A Hundred Days of Prevarication
Press statement by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser
The GE-14 election defeat of the BN which had ruled the country since 1957 was testimony to the determination of the Malaysian people and civil society who had opposed BN rule for decades. Sixty-one years of BN domination had included 22 years with Prime Minister Mahathir at the helm. The Malaysian people chose to cast their votes for the PH coalition because PH had promised in their GE14 manifesto to implement wide ranging reforms that made them seem radically different from the governance experienced under the BN.
In the first 100 days of the new PH government, we find that their report card scores around 20% based on their own promises alone. The flip flopping over the abolition of BTN and National Service shows the importance of civil society to voice our opposition to such bitterly toxic and noxious institutions in the country. Nor do their promises consider the more urgent comprehensive list of reforms that civil society has long argued is of higher priority. On top of all that, we have witnessed a disturbing trend of autocratic decision making and policies symptomatic of the old Mahathir 1.0 era.
Sacrifices at the altar of the trillion-ringgit debt mountain
The convenient opt out clause for the new government is to pile much of the blame on the previous administration including the accusation of them of having run up a debt of RM1 trillion, or 80% of our GDP and apparently stealing RM19 billion of GST refunds. That blame frame then provides the new government with an emotional basis for gaining sympathy by starting a ‘Tabung Harapan’ and appealing for donations. While the way in which this fund will be used remains unclear, it is probably the only fund in the world set up with the apparent aim of trying to plug a country’s debt hole. It is telling that while a little boy has contributed his piggy bank to the fund, the two richest men in the country who happen to sit in the “Council of Eminent Advisors” have not made a comparable sacrifice to the fund.
As for the actual size of the national debt, there is dispute between economists depending on whether we include government guarantees and lease payments under public-private partnerships. The size of Malaysia’s government debt in international statistics for 2017 is actually 64% of GDP, compared to China’s 65%, Singapore’s 110%, US’ 108% and Japan’s 236%. Clearly, what is at stake is the country’s economic fundamentals, which the new Finance Minister assures us are still strong. It also depends on how the debt is financed since relying on overseas borrowing can carry higher risks. It also depends on the country’s prospects for economic growth. Japan has one of the largest public sector debts in the world but it also has a large pool of domestic savings on which to draw.
Nonetheless, this mythical “trillion-ringgit debt mountain” has become an altar on which promises made by PH in the GE14 manifesto are sacrificed – local government elections, new approved Chinese schools, minimum wage, abolishing highway tolls and postponing PTPTN loans. This is definitely not acceptable as an excuse for putting off these urgent election promises since PH had assured us that they could manage the economy once they had ousted BN.
But then the much-trumpeted review of all mega projects so as to reprioritise and reduce the debt mountain is not consistent with the approval of the Penang Transport Master Plan nor with the recently announced Proton 2.0 project by the PM. The Infrastructure Development Minister Peter Anthony has also announced that a dam costing RM2 billion will be built at Kampung Bisuang in Papar when Parti Warisan Sabah had promised to scrap the Kaiduan Dam project.
Back to privatising national assets and Proton 2.0
So far, the new PH government has not spelled out their fundamental difference in economic policy from the old BN regime. What we have heard so far is the alarming news of the return of the old discredited Mahathirist policies, namely, privatisation of our national assets in the name of Bumiputeraism and the revival of the national car, Proton 2.0.
The PM has said that the sovereign wealth fund, Khazanah will be privatised for the benefit of Bumiputeras. Malaysians need to be reminded that during the financial crisis of 1997/98, it was Khazanah that had stepped in to take over the assets of the failed companies owned by the Bumiputra crony capitalists in Renong, MAS and TRI. After taking over the assets, Khazanah revamped these GLCs with professional managers and better rules of governance. Khazanah currently owns 51% of PLUS Expressways, with the EPF owning the other 49%. By end 2017, the net worth of companies under Khazanah was RM125.6bil. Thus, Khazanah is successfully achieving its purpose of creating a sovereign wealth fund for the benefit of ALL Malaysians. Its expressed purpose never has been to be privatised to Bumiputera crony capitalists.
Mahathir’s privatization drive during his first term (1981-2003) was a boon for private crony capital, especially those linked to UMNO. Malaysian tax payers were the losers since these erstwhile profitable public utilities were sold for a song to the private capitalists and we became captive to UMNO-linked monopolies, such as the North-South Highway operator. Furthermore, these failed crony capitalists had to be bailed out with our money during the financial crisis of 1997/98.
