Arrivals and departures in ‘New Malaysia’


July 9, 2018

Arrivals and departures in ‘New Malaysia’

by Dr. Bridget Welsh@www.malaysiakini.com

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Change, however, is not just a matter of priorities and press statements but will require a crucial remoulding within the system itself. There are persistent practices inside the government – paying for meetings with ministers, using position for personal wealth and prioritising loyalty over merit – that need to be changed as well.–Dr. Bridget Welsh

COMMENT | Today marks two months since the May elections, coming after a dramatic week of appointments, an arrest, and a nauseating court gag order.

These headlines mark the arrival of important changes taking place in Malaysia, in governance and in the adoption of new political positions. Key is whether actors in their new roles are genuinely willing to engage in departures from the past.

In looking at two important developments this week – the new cabinet and the first major response of UMNO as a political opposition – Malaysia’s past offers important insights to the development ahead.

Newbie cabinet

Malaysia’s new cabinet makes history not only for the fact that it is comprised of new faces from a new coalition, but it is made up of a record number of professionals and non-scandal tainted individuals.

This combination of talent and fresh eyes offers great promise, and over the past week since the new ministers and deputy ministers took up their appointments, there has been a variety of positive messages sent from open tender to much-needed reviews of contracts.

The appointees are taking their tasks seriously, and while there are steep learning curves ahead, the resolve shown reinforces the sense of confidence of voters last May.

Change, however, is not just a matter of priorities and press statements but will require a crucial remoulding within the system itself. There are persistent practices inside the government – paying for meetings with ministers, using position for personal wealth and prioritising loyalty over merit – that need to be changed as well.

Ministers can set examples in pushing for reform in everyday governance, as the bureaucracy should not be seen as a bastion for patronage and a centre of corruption.

One of the most important and welcome shifts of the early years of the Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was the refocus of the civil service on serving the public. This same administration also offers another lesson, as it was during this period that corruption became more entrenched within the civil service itself. This was primarily a product of an inadequate oversight of bureaucrats and poor management.

Civil servants need strong reminders that they are there to serve the public, not themselves or their political bosses. Good governance practices need to be incentivised from the onset.

The ongoing necessary removal of senior leadership within the bureaucracy and restructuring/consolidation of departments is positive, but it is stronger if accompanied by more fundamental and decisive shifts in norms and practices.

Rethinking representation

One important reframing of governance is to stop seeing the ministers as representing one ethnic community, party or state.

Malaysia is one of the few countries in the world where the dominant counting is based on race. The cabinet selection process has been largely one of political accommodation, rather than focused on the leadership needed to resolve the problems that ordinary Malaysians face.

 

Political parties have been seen to narrowly focused on their numbers within the cabinet, with the usual petty grouses. This sends the message that the position is about themselves, their respective power, rather than serving the public. It is not a surprise that there has been public outrage with the position complainers.

The challenge ahead is to move beyond numbers, to move from nominal to substantive representation, a situation where a minister is seen to be representing people not for who she/he is, but for what he/she does; for an Indian Malaysian minister to be seen as equally representing all communities be they in Sabah, Johor or Kelantan, for an Islamic education minister to be seen as advocating and improving the education of all Malaysians irrespective of faith, and for racial and sectarian politics to be given the back seat to promoting the nation.

The Merdeka era of the early 1960s offers important lessons here. It was a time when talent was prioritised in appointees, both within and outside of government. The sincere goal of building Malaysia overshadowed narrow interests. There was a willingness to bring in appointees from the outside based on skills. Malaysia’s bureaucracy urgently needs to strengthen its implementation capacity.

In this time of transformation, there is an opportunity to harness the goodwill and strong underlying national commitment to public service by bringing in more technocratic expertise.

Repeat offender

That sense of public service was, however, not on show with the events around this week’s arrest of the former prime minister. The drama shows clearly that the de facto new leader of the opposition is none other than Najib himself. He overshadows Umno’s new President, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, as Najib’s leadership continues to haunt the party.

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Stop lamenting and worry not, when the time comes, you will have plenty to do.

