Judge new government on whether it can enhance socio-economic justice

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Patients waiting even during the lunch hour at the BM General Hospital

Media commentators who are playing up the weakness of the coalition have taken a simplistic view of the current political context, says Ronald Benjamin.

Many have commented about Pakatan Harapan’s performance since it took over the reins of power after the 2018 general election.

Analysts have looked at the coalition’s overall performance in the light of subsequent by-elections in which Pakatan Harapan (PH) won three state seats in Selangor and one parliamentary seat in Port Dickson.

While all these seats were defended, PH was not able to capitalise on these victories. In the parliamentary seat of Cameron Highlands, it failed to reduce the Barisan Nasional’s majority or wrest the seat – even though Umno had been rendered weak due to corruption scandals involving its leaders.

This has raised questions about the coalition’s ability to maintain public support. It is seen to be failing to gain traction in the rural Malay heartland. Its ability to work as a coalition and cabinet ministers’ performance have been called to question.

Media commentators who are playing up the weakness of the coalition have taken a simplistic view of the current political context.

Those who have been prosecuted by the past regime for dissent and people who are afraid to speak up against wrongdoings would certainly appreciate the current freedom the country enjoys in new Malaysia.

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Even though inflammatory demonstrations against the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the authorities and police handled the situation professionally unlike the previous government.

There is far greater democratic space to express dissent and to hold the current government accountable for its actions. This was not possible previously due to the political hegemony and the monopoly of the mainstream media back then.

The question is, how can one undo 60 years of political hegemony, along with its compliant bureaucracy, in just a year? It is obvious that an ingrained race-based culture remains in place.

The previous Barisan Nasional (BN) government bought loyalty through cash, patronage and a pampered civil service. What’s more, a socio-economic structure that favours certain influential cronies has drained out merit and integrity.

Many of the BN crony politicians are currently cashless and unable to move effectively and their only mode of survival is to play the ethno-religious card, manipulating strong sectarian religious emotions. Unfortunately, such a strategy continues to influence segments of the population.

It will take time to undo years of indoctrination by Umno and currently Pas, that the DAP is anti-Malay and anti-Islam. Until now, Umno and Pas have not been able to explain in rational terms what anti-Malay and anti-Islam means.

The complexity of dealing with government institutions that have been loyal to the previous regime and the way power is concentrated has no simple solutions. It takes a strong leadership vision to begin a cultural renewal and restructure critical institutions – and this is something that could take longer than the five-year electoral mandate.

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While freedom of speech is welcome, it would be good if honest commentators could put out an objective view of the current government, taking its strengths and weaknesses into account.

What is needed is a breathing space for initiatives to evolve and bear fruit. Providing constructive criticism on how policies can be improved or replaced would help.

For example, the healthcare plan in collaboration with private insurance company for the bottom 40% of the population has received constructive criticism. The plan requires in-depth research and more consultation with stakeholders who are knowledgeable about its structural weakness, which could jeopardise the future of the public healthcare system.

The budget for the current year contains 25 critical initiatives with much focus on the bottom 40% especially in transport, housing, education, healthcare, the minimum wage, rural development and religious development. All this should be critically evaluated.

But we also have to bear in mind that all this comes in the context of global neoliberal economics, which has seen public expenditure on social programmes such as education and healthcare slashed in many nations.

Honest commentators must therefore help to strengthen our democracy, which has been liberated from hegemony. At the same time, they should also critically and objectively evaluate PH’s socio-economic policies.

Ultimately, what is important is whether political power has been diffused and social justice enhanced or if the status quo from the previous regime remains with just minor alterations.

Winning the rural and semi-rural votes in the long term will depend very much on whether the new government can bring about greater social justice, which would reduce or neutralise irrational ethno-religious politics. This is where PH should be evaluated.

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