Hastening reforms: A case for pragmatic radicalism?

For it to succeed, the government must be willing to radically redistribute power to the lowest levels for fairer and more participatory governance

Bersih held its first meeting with a serving prime minister when the team met Anwar Ibrahim on 28 February 2024 - ANWAR IBRAHIM/FACEBOOK

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“Implement reforms or we will take to the streets, says Bersih” screamed the headline on one online news portal in early February.

The electoral reform coalition Bersih said it was disappointed and frustrated by the slow pace of promised reforms. It warned that failing to implement the reform agenda would cause political fatigue and erode public trust in the government.

But political fatigue and declining public trust have long been evident.

A survey early this year by market research firm Ipsos Malaysia came up with a worrying finding. Although the majority of Malaysians surveyed still believed the country was on the right track, the numbers had plunged from 74% in 2023 to 53% in 2024.

The respondents’ primary concerns? Financial or political corruption, inflation, unemployment, poverty and social inequality, as well as taxes.

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim appears unfazed by the fall in popular support for his administration. He declared that the initial reforms implemented by the government have borne fruit: his administration has surpassed previous ones by coming up with more people-centric policies.

Anwar seems to imply that it is the “elites” and “liberal groups” who are pushing for immediate radical changes that the ‘people’ may not be ready for. One wonders who these people are.

Several media reports have noted the achievements of the “Madani” (civil and compassionate) government. These reports came out even as the authorities had to deal with the firestorms sparked by race-and-religion issues.

News reports highlighted that not only are fewer people living in hardcore poverty, but a few states have wiped out the problem.

Not only that, the Malaysian economy has grown in recent quarters. Advance estimates indicate a growth rate of 3.9% in the first quarter of 2024 – up from the annual growth of 3.7% last year. The economy is projected to expand by 4-5% in 2024.

Core inflation stood at just 1.7% in March 2024 and is forecasted to inch up to 2-3% for 2024 compared to the 3% average for 2023.

Labour market conditions have improved, with the unemployment rate at 3.3% in March – technically, full employment.

Approved foreign direct investments have hit the highest levels so far. And the ringgit is expected to rebound by year-end.

Measures to initiate parliamentary reforms are underway, with a revival of the Parliamentary Services Act on the cards.

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The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) reports arrests and investigations almost every week, with an “excellent record” in asset forfeiture and recovery.

But, paradoxically, to quote comedian Colin Jost, “The vibes are bad but the numbers say it’s strong.” He was of course talking about the state of the US economy. But the same can be said of the Malaysian economy.

According to Hong Kong-based economist Yun Liu, there is more optimism abroad about Malaysia and its growth prospects than within the country.

Despite the optimism and Malaysia’s immense potential, the country is perceived to have underachieved. Official statistics have not captured a string of vulnerabilities, while many in Malaysia struggle in their daily lives, “living on the edge”.

In many countries, ultranationalist far-right parties and bigoted, unpredictable politicians like Donald Trump are on the rise. They have tapped into passionate support especially from those who are victims of government policies that have failed them. This is evident here as well.

In Malaysia, despite the many schemes to tackle poverty and empower bumiputras, the dominant ethnic group still makes up a majority of the poor.

The disaffected members among this group then look for new ‘saviours’ and protectors. This is taking place within a culture of ethnic ‘Malay-Muslim supremacy’.

The increased support for ultranationalist and Islamist parties in the Perikatan Nasional coalition is also evident, amid fears of a “green wave”.

More recently, ethnic Indians who had once supported the Pakatan Harapan-led government expressed disappointment with the Anwar administration for “unfulfilled promises” and for the community being sidelined. Some even threatened to not just boycott the Kuala Kubu Bharu by-election on 11 May but even vote for the opposition PN.

True, financial allocations for the Indians have actually increased over the last two years. But this outlay has not produced the expected policy outcomes, with many Indians still marginalised.

Anwar’s condescending responses and even taunts to the Indian community have not helped. Wily politicians then exploit this situation to stir hatred against the Anwar administration.