Once again, Najib has rallied the party faithful to his defence. The thuggish elements in the party have returned as the dominant public face of UMNO, adopting a narrative of racial confrontation. Najib’s battle for himself reveals what has long been clear – that his own personal future is more important than that of his party or the future of the country.

There are important lessons from his years in office that also merit recalling. Najib’s administration excelled in using the system to his advantage, particularly using the rule by law to stay in power. His approach was one focused on division and polarising Malaysia, rather than bringing the country together. All tactics, no matter how ruthless, were fair game.

A common practice was to obfuscate, to warp realities using slick storytellers. Najib’s administration set new lows in standards of dirty politics, seen to be fueled by cash payments. These trends have the potential to continue to dominate Malaysia’s political opposition narratives ahead, in what will be a long-drawn-out drama and in an opposition politics that is not focused on making Malaysia stronger.

Najib mistakenly believed that Malaysians could be fooled. May 9 showed him how wrong he was. He should have opted for a graceful departure. Instead, we have seen the arrival of a new battle for Najib’s survival, one in which the Malaysian public will face a repeat of the hubris and guile of his recent past.


BRIDGET WELSH is an Associate Professor of Political Science at John Cabot University in Rome. She also continues to be a Senior Associate Research Fellow at National Taiwan University’s Center for East Asia Democratic Studies and The Habibie Center, as well as a University Fellow of Charles Darwin University. Her latest book (with co-author Greg Lopez) is entitled ‘Regime Resilience in Malaysia and Singapore’. She can be reached at bridgetwelsh1@gmail.com.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini. 

 

Malaysia: Dr.Meredith Weiss on GE-14


July 7, 2018

Malaysia:  Dr.Meredith Weiss on GE-14

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On May 9, 2018, Malaysians threw the bums out, voting decisively against the Barisan Nasional (National Front, BN), the coalition of broadly right-wing and center parties that had governed Malaysia since independence in 1957. The election poses the question: has Malaysia bucked a global anti-democratic trend?

The conventional wisdom is that a feisty, beleaguered opposition coalition made up of a somewhat motley mix of leftist catch-all, progressive Islamist, and communal parties bested the behemoth BN by force of ideals, pluck, and the charisma of a former “dictator,” as the new prime minister now delights in branding himself. The BN’s decrepitude, born of too many years of untrammeled authority and political inbreeding in a cronyistic, dynastic order, cleared the way for new leaders. All the while, rising costs of living, increasingly stark economic inequality, and spreading awareness that the state- and party-controlled mainstream media were not telling the whole story had left the mass of voters hungry for change.

The Malaysian narrative is one of voters reflecting critically on a well-lubricated patronage machine and rejecting it, at least in part, out of aspirations for democracy, justice, and good governance. But like any good story, this one has a more complex plot line than that, peppered with stratagems, reversals, and ironic turns. What too-pat narratives obscure is the wider context and what we might expect — and voters might seek — to change or maintain.

The Scene As It Stands

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At the helm now, thanks to a weird twist of fates and strategy, is one-time Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, one of the world’s longest-serving heads of government — and also now among the oldest, as he approaches his ninety-third birthday. Although he did voluntarily step down in 2003, after twenty-two years in office, Mahathir has continued to yank at the strings of state since then, and had become increasingly apoplectic at incumbent Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s running the party and government, per Mahathir’s reading, into the ground through rent-seeking verging on plunder.

To hear breathless popular accounts of the “Mahathir factor,” one might assume ethnic Malays — who, together with smaller indigenous groups, collectively termed Bumiputera, comprise slightly more than two-thirds of the population — to be blindly feudalistic, swiveling to heed the call of their once and future master. (Just under one-quarter of Malaysians are of Chinese ethnicity and about 7 percent, Indian.) Mahathir does have his devotees, but to some extent, this common narrative reflects media sensationalism more than reality. Frustration with rank corruption, inequality, and poor governance galvanized many or most opposition supporters, independently of the icon propounding those messages. Nevertheless, Mahathir’s savvy articulation of his coalition’s objectives and BN pathologies, as well as his charisma, helped to tip the scales.

Initially organized as the three-party Alliance, the BN structures itself largely along communal lines. Its core parties represent ethnic Malay, Chinese, and Indian Malaysians, respectively. First among nominal equals — and increasingly dominant over the years — is the United Malays National Organisation, UMNO, Mahathir’s home since its founding in 1946 until he left and launched Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Malaysian United Indigenous Party, PPBM) in 2016.

