TASMANIA: This week marks the first 100 days of regime change in Malaysia. And the verdict? It’s all good.
Most Malaysians are willing to give Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad an extended honeymoon for the simple reason that they know you cannot completely change a system that was embedded in every layer of Malaysian society in 100 days.
I was recently asked what Malaysians actually want from the new Mahathir administration. The answer is actually very simple. Malaysians only want two things from Mahathir: “Zero tolerance for corruption” and “accountability for those holding positions of power”.
This is exactly what Mahathir is doing thus far. Najib has been arrested and charged in court. At the same time, the new administration is “cleaning house” by removing and replacing hundreds of senior officials and coming up with plans to restructure key public institutions.
READ: Many unrealised promises as the Pakatan Harapan government approaches 100 days in office, a commentary
NAJIB IN COURT AND UMNO’S DOWNFALL
Malaysians are extremely happy with the arrest of Najib Razak for corruption, or in legal terms, money laundering. Malaysians wanted to see Najib charged in court and this was exactly what Mahathir delivered in his 100 days in office.
I am certain that the arrest of Najib alone has added another six months to the honeymoon period for the new administration. Many Malaysians were simply disgusted at the display of wealth by the Najib family.
The police raid and the revelation that designer handbags, jewellery and foreign currencies worth more than RM100 million were found in premises linked to the former prime minister was confirmation that Najib's family was living a lifestyle that shocked even the urban middle-class.
READ: Malaysia makes a clean break from the past, as case against Najib gathers momentum, a commentary
The other very popular move by Mahathir was the seizing of the 1MDB-linked superyacht, the Equanimity, worth about RM1 billion (US$250million).
For many Malaysians, it was clear that the Pakatan Harapan’s claims made during the General Election about Najib and his cronies were mostly true, and UMNO was no longer a political party, but a vehicle for the elites to access the government’s wealth for private gain.
UMNO’s refusal to admit any wrongdoings during its six-decades’ rule and the election of Zahid Hamidi to replace Najib as UMNO president have also solidified UMNO’s reputation as a party that simply cannot be reformed.
‘HABIS CONTRACT’ FOR SENIOR BUREAUCRATS
The other extremely popular move by the new administration was to change the senior bureaucrats in the civil service and government appointees in government-linked companies (GLCs) and statutory bodies. Thus far, more than 200 key people have been dismissed and more will be removed in the coming months. To save face, words like “retired” and “habis contract” will be used.
Top of the list will be the entire board of the Election Commission, the top brass in the police force and the chief secretary to the government. Leadership of key GLCs and statutory boards will be changed as well.
This process will only be completed at the end of this year. The aim is to remove the UMNO DNA from the top layer of the administrative machinery. Many were appointed for their loyalty to Najib or UMNO, were never held accountable, and probably never will be.
Replacing these UMNO-linked administrators with people with integrity, will probably in the long term have the most impact. One reason why Najib was able to circumvent established procedures was precisely because he appointed people who were willing to look the other way when wrong things occur. By making key institutions independent again, the new administration is hoping to avoid another scandal similar to 1MDB .
READ: A massive clean-up is underway in Malaysia, a commentary
SO FAR SO GOOD
In the Pakatan Harapan (PH) manifesto, the PH government promises to do 12 things in the first hundred days.
It has either started the process or achieved these goals, among the popular ones are abolishing the GST; introducing Employment Provident Fund contributions for housewives; restructuring student loan repayments and abolishing its policy of blacklisting defaulters; carrying out a comprehensive review of all megaprojects and; looking into the status of stateless Indians.
Some of the promises have not yet been fulfilled, such as the debt problem among FELDA settlers and the setting up of Royal Commissions of Inquiry into the impropriety behind 1MDB, FELDA, government agency MARA and the pilgrimage fund Tabung Haji.
These were delayed because ongoing investigations have led to more questions. The incredible amount of money siphoned off and the puzzling contracts approved under the previous administration have simply been too overwhelming to comprehend.
Some key promises also require a massive injection of new funds, which can only be done when the first budget is passed in October this year.
So what should Malaysians focus on from now until the end of this year? I think there are two things to watch carefully.
First, the Council of Eminent Persons (CEP) will soon publish its recommendations to reform the entire government machinery and economy. The CEP comprises five of Malaysia’s most highly regarded doyens in the finance and economic fields, including a former Central Bank Governor, a former Finance Minister, a prominent UN economist, former CEO of Petronas and Malaysia’s richest man.
There is high expectation among Malaysians that the CEP will deliver a blueprint and road-map for a new, corrupt-free and economically vibrant Malaysia.
Second, the ongoing debate over the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63), which established the federation of Malaysia, with special autonomy for East Malaysia. For the first time since the 1970s, both Sabah and Sarawak are under a different state government.
In Sabah, the ruling party, Parti Warisan is merely a loose PH political ally while in neighbouring Sarawak, the GPS (Gabungan Parti Sarawak) is a new opposition coalition made up of ex-BN parties.
A lot of political energy is currently taken up by the debate on who owns the oil and gas resources found off Sarawak’s shores. GPS claims that under MA63, all resources found in Sarawak and Sabah belong to the respective states.
This was one of the rights given under the special autonomy granted to East Malaysia under MA63. Sarawak’s position is that all the oil and gas found off the coast of Sarawak belongs to the state even before Malaysia became independent and cannot be taken away when the federation was established in 1963.
Petronas claims otherwise and has already filed a suit against the Sarawak government. Petronas claims that under a 1974 law, it is the sole owner of all oil and gas resources in the entire federation.
While the Malaysian public may not fully understand the implications of this dispute, the impact can be enormous.
Petronas contributes about one-third of Malaysia’s Gross Domestic Product and about 40 per cent of the government’s revenue. The PH government’s entire development budget largely depends on Petronas’ contribution.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The past 100 days for the new administration was primarily about giving the people what they want - the arrest of Najib and a massive cleaning up of the government. As the government moves beyond this symbolic date, it will have to deal with difficult choices as it enacts real changes to reform the political system.
From my perspective, the real work for the PH has just began and we will not really be able to assess the performance of the PH government until next May when it reaches the 12 months milestone.
By then we will have a much clearer picture. But based on my reading so far, things are looking good for Malaysia in the short term.
The euphoria over regime change will last until the end of this year at the very least.
Professor James Chin is director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania and senior fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia.