May 24, 2018
The Mahathir 2.0 Cabinet of the Few, For the Many
by Rais Hussin@www.malaysiakini.com
COMMENT | Clocking in on time has always been a trademark of Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed. The use of name tags, even by ministers, was another signature move of his during his previous tenure.
Neither of these initiatives were missed by the local and international press covering the inaugural cabinet meeting on May 23. They saw the return of that same efficiency, the very quality that made Pakatan Harapan stronger and better than the BN they defeated on May 9.
But there is one issue which they overlooked. One that Mahathir had to announce himself, albeit in jest – his willingness of Mahathir to allow all thirteen cabinet ministers to speak their mind.In his words, “Everyone spoke so that I would not be seen as a dictator.”
In a way, he never was, precisely because Mahathir was constantly looking for an intellectual sparring partners, which he did not have much in his earlier tenure.
It was the fear to speak up with knowledge and facts that stunted the earlier government of UMNO-BN, one which Harapan is determined not to repeat.
Nevertheless, there are three reasons why Mahathir willingly allowed everyone to express their views, and with candour. Firstly, the cabinet is still new. Everyone has to be given the chance to speak his or her mind, without which true talents cannot be found, ever. Freedom of expression even in cabinet requires thorough study of one’s ministry papers.
But when such ‘noises’ are generated, without critical thinking, Mahathir would have to whittle the noise levels down. Consequently, to help the new ministers’ grapple with policies that are coherent and practical, as befitting the new politics of Harapan.
Secondly, unlike the ingratiation of the previous administration of Najib Abdul Razak, the new Harapan cabinet will now echo the frustrations and hopes of Malaysians at large, without fear or favour.
The former Prime Minister, in contrast, only made himself privy to positive news. This was a feature reinforced by gratuitous politicians like Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Hishammuddin Hussein and even Khairy Jamaluddin – who admitted to Singapore’s Channel News Asia, of all outlets, that “no one would like to bell the cat.”
Whether one is a cabinet member of Amanah, Bersatu, DAP or PKR, each is bound to speak with facts drawn from the field that constitutes the rakyat. The people’s voice, be it positive or negative, must be articulated, debated and presented to ensure the cabinet stays rooted to the realities on the ground.
The cabinet must at all costs avoid being circumambulated by advisors and advocates who would only promote their ideas and views for their own good, and not for the good of many.
Democracy at work
For once, the cabinet is not for the few. The level of contestation of ideas is intense and all are allowed to speak their mind, just like what happens in Harapan’s presidential council meetings, which Mahathir chairs and always concludes with specific decisions made.
I know this is being replicated at the cabinet, given that many of its members also sit on the presidential council, and they have come to be accustomed with such process of decision making.
Thirdly, the cabinet may not meet as often as the esteemed Council of Eminent Persons, but they have to match their ‘elders’ in terms of intellectual calibre. And they do, at the risk of being removed in they are non-performing.
Be this over the next one hundred days or a year, dysfunctional cabinet members will have to be quickly replenished as Malaysia’s national debt level does not allow one to wallow.
The rich oasis of talents in the cabinet plus the experience hands of Mahathir, Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Muhyiddin Yassin, Lim Guan Eng and the like will ensure that the nation will be navigated and reinvented properly towards regaining prosperity for the many.
That being said, barring any untoward financial crisis of cataclysmic proportions, the cabinet can perform to the satisfaction of Harapan’s presidential council.
To begin with, the price of oil is inching up, not down. The sovereign risk agencies know that Malaysia’s fiscal strengths are substantial when our oil and gas sectors are firing on all cylinders.
Nevertheless, consistent with global warming, and the transition to a greener economy, the Malaysian government should not be relying on the proceeds of Petronas alone. To do so would be to make oneself vulnerable to the curse of the ‘black gold,’ as Russia and many Arab countries are vulnerable to.
Be that as it may, Malaysia has a temporary lifeline from oil. The original budget of Harapan was conceptualised in 2017 when the price of oil was hovering around US$52 per barrel.