Essentially ideology-free otherwise by this point, the BN claims support for having delivered development, with something for (almost) everyone. Opposition parties tend to cluster largely in an Islamist camp dominated by the Parti Islam seMalaysia (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, PAS), or else along class lines, from a Socialist Front defunct by the early 1970s; to the social-democratic Democratic Action Party (DAP), rump successor to the People’s Action Party after Singapore’s short-lived merger with Malaysia in the mid-1960s; to the small but embedded Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM).

To take on the BN required merging these camps. First-past-the-post voting rules, coupled with heavy-handed gerrymandering and constituency malapportionment, often make three-cornered fights difficult for the opposition; pre-election coalitions are a must. That imperative is at the heart of any assessment of how far Malaysian political alternatives have come and where they may be going: Malaysia’s sociopolitical landscape makes for quirky pairings.

Coalitions require glorification of the least common denominator. Starting in the late 1990s, that galvanizing, offensive-to-few message came to be “justice,” centered initially around sacked, then imprisoned former UMNO deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim and his purpose-built Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, People’s Justice Party). Now, in the wake of one of the world’s largest money-laundering and graft sagas, that of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) sovereign-wealth fund, the message centers around an obvious anti-corruption theme.

The coalition had maintained a non-communal premise since an initial foray as the Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Front) in 1999. Now it includes a Malay-communal party: Mahathir’s PPBM, made up mostly of his fellow exiles from UMNO. Having made incremental, inconsistent headway in cementing cooperation and securing seats since the late 1990s, the opposition coalition — reconstituted first as Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Pact), then as Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) — gained control of several states, and now the federal government.

In the last election, in 2013, Pakatan Rakyat won a slim majority of the popular vote but fell short of winning the federal government. This time, Pakatan Harapan won the government with just shy of a popular-vote majority, given divided support for the BN and the no-longer-in-Pakatan PAS, which remains independently potent in Malaysia’s northeast.

The BN is left in shambles, its remains eroding further by the week. Pakatan Harapan is up and running, but it is not entirely clear yet how far or how fast.

Pakatan Harapan will surely make positive, progressive changes to what has become an ossified, decreasingly legitimate, increasingly illiberal system. Already they have begun investigating ousted prime minister Najib Razak and wife Rosmah Mansor — whose penchant for exorbitantly priced handbags rivals Imelda Marcos’s yen for shoes — and the 1MDB saga, the convoluted, seedy story of how Najib and various others misappropriated an estimated several billion dollars from a state investment fund launched in 2009.

More than that, the new government has spoken plausibly of plans, once parliament convenes in July, to revise or revoke controls on media, association, and speech; to release the political reins on schools and universities; to implement open tender and stronger oversight on government contracts; and more. Heads of statutory boards are starting to roll, and bloated or needless government agencies are coming under scrutiny.

Most cabinet appointments, finalized only in mid June, reflect real expertise rather than political concessions, as under the BN model. The coalition itself is far more equally balanced among its component parties than the BN ever has been — and that those parties do differ in meaningful ways, in their goals or membership, ensures a wider range of alternatives may reach the policy table.

Already the results have reset the stage for states’ rights, too. Leaders of awkwardly incorporated, underdeveloped Sabah and Sarawak, states on the island of Borneo, hundreds of miles across the South China Sea from the peninsular mainland, have broken with the federal BN — not just eviscerating their former coalition, but staking a firm claim to fairer status and reward in the federation.

If Malaysia is to emerge from its increasingly authoritarian past, having this new government emplaced is a good thing. Yet of course, it will not change all things, and it may achieve far less than years of opposition manifestos have pledged in terms of ushering in a more equitable, consultative order.

Two lenses are especially germane in understanding the capacity and limits of reform, given this mix of old and new: economic policy, including the extent of communalism (as codified especially in far-reaching race-based preferential policies); and the tension between a highly personalized (however party-centered) and more issues-based or ideological politics.