During these 100 days, the Prime Minister has also announced the revival of yet another national car, or Proton 2.0. After the fiasco of Proton 1.0 and the huge cost to Malaysian taxpayers, our public transport system and Malaysian consumers, it is unbelievable that such a failed enterprise could be supported by a PH leadership full of former critics of the first Proton project. Another national car project will surely fail with further losses to the national coffers and we will have to underwrite the losses. The PH government won’t have 1MDB to blame for that anymore. We should further note that one of Mahathir’s former crony capitalists, Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary, owns a majority 50.1% in Proton Holdings through DRB-Hicom. This hare-brained idea to start another national car project reminds me of what somebody said about politicians: “Politicians are people who, when they see light at the end of the tunnel, go out and buy some more tunnels…”
Back to Mahathirist autocracy
It is truly alarming that no Cabinet member nor “eminent person” in the CEF has voiced any objections to Mahathir’s proposed plans to privatise Khazanah and to start another national car. They will have to bear collective responsibility for the consequences in the event of its failure. We are witnessing the same “silence of the lambs” culture for which the DAP used to criticise the BN leaders under Mahathir 1.0 with the new ministers saying “We’ll leave it to the prime minister” and “I’ll discuss this with the prime minister to let him decide”, ad nauseum.
The PH manifesto prohibits the PM from also taking over the Finance portfolio but Dr Mahathir has in the 100 days taken over the choicest companies, namely Khazanah, PNB & Petronas under his PMO. It is the return to the old Mahathirist autocracy. Was the Cabinet consulted in the decision to start Proton 2, privatise Khazanah, Malaysia Incorporated and the revival of the failed F1 circuit?
The appointment of Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali to the board of Khazanah Nasional Berhad also goes against the PH manifesto promise of keeping politicians out of publicly-funded investments since it leads to poor accountability. Only by insisting on boards being comprised of professionals and on rigorous parliamentary checks and balances for bodies such as Khazanah can we ensure a high level of transparency and accountability. Mahathir’s response to this criticism was the old feudal justification: “I started Khazanah so why can’t I be in it?” In other words, “Stuff your high ideals and democratic principles!”
We will have to wait for Lim Guan Eng’s memoirs in the future to see how he responded to Mahathir leaving him out of Khazanah. Did the PM even discuss this with him? After all, Khazanah is still under MoF Inc. If the finance minister is left out of the Khazanah board, how will he be privy to what the Khazanah board is doing? No doubt Mahathir knew that having given the DAP Secretary-General the Finance Minister post, he could get away with anything…
Consistency in the war on kleptocracy
The new PH government had pledged to wipe out kleptocracy and this promise was key to the victory at GE14. They have disappointed the people of Malaysia and especially Sarawakians who have seen the wealth of their state sucked dry by the rapacious greed of the kleptocrats there. The PH government has not yet acted to make the former Chief Minister Taib Mahmud declare all his assets and those of his spouse and family’s. The PH Government has shown us that where there is a political will in getting to the root of the 1MDB scandal, there is a way to get rid Malaysia of corruption and crony capitalism. However, by letting off his long-time ally in Sarawak, Taib Mahmud, arguably the richest man in Malaysia, the Prime Minister makes his campaign against the former PM Najib look like a personal vendetta. The Prime Minister has also failed to lead by example and declare his assets and those of his spouse and children’s.
Conflict of interest having corporate heads in Councils
The Constitutional status of the appointed ‘Council of Eminent Persons’ has already been called into question especially when the Chairman of the Council, Daim Zainuddin is in a position in which he is able to call up judges and even represent the Government in negotiating with the Chinese Government over their investments in Malaysia. Now it has been reported that the Perak government has established the State Economic Advisory Council (SEAC) with corporate heads of MK Land Bhd, KL Kepong Bhd and Gamuda Bhd as “eminent advisors”.
There is gross conflict of interest with such arrangements when these corporate leaders still have interests in the local and international corporate scene. It is well known that Daim Zainuddin has corporate and banking interests all over the world. His business interests extend beyond banking to other key sectors of the country’s economy such as plantations, manufacturing, retailing, property development and construction.
Delaying urgent reforms is unacceptable
Using the excuse of the government debt to delay local government elections which have been suspended in our country since 1965 is not acceptable. It is a simple matter of abolishing a provision under the Local Government Act 1976 and reviving the Local Government Election Act in order to introduce local government elections. If the PH government is prepared to see billions going down the drain with the revived Proton 2.0 project, don’t tell us there is no money for running local council elections please.
It is equally absurd to tell Malaysian Independent Chinese Secondary School graduates that their UEC certificate can only be recognised in five years’ time. The UEC certificate went unrecognised by the BN for 61 years even though it has internationally proven its efficacy with thousands of graduates since 1975. This is a serious breach of promise in the PH GE14 manifesto since more than 80 per cent of Chinese voters voted for PH because of this promised reform. The only steadfast decision made by the Education Minister so far is the decision that students will have to wear black shoes instead of white ones.
Many lawyers have pointed out that the repeal or review of our laws that violate basic human rights can be expeditiously accomplished within the first 100 days of the new PH government. These include abolishing laws that allow detention without trial, namely, the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma), Prevention of Crime Act 1959 (Poca), and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota) 2015.
It is alarming to hear the Law Minister Datuk Liew Vui Keong say recently that the PH government is now reconsidering its initial pledge to abolish several contentious laws including, the Sedition Act 1948, Prevention of Crime Act (Poca) 1959, Universities and University Colleges Act 1971, Printing Presses and Publications (PPPA) Act 1984 and the National Security Council (NSC) Act 2016. This is totally unethical backtracking on the PH GE14 manifesto.
The death penalty is a violation of human rights and must be abolished. Meanwhile, there ought to have been an immediate moratorium on all executions pending abolition and commuting the sentences of all persons currently on death row. The implementation of the Independent Police Complaints & Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) and other recommendations of the Royal Police Commission in 2005 is long overdue to ensure transparency and accountability by the police and other enforcement agencies such as the MACC.
During the 100 days under the PH government, we have witnessed the Sedition Act and the CMA still being used against activists and prevarication on the issue of child marriages. We have also seen the rule of law being flouted when a Minister in the PM’s Department can order the removal of portraits of LGBTQ Malaysians from an exhibition in Penang. Just as alarming is the statement by another Minister that cyanide used by gold miners in Bukit Koman is perfectly safe and non-hazardous to people or the environment.
Reneging on manifesto promises
From the failure by the PH government to fulfil their election promises in the 100 days, it is clear that the GE14 manifesto was drafted in a slipshod manner in order to secure populist votes. These include the promises to abolish toll from the highways within the stipulated time promised; no firm position regarding the PTPTN loan repayments; wavering on the promise to pay a 20 per cent instead of 5 per cent royalty to oil producing states based on revenue from gross production; the deduction of a percentage from a husband’s EPF contributions to go into the accounts of his wife, etc. PH has so far implemented less than half of their election promises. Will the PM apologise for reneging on these election promises?
Real reforms we expect in “new” Malaysia
Within the first year of the PH administration, Malaysians expect serious transformational reforms that will reconstitute truly democratic institutions and improve the lives of the 99 per cent and especially the B40 Malaysians. Of the highest priority, we expect urgent initiatives to implement the 8 key reforms including:
1. An end to race-based parties and policies especially replacing race-based policies with needs-based measures that truly benefit the lower-income and marginalized sectors and basing recruitment and promotion in the civil and armed services strictly on merit;
2. Re-instatement of our democratic institutions including bringing back elected local councils and enacting a Freedom of Information (FoI) Act at federal and state levels;
3. Zero tolerance for corruption and political leaders who have been charged with corruption must step down while their case is pending in the courts;
4. A progressive economic policy that will renationalize privatised assets, especially land, water, energy, which belong to the Malaysian people instead of local and foreign capitalists, opening up GLCs to democratic control of the people and directing them to implement good labour and environmental policies;
5. Redistribute wealth fairly through progressive taxation on the high-income earners, their wealth and property and effective tax laws to ensure there are no tax loopholes for the super-rich;
6. A far-sighted and fair education policy with equal opportunities for all without any racial discrimination with regard to enrolment into all schools including tertiary educational institutions;
7. Defend workers’ rights and interests especially their right to unionise and a progressive guaranteed living wage for all workers, including foreign workers;
8. People-centred and caring social policies including an effective low-cost public housing programme for rental or ownership throughout the country for the poor and marginalized communities;
9. Prioritise Orang Asal rights and livelihood by recognizing their rights over the land they have been occupying for centuries, prohibiting logging in Orang Asal land and ensuring all Orang Asal villages have adequate social facilities and services;
10. Sustainable development & environmental protection by allowing all local people to be consulted before any development projects and all permanent forest and wildlife reserves are gazetted.
The lesson of the first 100 days of the PH administration teaches us that, as always, civil society must be ever vigilant to push for these reforms because the government of the day will drag its feet and renege on these election promises when they have the opportunity.