Written by Aira Azhari, Research Manager of IDEAS
Almost three decades after the launch of Tun Mahathir’s brainchild, Wawasan 2020, the optimism that carried many Malaysians through the heydays of the 1990s and early 2000s is now met with a sense of irony. As it turns out, 2020 would come as a rather rude shock to Malaysians who have so far witnessed a change in government through undemocratic means and a pandemic that has caused the global economy to come to a grinding halt. Although the power grab that happened at the end of February seemed strangely disconnected from reality, the impact of Covid-19 exposed just how interdependent we are – economically and socially – as a species. While Perikatan Nasional (PN) could not have picked a worse time to be in government, oddly enough, Covid-19 also presents a convenient excuse for PN to suspend and subvert democratic norms in the name of public safety. Meanwhile, Malaysians continue to suffer the consequences of unemployment, loss of income and loss of loved ones, all made worse by daily doses of worsening political instability and elite infighting.
Confusing as it is for everyday Malaysians to comprehend the political turmoil we are in, it is equally painful to see Pakatan Harapan (PH) grapple with picking up the pieces of what was left from their 21 months in power. For policy researchers, the Buku Harapan, whilst imperfect in many ways, gave some glimmer of hope for policy-oriented as opposed to personality-oriented political discourse. Encouraged by many of the promises in the Buku Harapan, IDEAS led the way in civil society’s efforts to ensure PH committed to fulfilling their aspirations by embarking on Projek Pantau, a project to monitor PH’s progress in implementing their manifesto. Overall, we produced four Report Cards, with the fourth and final one launched on 15th May 2020, a week after the supposed 2-year anniversary of the PH administration. In conjunction with the launch, we organised a webinar to discuss PH’s overall performance in fulfilling their manifesto promises. Two young leaders from both coalitions spoke at the webinar, YB Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad of PKR and Shahril Hamdan of UMNO.
One overarching theme that kept coming up during the discussion was the challenge of balancing between keeping promises to the rakyat and handling the realities of governing a complex nation. This challenge can be broken down further into three main issues, firstly; the failure of the PH leadership to truly take ownership of the manifesto, secondly; the failure to communicate reforms to the rakyat and lastly; the unrealistic nature of some promises themselves.
The root of the problem with the Buku Harapan lies in the differing levels of commitment to its implementation from within the coalition itself, made even worse by Mahathir’s frank admission that PH did not expect to win GE14 and therefore made promises that were too difficult to fulfil. While some leaders in PH took the manifesto seriously, the Prime Minister’s commitment to his government’s own manifesto is absolutely crucial in not only ensuring its implementation, but also in proving to the rakyat, whose votes were won on the back of the manifesto promises, that their hopes were not in vain. Alas, ridiculing the manifesto began early in the PH administration, thus undermining efforts by other leaders who were serious in implementing reforms, and leaving a rather bad taste in the mouth of many Malaysians who voted for change precisely because of the fresh proposals set out in the Buku Harapan.
Communications were a persistent challenge faced by the PH administration. Used to being in a reactionary position throughout their long years as Opposition members, a coherent, consistent and multi-dimensional communications strategy whilst in government proved to be too steep a learning curve. Not only were they caught fighting fire in many controversies that stoked racial and religious tensions, responses to why certain promises could not be fulfilled (eg. abolishing tolls, repealing oppressive laws) were also lackadaisical and incoherent. Perhaps a solution to this could have been to appoint a Director of Manifesto Implementation, an individual in PH whose job is to monitor the progress and implementation of the Buku Harapan. Instead, this effort was left solely to CSOs, whose knowledge is limited to whatever publicly available information, which were often inadequate.
Another issue with the Buku Harapan is the unrealistic nature of some of its promises, particularly the socio-economic ones. Cost of living was the greatest concern amongst Malaysians at the time PH was campaigning, and naturally the issue also became the anchor of the Buku Harapan. While promises such as abolishing GST, abolishing tolls, building one million affordable homes, increasing the minimum wage and deferring student loan payments were effective baits in winning people’s support, the expensive nature of these promises quickly caught up with PH once they entered into office. Many Malaysians did not feel the increased prosperity that was promised to them prior GE14, instead PH suffered the double whammy of being unable to fund the ‘cost of living promises’ and the slow reluctance in the push for institutional reforms.
The webinar IDEAS organised managed to identify many of the challenges mentioned above, but its true value was in the ability of both panellists to acknowledge the mistakes that were made during PH’s time in power. We are still a long way away from displaying magnanimity and humility in our politics, but it is an encouraging start if our young politicians at least, have the maturity to own up to mistakes made by them and their peers. While they try to make sense of this ‘new normal’ – in both the pandemic and political sense – PH must undergo serious introspection of their principles and leadership, only then can they return to some semblance of their former self.