Malaysia’s Reform Government Loses Traction

The Pakatan Harapan coalition promised massive reform leading up to the election that unexpectedly swept them into office in May 2018. However, after more than a year in government, Pakatan appears to be deeply shackled within the old paradigms of government.

The Pakatan cabinet led by Mahathir Mohamed is comprised of a couple of experienced members from previous Barisan Nasional governments like Muhyiddin Yassin, a small group of ministers who had state administration experience like Lim Guan Eng and Azmin Ali, and a very large group of inexperienced ministers.

Although some ministers like Dr Wan Azizah Ismail, the deputy Prime Minister from PKR, Mat Sabu, the Defence Minister from Amanah, and Teresa Kok and Gobind Singh from the DAP have extensive opposition experience, they had no experience in running the machinery of government, especially at ministerial level. Dr. Maszlee Malik, the current minister of education, was only elected to parliament last year, and consequently doesn’t even have any parliamentary experience.

With Pakatan’s dramatic rise to power riding on the hopes of those who elected them, it appears the cabinet and the whole business of government has just slipped into the same mode of governing as its predecessor.

The government has not been without a wide range of criticisms. Criticism has come even from within the ranks of its own membership. However this has been largely muzzled with senior politicians like Daim Zainuddin and Rafidah Aziz making public statements that people must give the new government more time to get its act together and implement the much promised reforms pledged before election.

Even vocal PKR Vice President Rafizi Ramli has been relatively muted of late about government performance. The DAP altruist and soul of reform Lim Kit Siang, who specifically chose not to take any government position, has been too preoccupied with the Najib and 1MDB saga to take government to task on its poor handling of the process of government.

Only the daughter of the current deputy Prime Minister Dr. Wan Azizah and “Prime Minister in waiting” Anwar Ibrahim Nurul Izzah, who is also MP for Permatang Puah and a former PKR Vice President has taken a stand. She disassociated herself from the government, quitting all her government and party posts because she believes the government is on the wrong track.

The Pakatan Harapan coalition made many popular promises prior to the election. However it has been impossible to unite these promises into some form of coherent policy base that the government could operate upon.

Alarmingly, what is coming out of the Pakatan government’s actions is a philosophy still based upon Ketuanan Melayu-Islam, or Islam and ethnic Malays first in a long string of decisions made within the economic, social, and education spheres.

However, activity centered around Malaysia’s administrative capital Putra Jaya suggests that Pakatan is busy trying to form a series of new policy packages at ministry level. Each ministry has formed several working committees and engaged consultants to formulate policy plans.

The inputs for this new policymaking process are not party based as one would have expected from a new regime taking power in a parliamentary system. The majority of policymaking has been left to civil servants and consultants seconded to ministries, rather than from any party philosophy. Thus it still appears the conservative Ketuanan Melayu-oriented civil service is still very much responsible for policy generation rather than the new regime. This is very much a continuation on what the last government did.

These conditions seem to suggest that there will be very little policy reform, particularly with the Finance Ministry playing the role of scrooge in these processes, due to the government’s massive funding problems.

Any external policy guidance from the Council of Eminent Persons (CEP) Report is locked up under the Official Secrets Act and not transparent to either the parliament or public at large. Thus policy development is going on completely under a cloud of secrecy.

The above factors can clearly be seen in Mat Sabu’s Defence Ministry. The ministry (MINDEF) is near completion of a long-awaited White Paper on the country’s defense outlook, policy objectives and strategies. However under the previous Barisan Nasional administration MINDEF’s budgets were drastically cut to the point where the armed forces found it very difficult to remain operational in many areas.

Almost half of Malaysia’s Russian combat aircraft are grounded with service facilities inoperable. Malaysian submariners have been trained locally rather than overseas due to cost restraints. Morale within the army is at an all-time low with VIP reservists taking high ranks over career officers, who call them ‘Toy Soldiers.’

The government’s apparent solution to the problem is to continue with its barter trade of palm oil for military hardware which may not get the armed forces the best and most suitable equipment at the right price. It’s almost certain that the armed forces will continue to decline relative to other forces within the region, thus substantially weakening Malaysia’s defence capabilities and readiness in a region where there is great military competition and claims on sovereignty.

Education is another area where not only are the old paradigms of the previous Barisan Nasional Government being pursued, but being pursued even more vigorously. The continuation of education quotas is producing great voter disappointment. This continuation has been affirmed by the minister of education, the prime minister, and even Anwar Ibrahim, the prime minister in waiting.