Where Paths Lead

First, economics. Survey after survey suggests the key issue for Malaysians, election after election, is the economy, and particularly rising costs of living. However, a thick tangle of affirmative-action policies to favor Bumiputera, dating to British colonial times but strengthened under the 1970s New Economic Policy (NEP) and a series of successor plans, tempers what it means to prioritize household economics.

The UMNO-led BN has held pro-Malay policies to be sacrosanct. Revising the criteria for qualification to be need-based rather than race-based would not dramatically shift the beneficiaries; race and class substantially align, particularly since the benefits of preference have flowed disproportionately to already-wealthy “UMNOputera,” the well-connected ruling-party elite. A better lens on economic voting in Malaysia considers not just financial standing, confidence, and progress since the last election, but which party voters trust to manage the economy.

Here we see an ethnic divide, with Malay voters typically disproportionately trusting UMNO, whatever they think of the party otherwise. The most plausible explanation is that these voters believe the best way to ensure their economic wellbeing is by maintaining preferential policies, on which opposition parties, but never UMNO, have equivocated.

The Malaysian constitution grants Bumiputera special stature in the polity; accumulated norms (backed by potent sedition legislation) translate that standing to irrefutable political dominance and economic privilege. At no time has Pakatan seriously challenged Malay primacy, but they have promised a less communally structured economy.

Pakatan’s embrace of the communally focused PPBM shifts the key. Critical to the coalition’s gains this time, especially in winning over Malay voters, appears to have been the reassurance Mahathir — whose early writings inspired and informed the NEP — and his party offered, that Pakatan would uphold pro-Malay policies. Now in office, the coalition has limited room for maneuver, especially with their main opposition still Malay-based (in UMNO as well as PAS) and only a slim parliamentary majority.

Importantly, since taking office, Mahathir and his government have insisted on their determination to maintain an even keel: to push back against some mega-investment from China, perhaps, and to cancel at least one particularly costly boondoggle — a high-speed rail line between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore — but to keep investors confident.

Mahathir is Malaysia’s original mega project mastermind: the “national car” intended to galvanize industrialization in the 1980s (Proton, short for Perusahaan Otomobil Nasional, or National Automobile Company, 49.9 percent owned by China’s Geely Holdings as of last year), the Petronas twin towers, an extravagant new capital at Putrajaya: glamorous, expensive grand gestures intended to signal Malaysia’s developmental success. His newly appointed finance minister, the DAP’s Lim Guan Eng, previously the chief minister of prosperous, opposition-held Penang state, likewise caught flak there for his coziness with developers and embrace of ambitiously grand infrastructure and real-estate projects.

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Mahathir’s Council of Eminent Persons (L-R): Robert Kuok, Zeti Aziz, Hassan Marican, Dr. Jomo Kwame Sundaram and CEP Chair Person Tun Daim Zainuddin

An appointed Council of Eminent Persons, named after the elections to advise on economic policy, includes the renowned, respected, and progressive economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram, but also billionaire tycoon Robert Kuok and Mahathir’s erstwhile UMNO bagman Daim Zainuddin — so their advice could pull in any of several directions. (Already, members have come under fire for meddling beyond their mandate.)

These economic impulses and incentives taken in sum, we should assume an at least somewhat more transparent, less cronyistic system, but still with a heavy emphasis on foreign investment–led, large-scale developments (with requirements intact to ensure Malay contractors’ protected share in the bounty), faith in the blessings of neoliberalism, and politically fruitful (commonly dubbed “populist”) wealth-sharing to amplify otherwise-tepid trickle-down effects.

More broadly, both coalitions are neoliberal at their core. Both offered a host of makeshift measures to reduce the pinch of rapid, top-heavy development, ranging from targeted cash-transfer and voucher schemes (for children, students, seniors, newlyweds, the bereaved, housewives, entrepreneurs, and the poor), to subsidized utilities, to reduced road tolls. But neither suggested any fundamental branching from that economic path beyond, for instance, expanded educational opportunities to prepare Malaysians better to embrace the modern economy.

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Indeed, Pakatan essentially shut out the anti-capitalist Parti Sosialis: in allocating seats, the coalition offered the socialist party a meager one constituency in which to contest (in which PSM was the incumbent). When PSM insisted on standing in others, Pakatan revoked even that paltry offer and competed against PSM’s Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj, defeating him. (In pushing on to prove their point, both sides took the very real chance of splitting the vote and delivering the seat to the BN.)

