May 3 – In 2016, I wrote a story on what public housing in Kota Damansara, not very far from my Taman Tun neighbourhood, looked like. Even though the 700-sq ft PPR flats were tiny and dilapidated, the residents were full of warmth and generosity as they served me and my colleague a hearty meal.
I haven’t visited them since I wrote the story; I wonder if their lives have improved over the past one year since Pakatan Harapan (PH) formed Malaysia’s first-ever alternative government.
Before I write my report card on PH’s first year in office, it is important to note that the change of government, no matter the party, has undoubtedly improved Malaysia. It doesn’t matter which party won the 2018 election and what their policies are; the very act of changing Putrajaya itself (which should have been done 30 years ago) is fundamental to the growth of Malaysian democracy.
These are PH’s five most memorable actions, good or bad, in their first year in office.
Abolished the goods and services tax (GST)
While 160 countries implement consumption taxes like VAT or GST, Malaysia is one out of 41 nations that do not have that tax after PH went back to the sales and services tax (SST). Other undeveloped countries that do not implement VAT or GST are North Korea, Myanmar, and many African states.
Yet, reverting to the SST failed to arrest the rising cost of living and simply left a RM20 billion gap in government revenue.
As a result, PH was forced to implement new taxes like the digital tax, departure levy, and tax on sugar-sweetened beverages that will only contribute to more expensive goods and services.
Although it is understandable why PH made the unprecedented move of reverting to the less efficient SST, since it was a key campaign promise in the 2018 election, abolishing the GST was simply a terrible decision.
PH surprisingly tabled a bigger budget for 2019, but it remains to be seen if the government will be forced to implement austerity measures or impose even more taxes on an overburdened middle class for the rest of their term.
Prosecuted former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak
The court has started hearing Najib’s first trial, where the former Barisan Nasional (BN) leader was charged with money laundering and criminal breach of trust over RM42 million from former 1MDB subsidiary SRC International that allegedly ended up in his personal bank accounts.
Public opinion has already been fixed, divided between those who believe that “Malaysian Official 1” is a guilty mother*****r and those who think PH is on a witch hunt against Najib and his associates.
It is all up to the courts now to decide if Najib committed the crimes he is accused of, a process which may take years. As Najib is (rightly or wrongly) a symbol of corruption who suppressed local media coverage and investigations of 1MDB during his administration, his prosecution is a win, no matter the outcome of the trial.
Reduced East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project cost by RM21.5 billion
It is unclear if this is really a win for PH because the ECRL project still costs a hefty RM44 billion, even if it was discounted from the original construction cost of RM65.5 billion.
Cancelling the project reportedly costs RM22 billion. However, the government has yet to release a cost-benefit analysis of the project to the public. Much of the ECRL project remains opaque.
We do not know yet if the ECRL will end up a white elephant or spur development in the East Coast. Whatever the outcome, it will have a significant impact on Malaysia, for better or worse.
Forming Parliament Select Committees (PSCs)
This is not the sexiest topic, but PSCs are crucial to parliamentary democracy as they empower backbenchers and Opposition MPs to hold the government of the day to account.
In Malaysia Baharu where defecting to the new ruling coalition is common, it is important to decentralise power.
Six PSCs have already been set up -- Consideration of Bills; Budget; Defence and Home Affairs; Rights and Gender Equality; Federal-State Relations and Major Public Appointments.
More are on the way -- Trade and Foreign Affairs; Human Rights and Constitutional Affairs; Health, Education, Community and Social Development; Environment, Climate Change, Energy and Technology; Economy, Urban Affairs, Rural; Sustainable Development; Electoral Reform; Transportation and Communication; Agriculture, Fishery and Natural Resources; Integrity and Anti-Corruption; Human Resource; and Works.
The PSCs’ findings should be published on the Parliament website, while the government should be required to respond to certain inquiries if needed.
By the end of PH’s first term, Parliament should have a PSC for each ministry, if not every major government department.
The PH de facto leader
Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim sometimes signs off his press statements as PH “de facto leader”. The PKR leader and Port Dickson MP is in a rather peculiar position, given that he is touted as Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s successor (again) within a vague timeline of two years, two and a half years, or midterm.
Malaysia has no formal midterm as such in political office, since MPs are elected for a five-year term and the ruling party or coalition appoints the prime minister who serves for the same duration. This is unlike the US’ midterm elections where Americans elect members of Congress and thousands of other public officials, all the way down to county sheriffs, halfway through an elected president’s four-year term.
Without a formal signifier, it is up to Dr Mahathir to decide when to hand over the reins to Anwar. The longer Dr Mahathir waits, the more uncertainty will linger and deter businessmen and investors who already find PH policies unclear.
Dr Mahathir should immediately step down after May 9 and let Anwar take over as PM, if only to restore political stability. There is no reason why Dr Mahathir should stay in office any longer.
Dr Mahathir won the 2018 election for PH and successfully transitioned the country to a new government. It is Anwar’s job now to set Malaysia’s course for the next four years and provide absolute clarity on PH’s vision and policies.
A vision is crucial. PH must decide what kind of ideology it wants to push instead of behaving in a schizophrenic manner, pushing ultra conservative religious policies on one hand and trying to ban racial discrimination through a United Nations treaty on the other.
PH’s first year in office was generally fine. If I had to grade it, I would give them a “C”. Even though the negative public sentiments are real, PH still has four years to sort things out.
The mixed coalition of Malay-only and Muslim-only parties Bersatu and Amanah, together with two multiracial Malay-dominant and Chinese-dominant parties PKR and DAP, must decide if they want to be a right-wing Malay-Muslim coalition, or embody Malaysia’s multiracial and multicultural spirit.
BN, for all its weaknesses, reflected the latter because Umno, MCA and MIC represented Malaysia’s three main ethnic groups. So, PH can follow that model or, because it is 2019, get rid of racial requirements in their member parties and promote a truly multicultural structure of governance.
Malaysians are looking not so much for a new hope, but for the fulfillment of long-existing hopes and dreams of a home where we are all treated equally, our bellies are full, and our future is bright with opportunity.
These hopes are old. Malaysians will judge in four years if PH managed to fulfill them. For now, PH should learn lessons from its first year in office if it wants a second term.