Former ambassador Dennis Ignatius on a nation waiting for the promise of a better nation.
I was outside the gates of Parliament last week in support of a group of fishermen, environmentalists and concerned citizens protesting the Penang South Reclamation project, an undertaking that would seriously affect the livelihood of hundreds of local fishermen and endanger a fragile ecosystem.
Standing outside the gates of Parliament though brought back memories of another demonstration I attended a little more than a year ago – to protest the Election Commission’s blatantly distorted delineation exercise. All the bigwigs from Pakatan Harapan (PH) were there – Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Lim Kit Siang, Mat Sabu – along with hundreds of concerned citizens.
Fast forward a year later, Mahathir, Wan Azizah, Kit Siang, Mat Sabu and the rest of the PH team are now all comfortably ensconced in power on the other side of the gates. The people, however, continue to struggle.
There’s a growing sense that this government – born out of a deep yearning for change – is slowly drifting back to politics as usual. The demonstration last week was an apt reminder that while PH may be in power, the nation itself is still outside the gates of hope waiting for the promise of a better nation.
Increasingly, there’s a sense that the reform agenda – which once so excited the nation and inspired thousands of ordinary citizens, some from abroad, to activism in support of PH – has stalled. And it has stalled because of a lack of political will, incompetence and infighting.
The government’s record of broken promises and missed opportunities for reform grows longer with each passing day – a moribund Select Committee on Appointments (SC), the continued appointment of politicians to GLCs, failure to hold local council elections, reluctance to recognise the Unified Examinations Certificate; the foot-dragging on repressive laws, jailing of critics under the Sedition Act, etc.
How long are they going to keep pleading for more time or blaming recalcitrant civil servants or the so-called “deep state” for their own failure to carry through on some of these reforms or fulfil their own promises? It’s really a matter of political will, isn’t it?
There was nothing, for example, stopping the prime minister from voluntarily referring, in the interest of good governance, key appointments to the SC for their input except perhaps a reluctance to subject his appointments to parliamentary oversight. It’s good that he has now agreed to refer some appointments to the SC; hopefully, it will become standard practice for all key appointments.
There was nothing either to stop the home affairs minister from appointing a truly credible task force to look into cases of enforced disappearances but he chose not to. Likewise, with the Teoh Beng Hock case – why not set up an inquiry to get to the bottom of the matter once and for all? Why the need to protect officials who may be guilty of great crimes?
It is also dismaying, to say the least, to hear the de facto law minister stand up in Parliament and offer the excuse that there is no “new evidence” against the governor of Sarawak to warrant further investigations by the MACC. Why was he speaking on behalf of the MACC, a supposedly independent body? Until cases like these are thoroughly investigated and aired, it will be hard to accept that the government is really serious about wiping out corruption or that the MACC is truly independent.
While on the subject, whatever happened to the proposal mooted by Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng months ago for a UK-type unexplained wealth law that would give the MACC the power to demand an accounting of those with unexplained wealth? Is PH having second thoughts because it might expose too many people in high places?
And then there’s the shocking way we treat our Orang Asli. Appalling details of systematic neglect and abuse have emerged in recent weeks but there’s little outrage. It is said that you can judge a nation by the way it treats its most vulnerable people; the way we have treated our Orang Asli must surely say a lot about the kind of nation we have become, and under Pakatan Harapan no less.
Perhaps more damaging than broken manifesto promises is the growing perception that the government is not up to the task of tackling some of the core issues that are at the root of our national malaise – a dysfunctional education system, growing racial and religious polarisation, an economic system that stifles competition, the failed Bumiputera policy, an out-of-control religious bureaucracy, rising religious radicalism, to name a few.
We appear to be in a gridlock, unable or incapable of confronting the serious challenges we face. Mahathir himself has been vocal in his criticism of the sorry state of affairs we are in but thus far neither he nor his ministers appear to have any real solutions. They talk endlessly about the need to do things differently but their actions and policies only reinforce the status quo.
There is widespread consensus that the NEP, for example, needs to refocus on improving the living standards of the rural and urban poor, but few, if any, real changes have been forthcoming.
A big part of the reason for Pakatan’s less than stellar performance is the intense internal politicking that has been going on within the coalition. Although they were all smiles after the election, they do not seem to have been able to overcome decades of distrust and animosity, especially towards Mahathir. Of course, some of Mahathir’s own actions have not helped engender trust.
Instead of respecting the power configuration based on the outcome of the elections, he set about changing it to his advantage by putting his men in key federal and state positions and engineering the defection of Umno members to his side. His recent call to all Malay MPs to join his party to strengthen the position of the Malays only adds to suspicions about his ultimate intentions.
Whatever it is, we are now seeing the consequences of the disarray within the ruling coalition. Ambition, power and politics have taken precedence over the “people’s agenda” they like to talk about. Until the political game of thrones now playing out is resolved, not much in terms of major reforms can be expected from this government. – FMT
The views expressed are those of the author.