It also appears that the last couple of vice chancellor appointments made by the minister were people with Salafist, or conservative leanings. This is worrying as it has been done to ensure Malaysian public universities maintain their pseudo-Islamic orientation rather than seeking to engage diversity of new ideas into the tertiary education system.

Racial quotas still exist on the selection of academic staff which is preventing selection based on meritocracy. Nepotism still exists within internal promotion processes. Budget cuts have led to the forced retirement of many experienced academics who are desperately needed to assist in revamping and regenerating the university system. There is now a great void of experience in Malaysian universities with young and inexperienced academics trying to fill the gap.

The university system is still based on the fundamental premise of producing skilled and obedient staff for industry rather than focusing on creating independent and creative people who are critical thinkers for the future of the country. Education is still embedded within the old paradigm of the last administration and it appears to be going into a much deeper nosedive.

The Malaysian economic environment has always been business friendly. However markets are saturated with controls and regulation. Much needed reforms have been lacking to free up markets. The government after its disastrous foray into the automotive industry, which cost billions, the multimedia and biotechnology fiascos, still wants to pick winners. Floating ideas about a new national car and flying cars will not reform the economy. Tolls remain on roads, keeping up the costs of domestic transport.

The petrol subsidization scheme is still in place costing the government billions, and import licensing (Known as APs) still in place. Some markets are still duopolies rather than open to all comers and federal and state government owned corporations compete in the open market with private enterprise. Many, if not most of these state companies are cesspits of corruption and loss making, bringing inefficiency to a supposedly market economy. Regulatory hindrances are preventing entrepreneurial start-ups in the cosmetic, direct marketing, herbs, and food industries.

Malaysia is falling behind the rest of the region where these obstacles to nascent entrepreneurs don’t exist in the other ASEAN economies.

The Pakatan government has not provided any specific world view that foreign policy would be based upon. Foreign policy is firmly in the hands of Prime Minister Mahathir, who has primarily reverted to his own personal world views. The look East philosophy has been re-mooted, and some of the old disputes with Singapore re-ignited over water, aviation and maritime waters.

Mahathir’s speech to the UN Assembly last year brought up the same issues of Israel and Palestine, free trade and palm oil, and reaffirming Malaysia’s non-intervention approach to problems within other ASEAN countries, as he did in his last stint as premier. There have been criticisms to the ad hoc way the government has handled its negotiations through informal intermediaries with China over a number of deals, indicating that foreign policy, like the last administration is still being handled in a ‘fix it if it needs it’ manner.

The bottom line is that other than a continuation of the policy of Ketuanan Melayu-Islam, the Pakatan Government is just fudging it through. This is just the same as the last Barisan Nasional government did. The civil service is still inefficient, bloated and houses bastions of heavily defended mini-empires. The civil service is a human resources tragedy. Cronies are still being appointed to plum jobs in agencies and GLCs.

The Democratic Action Party, dominated by ethnic Chinese, is effectively muzzled and has much less influence in government than many hoped for. It is now subservient to the interest of Malay based parties. It will be interesting to see how voters treat the DAP next election on this premise. The only thing saving the DAP from a strong backlash is that there is now no effective alternative party for Chinese to vote for.

How much Mahathir himself is to blame is questionable. In his defence, Mahathir has transformed himself from ‘dictator’ Mahathir to ‘mentor’ Mahathir with some left-over quirks from his previous reign as Prime Minister. However, even as a workaholic in his later years, controlling the processes of the government is now much more difficult for him, especially with the infighting within the Pakatan coalition.

Anwar Ibrahim is himself a product of the system and is unlikely to change the paradigm the government is now locked into. Anwar is not a great administrator and his philosophical position on policy is populist rather than visionary.

It appears that the only thing that has happened is that Team B has replaced Team A as the managers of government. There is no effective real change in policy, other than a few trimmings.

The ministers need to take a closer look at the processes of government before any reform can take place. No one seems to be doing this. Worse still no one even seems to be talking about this.

Finally in the words of the prolific writer and political commentator Azly Rahman ‘Our government is still clinging to the straight-jacket of our own apartheid system, still clinging onto the idea that only Malay-bumiputera have special rights’. This is a tragic concept.

Murray Hunter is a development specialist based in Southeast Asia and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel.