The by-election wins in the parliamentary seat of Pulai and state seat of Simpang Jeram in Johor on Saturday have brought welcome relief for Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.
Since last November’s general election, Anwar’s multi-coalition government has had to perform a delicate balancing act to keep all the parties in line.
This high-wire tightrope walk has stymied efforts at bringing about reforms and frustrated those who had craved for reforms.
This has provided fodder for Perikatan Nasional and other critics to launch multiple salvoes. They have painted Anwar’s administration as ineffective in reviving the economy and beholden to the DAP.
Anwar said the government’s weak communications system is the reason he can’t fight back against lies and slander. He admitted the government could have communicated better with the public ahead of the 12 August elections in six states.
The PM also blamed the government’s poor communications system for the people not being more aware of its initiatives.
This example may explain Anwar’s concern. The Ministry of Health had started a scheme to give out free sanitary pads to address period poverty. Perhaps the target groups would have better felt the impact of the initiative had it not started with the ministry’s headquarters, where female civil servants are better off.
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Another example: the ministry has also introduced medicine labels in Braille, at 250 selected health facilities. This move will benefit 55,000 individuals with visual impairment. Surely, this deserves greater publicity and awareness.
Yes, it pays to have projects well planned and communicated to the public more effectively.
Here are a couple of positive moves that deserve greater publicity.
The late Salahuddin Ayub, the then minister responsible for curbing the cost of living, launched an innovative scheme in January. Under the “menu rahmah” affordable menu scheme, restaurants and other outlets offer nutritious meals at RM5 or less per plate.
The government’s move to create an independent Children’s Commission will be a key milestone for the nation. This body will have the authority to advocate for policy changes, to enforce the law and to monitor action to safeguard children’s rights.
The government should share information about this commission more widely with the public.
Government initiatives and crucial social reforms that benefit the people should be publicised widely and in a way that people can easily understand.
It is baffling when the government introduces policies without enough explanation or time for public acceptance. Is it any wonder that such hastily delivered policies spark misunderstanding, tension and anxiety?
Take, for instance, the Ministry of Education’s recent introduction of the “Imam Al-Nawawi’s 40 Hadith” appreciation module. This is supposedly aimed at curbing radicalism and religious extremism in the country.
But the way it was announced caught many by surprise. Initially, many feared that non-Muslims would also have to study the module. Anxiety also arose over a certain Hadith in the module that was thought to be divisive and threatening to the non-Muslims.
The ministry should have consulted all interested parties before announcing the module. It doesn’t make sense to only shut the barn door after the horses have bolted.
But then, the “weak communications machinery” is not the only problem the “Madani” (Civil Malaysia) government is facing.
The mismatch between the promises of ruling politicians and the stark reality also sparks unhappiness among the people.
For instance, we are told that the government is open to criticism and promotes freedom of expression. But it is one thing to declare that differences of opinion and dissent are welcome. And quite another to ban books and block websites that do not match establishment viewpoints.
This cognitive dissonance between the politicians’ rhetoric and their actions has to be tackled. The government, which promised reforms and openness, has to give more convincing explanations to the public.
Indeed, the government has a lot of explaining to do about election manifesto reforms that remain unfulfilled. Many had believed these electoral pledges and were eager for positive changes in society. They had looked forward to the government tackling low-hanging fruit.
For starters, the government should quickly repeal or amend oppressive laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the Official Secrets Act. Enact laws to uphold freedom of information and to control political financing. Strengthen the Whistleblower Protection Act and revive the Parliamentary Services Act as well.
Tell people when these and other legal reforms will be implemented to curb the lies, frustration and miscommunication. Come up with a timeline to convince them of the government’s commitment and sincerity.
The PM has depicted himself as a crusader against corruption. This, of course, is what many in Malaysia expect. They crave for fundamental reforms and consistency in the war on corruption.
So, can we blame the people for wondering why there are few updates on the humongous scandal surrounding the littoral combat ships that have not yet been delivered to the Navy. No one has been arrested so far. The optics don’t look good.
It also doesn’t look good when the well-heeled are perceived to be given only a slap on the wrist. Consider that, several years ago, a man who stole a sackful of petai (stink beans) worth RM500 was sent to jail for two months.
The government has to do a lot more than just improving its communications machinery to regain public trust. It needs to steadfastly focus on civil society’s People’s Agenda and win back public support through deeds, not just words.
Mustafa K Anuar
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
10 September 2023