Second, like the government it replaces, Pakatan is highly leader-centered, to the point of obscuring an emphasis on issues or ideology. Its commitment to term limits is a definite improvement (while Mahathir’s old age offers reassurance of his own commitment not to outstay his welcome; the plan is to hand the reins to Anwar within about two years). Yet Malaysian politics has been and remains deeply clientelistic across parties, despite  significant overseas and internal rural–urban labor migration, economic diversification, and sufficient state capacity that party machines should be off the hook for welfare services. A “personal vote” matters even when parties are at their most pulled-together — and even those candidates able to coast on their party’s coattails prioritize “going to the ground” for grassroots constituency service and mingling among the masses.

However much media and pundits exaggerate the extent of his personal responsibility for Pakatan’s win, Mahathir did help to tip the scales, and it remains to be seen what Mahathir the man represents vis-à-vis a reform agenda. More to the point, that the best Pakatan could do in terms of a broadly palatable leader — realizing the imperative in Malaysia of a leader to lead the charge, no matter how deeply unpopular their rival — was the long-retired Mahathir, architect of the system now in place and whom so many within PH once reviled as a despot, could bode poorly for its sustainability and depth of support.

On the other hand, Pakatan has a clear advantage on this score — though less in Mahathir’s PPBM than in its partner parties. Spurred not least by predations during Mahathir’s previous longue durée, Malaysia has developed a vibrant civil society, encompassing not only largely urban, middle class–based advocacy NGOs, but also mass-based Islamist organizations, deeply embedded communal and cultural associations, and more. Many of these groups, from Chinese educationists to Muslim dakwah activists to human-rights campaigners, have a clear political, and often partisan, orientation. That rootedness in civil society gives Pakatan not only a loyal base of volunteers for get-out-the-vote and other efforts, but also reinforces its orientation around issues of better governance, social justice, and civil liberties.

That said, Pakatan’s record of governing at the state level revealed greater ambivalence than many activists had expected about their collaborating with advocacy NGOs in particular. Even many Pakatan legislators who cut their political teeth in those same NGOs came to consider their one-time colleagues too single-issue-oriented or impatient for improbably sweeping change and found the constant pressure irksome.

Promises of reserved seats for civil society activists in appointed local councils, for instance — as a stopgap remedy until Pakatan could restore local-government elections, halted since the 1960s — withered in Pakatan-held Penang and Selangor over the past decade. (Pakatan’s national manifesto does not promise restoration of local-government elections, but pressure is sufficiently high that progress toward that goal seems likely.)

Moreover, women’s organizations in particular have urged all parties to improve the gender balance in representation in public office. While these efforts have yielded aspirations and quotas, no party has come close to meeting them, even for appointed offices with a clearly sufficient female pool from which to draw. So while the close ties between civil society and Pakatan parties bode well for generating sufficient new leaders to sustain real competition, among candidates with skills and experience for leadership roles, recruitment could still fall short in terms of enhancing representativeness and idealism in practice.

And at the end of the day, there is always another election ahead. Pakatan developed under BN rule; it may hesitate to change the rules of a game it has only so newly mastered. Nor can it risk losing its lead. Some Pakatan support is proactive: champions of change, away from the too-long-entrenched BN and toward cleaner, more accountable and responsible governance. Some, though, is reactive: voting against Najib, but without necessarily seeking any dramatic overhaul beyond that purge — hence the appeal of not-too-different PPBM and Mahathir.

To win a second time, Pakatan needs to keep both camps in its corner. Unless electoral rules change (unlikely, although entirely reasonable to consider) or something else goes really awry in Malaysia (always possible), the wider frame of these recent elections suggests observers keep their expectations of systemic change in check.

Malaysia is unlikely to return to the old Mahathirian model, which Najib stretched to its extremes, of an excessively strong executive, rapacious ruling party, and snowflake-sensitive public authorities. On the other hand, quick, dramatic change toward a much more politically competitive or economically progressive order is equally unlikely, given the pull of the status quo. (Nearby Indonesia, having just marked twenty years since the Reformasi that ousted Suharto and his New Order regime, is a sobering Exhibit A.)