The trust deficit appears so big that more and people are turning to TikTok and other social media instead of data from official sources, whether locally or globally.

This loss of trust and crisis of confidence in governments and public institutions is a global phenomenon. The lowest levels of trust have been recorded in Western nations like the US and the UK.

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To win back public trust and rebuild public confidence, the government has to fulfil its promises to the people, the sooner the better.

Real constraints exist in the work to bring about change within a so-called democratic system of governance, as in Malaysia. Sadly, most of the poor and disempowered find their wishes and aspirations excluded from the policymaking process.

Civil society groups, activists, community leaders and academics play a crucial role that should not be underestimated. They have consistently highlighted policy failures and called out unjust actions by the government. They have also called for institutional and economic reforms.

This, coupled with their ability to shape public opinion and mobilise popular support for policy reforms, has achieved some success in Malaysia, especially over the last two decades.

But the changes seem to be moving at a snail’s pace.

For example, in 2002, the then human resources minister appointed a commission of inquiry to study the need for minimum wages in three occupations.

For the first time, the composition of the commission was broadened. It included not just representatives from the Malaysian Employers Federation and the Malaysian Trades Union Congress but also three academics (including me).

We completed the peninsula-wide survey within a year and submitted our proposals for a minimum wage, within the limited terms of reference.

However, the minister embargoed the report, and it never saw the light of day. No reasons were given. It was only in 2013 that the first minimum wage order was finally introduced.

This lethargy in the policy domain may be due to a largely inherited public policy paradigm and a political elite preference that leans heavily in favour of an incremental approach. This approach involves making small, gradual improvements to existing systems and policies. It involves strengthening existing databases and improving the efficiency of existing systems and structures.

The alternative radical approach sees existing policies and systems as fundamentally flawed. So it proposes to start from scratch, to quickly replace what is flawed with completely new systems and innovative policies.

But it need not be an ‘either or’ choice. With the government facing so many diverse issues, it has room for a combination of both incremental and radical approaches to bring about change.

Some issues like civil service pensions may be best tackled incrementally as they involve actors with entrenched positions who need more time to appease and convince.

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Other issues like climate change require urgent attention that may be more amenable to the radical approach, starting from scratch.

Some other issues offer opportunities for a hybrid approach. This incorporates both radical and incremental change – sometimes referred to as pragmatic radicalism. Perhaps the economy minister’s people’s income initiatives fit this category, as they are completely new pilot initiatives on top of existing hardcore poverty eradication measures.

But for pragmatic radicalism to succeed, the government must be willing to radically redistribute power to the lowest levels for a more equitable and participatory system of governance.

Some argue that in countries with a divided government facing a trust deficit, incrementalism is the way to go.

Others argue that when there is a crisis of confidence in government, the incremental approach will only consolidate the position of unjust actors within the system, making it more difficult to replace them.

Although Anwar declared recently that his “unity government” remains “solid and unshaken”, he appears to prefer the incremental approach. He has publicly stated that the promised reforms will not be hastily pursued as the government is adopting a “moderate and middle path” and needs to consider the repercussions of any changes.

Much of what has been passed off as ‘reforms’ to date seems to be just a tweaking of existing policies and structures.

Perhaps, if the Anwar administration is able to consolidate even more power and rein in dissenting voices within government, we may see more structural changes and innovative policies.

But with the government already commanding a two-thirds majority in the lower house, it should find it easier to amend relevant laws and even the Federal Constitution to bring about institutional reforms.

But is there political will? This is the perennial question.

While the government is usually the target of criticism, let’s not overlook the control and even stranglehold on governments exerted by the “masters of the universe”, as Noam Chomsky describes them. These are the economic elites representing multinational conglomerates and financial institutions. They also include organised groups representing national and international business interests.

Careful, some democracies today may well be oligarchies hiding in plain sight. And dealing with them is a different ball game altogether.

Mary Magdaline Pereira
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
13 May 2024

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
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