As things stand, the price of oil looks likely to breach US$85 per barrel, perhaps even US$90. This may not last, however, as it is due to the strategic tensions in Iran and the instabilities in Venezuela.
Nevertheless, both events have enhanced the financial strength of the Harapan administration, especially its determination to knock down the national debt of more than RM 1 trillion – a contested figure, but something I alerted to last year in terms of on-budget and off-budget debts.
As I write, the Finance Ministry is still assessing the final damage. Will it breach RM2 trillion? I expect it to reach closer to RM1.8 trillion. Now with Lim having access to detailed files and numbers, I am keeping my fingers crossed. But suffice to say we do have safe pair of hands in Lim.
With debt at 65 percent of the GDP, as opposed to the fake numbers of 50.1 percent given by the previous Najib administration, obviously the fiscal strength of Malaysia is more diminished than what Umno-BN had originally let on.
‘Bersih, Cekap, dan Amanah’
From day one, Harapan has refused to govern based on lies and deception. The present administration will be guided by good governance and best practices echoing the maxim of ‘Bersih, cekap and amanah’ (Clean, competent and accountable) that Mahathir introduced during his previous tenure.
The Harapan manifesto, Buku Harapan, clearly spells out the various specifics on the institutional reforms to safeguard the nation with proper checks and balances.
But with a truthful government comes the need to eliminate the excesses too. Not surprisingly, Mahathir has taken to eliminating the redundancies on the payroll, as exemplified by the termination of the National Professors Council.
At 3,000 members, it stands testament to how a uncontrollably bloated the government has become. This council was nothing but a group of cheerleaders who lauded Najib’s supposed transformation plan. A sheer waste of productive resources of the nation.
One must remember that of the various clusters in the council, those that dealt with political and polling issues, constantly got the results wrong – sometimes intentionally and conveniently to appease the powers that be. Outcome-based research rather than research-based outcomes.
Such poor analysis has no role in the new government. In fact, the academic contracts of these professors must now be reviewed in their respective universities when they return to the fold. Academic dishonesty is unacceptable. Students need not look up to them at all. If they did, they would be learning the wrong lessons even before they are working in their respective fields.
No more Allowances for this Majlis Members since Majlis Profesor Negara has been abolished.
The abolition of the National Professors Council, each member of which was getting an additional allowance on top of their own salaries, is the surest sign from Harapan that learned individuals should not be wasting the precious public resources of the government.
It is also a first shot across the bow that there are no proverbial sacred cows that Harapan must protect.
In fact, the 17,000 officers on political contracts were removed last week, to end political patronage appointments and their blind loyalty and support, which Mahathir does not need nor does Harapan demand.
The village councils (JKKK), a traditional bastion of UMNO-BN, was set up to eavesdrop on the political preferences of the people, were abolished too.
Indeed, the same review is now being placed on the Malaysian External Intelligence Organisation, better known as the Research Division (RD) of the Prime Minister’s Department, is yet another sign that heads must roll when they work in cahoots with the regime to peddle false analysis.
Throughout the tenure of Najib, the RD was politicised to preserve the regime, to the degree of creating the false facade that the regime cannot fail even when it was becoming totally dysfunctional.
Clearing out deadwood
Heads must and have rolled. By taking all the above measures, and more, Harapan is confident it can raise the strength of Malaysia into a developed country, ideally, by 2020, if not a little later.
This is the second week of the Harapan administration at work. The people’s expectations are simply monumental as seen in their willingness to offer their views democratically and responsibly.
Harapan welcomes this type of participatory democracy, as opposed to the ‘once in five years’ democracy. It certainly welcomes constructive criticism for continuous improvement. Ideas are never a monopoly of the administration or political party or any single group.
It is indeed time for all of us to be in this together to reinvent Malaysia in a new mould, as a nation that belongs to the many – not the few.
RAIS HUSSIN is a Bersatu supreme council member, and heads its policy and strategy bureau.