What the wider context suggests is something in between: an order that increases the political space for, and responsiveness to, alternative voices and ideas, within and outside parties; that does less to stifle efforts within civil society toward more coordinated, efficacious advocacy; and that encourages — even just by dint of a multipolar electorate and fissiparous coalitions — real competition around principles as well as personalities.

Malaysia has opened the door to fundamental reform, even if new leaders do little more than peek around the corner in these early stages, and even if its citizens opt ultimately to update the décor rather than shift the socioeconomic foundations of the state.

About the Author

Meredith L. Weiss is professor of political science at the University at Albany, State University of New York.

Rejoinder by  Dr.Rais Hussin: Bumiputeraism is not the root issue

http://www.malaysiakini.com

American political scientist Dr. Meredith Weiss has done extensive field research in Malaysia. The country needs more academics like her to cast light on the dynamics of Malaysia. However, the accolades stop there. Her article in Jacobin recently has all the drama and flair of a New Yorker literary piece. Yet, it went off on a tangent. How?

First, Weiss warned that the new electoral landscape is not necessarily new. While she did not warn of the spectre of Mahathirism, which implies a return to authoritarianism, she hinted strongly at the complexity of unravelling the National Economic Policy, which in her view amounted to all the same anyway. Again, how?

Entrenched Malay interests in the political, corporate and other sectors would be too deeply embedded. A single electoral victory from Pakatan Harapan, even one led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, now the seventh prime minister of Malaysia, would not be enough to alter the dramatic and complex landscape.

Second, Weiss averred that any reforms would not be smooth sailing, especially when the tensions between the top members of the coalition look all but impossible to overcome.

Therefore, the significance of May 9, 2018, would fade in due course. The internal solidarity of the elites forged before and on that date would crack. While she didn’t specifically mention the causal or ideological factor that could lead to its fissure or implosion, Weiss implied that their personal animus and histories are enough to warrant deep concern.

Third, Weiss argued that Pakatan Harapan is bound to make progress in light of the insidious practices of UMNO that had set the bar so low, the mere rejection of corruption alone would be Harapan’s defining moment. Just by saying ‘no’ and the latter would enjoy more confidence from the public. Wrong.

In fact, Weiss is wrong on all counts. To begin with, the optic she adopted is one devoid of variant analysis. Even before the events took place, she had already claimed that everything else would either fail or fail to move forward. But then how does Weiss explain the power of the May 9 election?

Voters were given a choice between more billion-dollar handouts and subsidies by the Najib-led BN, or liberation from becoming the object of international ridicule.

While 45 percent of the voters rooted for UMNO, this also marked the Malay behemoth’s dramatic fall from grace. From a high of 88 parliamentary seats in the 2013 election, Umno now only has 52 parliament seats, and the numbers are still dropping as elected UMNO members declare themselves independent.

Corporate and economic reforms are bound to be difficult. Not for the reason of race or race-based preferential policies alone i.e., bumiputeraism, which pervades Weiss’ article, but the massive size of the national debt due to liabilities from government-linked companies.

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Research by Edmund Terence Gomez and his associates show close to 900 such entities have accepted some form of government bailout and are swimming in a sea of red ink. The gravity of the situation begins from the Gordian knot of these companies, not the problems rooted in bumiputeraism.

Finally, why should the egos of the different Harapan personalities matter, when the coalition has merely won the general election once? Unlike how UMNO warlords, who had won in quick succession since 1955, had a sense of self-entitlement and invincibility, Harapan leaders know that if they screw up, the coalition will be booted out regardless of whether Mahathir or Anwar Ibrahim is at the helm. In other words, perform, or be put out to pasture.

Not surprisingly, some MPs had tried to remain in their comfort zones before the election but this backfired for some.

Tan Kee Kwong was not even nominated by his own party. He had to give up his Wangsa Maju seat to another PKR candidate.

Liew Chin Tong, marginally lost his seat in Ayer Hitam in Johor, thus depriving him of the chance to be the transport minister, as his successor Anthony Loke admitted.

