HSR.
“The PH government fails to understand that cancellation of government projects will not only affect investor confidence, but will also ultimately hamper economic growth and affect government finances,” he said.
SOLVING ECONOMIC ISSUES TAKE TIME: HUMAN RESOURCES MINISTER
The PH government has asked for more time to tackle the various issues.
Minister of Human Resources M Kulasegaran said correcting the wrongs of the previous administration has been a tougher task that anticipated, as he attempts to improve employability of Malaysians and upskill its workforce.
“When I was an opposition MP, I thought I will be able to do all the work needed (to effect change) overnight, but I've been trying to do it for the last 11 months. This takes time, because we have to discuss with stakeholders, which means talking to the unions and the employers,” he said.
Mr Kulasegaran said his ministry is seeking to tighten and make changes to the existing labour regulations and laws, including the Employment Act, Trade Unions Act, Industrialisation Act and Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act.
“About 90 per cent of the work to pass this legislation is already done and we want to complete it. Looking ahead, the biggest challenge for us is to raise employment for housewives, youths, university graduates and those who are physically challenged,” he said.
PALM OIL INDUSTRY UNDER FIRE
Another challenge on the economic front is demand for palm oil.
Malaysia is the second biggest producer of palm oil and it has been hit hard by the European Commission’s decision to phase out the use of palm oil in transport fuel by 2030, citing excessive deforestation.
Malaysia relies on the crop for billions of dollars in foreign exchange earnings and hundreds of thousands of jobs. Many of the rural voters are in the palm oil industry and it is important for the government to address their livelihood concerns.
On Monday (May 6), Primary Industries Minister Teresa Kok accused the European Union of launching a trade war over palm oil.
Earlier, she stated that it was important to correct misperceptions about the palm oil industry. She noted that the PH government implemented various measures to ensure that Malaysia’s palm oil industry is sustainably cultivated.
One major policy shift adopted by the PH government recently is to cap expansion of palm oil plantations at 6.5 million hectares per year, which it expects to achieve by 2023, said the minister.
She highlighted that the industry’s focus is on utilising higher yielding planting materials and increasing productivity without the need to expand into new forests or peatlands.
THE RACE CARD
Racial politics has continued to rear its ugly head. There are signs that Malay voters now blame PH for not having done enough to defend their rights.
UMNO and Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), in particular, have used racial politics as a stick to beat PH, said political analyst James Chin.
“UMNO and PAS are repeating the simple narrative that under PH, ketuanan Melayu (Malay pre-eminence) is under threat by the Democratic Action Party (DAP). The use of religious and racial issues have been quite successful,” he said.
Assoc Prof Kartini highlighted that the Malay swing in support, as highlighted by the Merdeka poll, was due to PH’s failure to convince them that they will champion Malay rights.
She also highlighted how comments by a few PH members, especially from DAP, regarding educational issues has upset the Malay population.
For instance, after Education Minister Maszlee Malik's announcement that the government was expanding the number of students entering the pre-university matriculation programme to 40,000 from the previous 25,000, while maintaining the 90 per cent quota for Bumiputeras, Penang’s Deputy Chief Minister P Ramasamy criticised the move.
The DAP politician said that the government made the decision as it feared backlash from sections of the Malay-Muslim community.
In instances like this, Assoc Prof Kartini highlighted that the Malaysia Constitution grants special rights and privileges to Malays as it took into the account the laws of the land that was retained by the British.
“Malaya was not a terra nulis, but it consisted of the Malay Civilisation complete with its own laws and social and economic systems. Therefore, when PH made such comments, it is disheartening for the Malays and Bumiputeras,” she said.
Dr Wong said dissatisfaction among the Malays could prove fatal for PH at the next GE, particularly if UMNO and PAS work together to avoid three-cornered fights in the peninsula.
If the current scenario persists, Dr Wong anticipates that PAS and UMNO will form a formal pact, and PH will likely lose around 30 federal seats in peninsula Malaysia.
“If the 30 seats change hand, this monoethnic pact stands a good chance to win a simple majority in peninsula Malaysia,” he added.