Indeed, DAP fielded more Malay candidates under 40 across the board in GE-14, more than even what UMNO could attempt. These and other factors are more important to understand how the new Malaysia came to be rather than how old Malaysia will be resistant to change.

To begin with, sheer defiance of a kleptocratic regime is a given. Members of UMNO like Bung Mokhtar even claimed that the ill-gotten gains of Najib Razak are the assets of UMNO. Najib, meanwhile, insists many were gifts accumulated over his over 36 years in politics. Does he mean the business of being a politician is to be in business? Now that Najib has been arrested, more of the truth will be unveiled.

Anyway, Weiss is welcome to undertake more research on Malaysia. But she should understand that change, in fact, is happening at breakneck speed. There is the Council of Eminent Persons, the Harapan manifesto, and cabinet orders to reform the country within 100 days and over the next five years. Meanwhile, 17,000 political appointees have been terminated, and more are expected to face the same fate.

Even politically appointed Ambassadors of Najib Abdul Razak will not be spared. Heads of government-linked investment companies, such as Abdul Wahid Omar of PNB, have resigned.

Rome was not built in a day. The Harapan government is learning through adaptation to see which elements of the previous policies can be kept, and which policies cannot be phased out immediately, or, suspended, in order to allow a thorough review of various projects with Chinese private construction companies.

If Weiss were in Malaysia at Mahathir’s side, she would be shocked at how the doyen of Malaysian politics is slashing the excesses of the previous government, in order to set things right. It is far too easy to be an armchair critic, and Weiss seems to have made that faux pas to critique from the safe confines of her ivory towers in US.


RAIS HUSSIN is a supreme council member of Bersatu and heads its policy and strategy bureau.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

 

Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad Interview: The New Malaysia


July 6, 2018

Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad Interview: The New Malaysia

The early signs of the New Malaysia, like 1Malaysia, are hopeful and exciting. But I hope Pakatan leaders do not let power  go to their heads. I am personally prepared to give them time since cultural change takes time. 60 years of UMNO–Culture of Corruption and Mediocrity will be difficult to change. That’s why Tun  Dr. Mahathir’s Cabinet comprises young ministers in the majority.

The civil service must be revamped and top civil servants who were associated with the previous corrupt regime should be replaced and the public service should be competent, transparent and accountable. A Culture of Competency and Meritocracy must,therefore,  be the order of the day. The quota system, for example, should replaced so the civil service must not be dominated by one race. –Din Merican

 

Malaysia : The Elites playing the Cari Makan Game


July 1, 2018

Malaysia : The Elites playing the Cari Makan Game

by Dr. James Chin, University of Tasmania

http://www.newmandala.org

 

“Over the next year, expect more UMNO businessmen and opposition politicians to move into the PH camp, all claiming to be closet supporters of PH. The “cari makan” political culture may be the hardest thing to reform in Malaysia—I would say it’s impossible, even under a reformist PH government. It is, at the end of the day, human nature”.–Dr. James Chin

 

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Missing in Action–The Super Carma (Cari Makan ) Irwan Serigar Abdullah

Over the past several weeks, much of Malaysia’s elite has been playing the game of “pusing” (Malay for turnaround), or as one businessmen told me, learning to “gostan” (Malay contraction of “go astern”). In popular usage, it means to reverse back. This is how it works: many in the Malaysian elite are now claiming to be closet supporters of Dr Mahathir and the Pakatan Harapan (PH, or alliance of hope) coalition. Some claimed to have secretly “sponsored” the campaigns of PH candidates.

In an infamous blog entry, Making Beeline to Curry Favour with Dr M, one of Mahathir’s closest political allies Abdul Kadir Jasin wrote:

“Last evening I was invited for a berbuka puasa with the Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, at the Perdana Leadership Foundation (PLF) in Putrajaya…I saw many familiar faces—men and women—who during good and bad times had stuck with THE man…But I also saw many who had been absent from his berbuka puasa and other functions for quite a few years. I felt no sense of remorse when I greeted them with disdain…When Dr Mahathir was in power they celebrated him as if he was a ‘Tua Pek Kong’ (Chinese diety) and man of miracle. He was lavishly praised and even more lavishly feasted…But when he left office but yet continuing to care for the country, many of these people abandoned him for fear that supporting or just being seen with him would jeopardise their billion-dollar contracts, projects concessions, or subject them to the scrutiny of the Inland Revenue Board…The mere mention of Dr Mahathir caused them to cringe…Their hypocrisy and lack shame put me off. But still I accepted their handshake for the sake civility and common courtesy…”

While crony capitalism is found throughout Southeast Asia (yes, even in Singapore), in Malaysia the cronies never had to “pusing” or “gostan” at such a rapid pace. The assumption was that UMNO and Barisan Nasional (BN) would remain in power for the foreseeable future. Thus the 9 May outcome was akin to suffering the first heart attack.

Unlike the West, political hypocrisy and the practice of switching political support for personal gain in Malaysia is often regarded as simply “cari makan” or earning a living. There is no political shame in “pusing” if the ultimate aim is to “cari makan”. In other words, you do whatever is necessary to get the government contract, or better, to get into government. Former prime minister Najib Razak was fond of saying that his political philosophy is “Cash is king”. During Najib’s era, “dedak” was the common term used to describe the use of bribes to buy political support.

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The culture of “cari makan” had such an omnipresence in Malaysian politics that almost all the tycoons you see today in Malaysia are linked either to Mahathir or Najib. It was an open secret which tycoon was linked to each leader, such that the stock market in Malaysia had “political counters”, where certain companies were owned by these tycoons. It is not uncommon for the shares of these companies to move according to the latest rumour regarding the tycoon’s relationship status with the incumbent PM.

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He is still around and adapting to the new politics–Dr. Ali Hamsa

Those who came up in the 1980s and 1990s were handpicked by Mahathir and former Finance Minister and now chair of the Council of Eminent Persons Daim Zainuddin. In the past decade, another group of tycoons came up under the patronage of Najib. It was taken for granted that you could not become a business tycoon overnight in Malaysia without connections to the incumbent PM.

“Pusing” and “cari makan” politics is most acute in the Malaysian state of Sabah. Not only is it done openly at every elections, it is celebrated with a local word “katak” (or political frog), which essentially describes what happens as entire political parties and just-elected individuals move to the winning side on elections night. For political parties, it’s mostly about getting into government. For individuals, it can mean a sudden cash windfall. Sometimes, you can even “katak” twice or more for such gains.

The most recent example of this was on the night of GE14, when it became clear that Parti Warisan were in a position to form a new state government—United Pasokmomogun Kadazandusun Murut Organisation (UPKO), a BN-component party, announced it was defecting to Warisan to give it a clear majority to form the next state government. Two days later, four Sabah UMNO state assemblymen defected as well, giving Parti Warisan a clear majority in the state assembly.

In neighbouring Sarawak, two just-elected MPs joined the PH coalition once it was clear PH had formed the federal government. The sole MP from the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) tried but failed to defect to PH.

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Across the sea, Malaya is fast catching up on “katak” politics. Within a few days of PH’s victory, five BN state assemblymen defected to PH, giving the Johor and Perak PH state governments their majorities. More would actually like to defect but they cannot do so now because of the raw feelings generated in the recent campaign. It’s likely when things calm down, more elected BN representatives will move to PH.

While many would see these moves as opportunistic, many of those defecting justify it on the grounds that under the present political system, they can only resolve their constituency issues if they are part of the ruling coalition.

When BN was in power, individual BN MPs were given between RM1 to RM5 million ($337,000 to $1.69 million) to spend on their constituencies. Opposition MPs got zero funding. These funds are spent on any events or projects approved by the MP without the need for another layer of official approval. BN MPs would normally use this slush fund for small projects or events to increase their personal support among their constituents. Opposition MPs see the funds as nothing more than blatant vote buying.

The new PH government has continued the practice but with a slight modification. PH MPs will get RM500,000 ($169,000) while Opposition MPs will get RM100,000, or a fifth of what a government MP gets.

Over the next year, expect more UMNO businessmen and opposition politicians to move into the PH camp, all claiming to be closet supporters of PH. The “cari makan” political culture may be the hardest thing to reform in Malaysia—I would say it’s impossible, even under a reformist PH government. It is, at the end of the day, human nature.