Mustafa K Anuar speaks to a range of academics and activists to find out what they think of the new government’s performance in its first year of power.
Pakatan Harapan (PH) has made important changes in a short span of time, said academics and social activists, who, however, cautioned there are disappointments, such as rising living costs and the U-turns on ratifying international conventions.
Not ratifying the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Rome Statute and the existence of draconian laws have put a damper on PH’s first year of rule.
Civil society group Malaysia Muda adviser Fadiah Nadwa Fikri said people who have always wanted to see genuine change take place in Malaysia “must address their cognitive dissonance and shake the belief that those occupying positions of power will hand the change they’ve been longing for.
“History the world over has shown that freedom is never given, it must be fought for. Power will only concede when people collectively organise and demand what is rightfully theirs.”
Demanding that fundamental freedoms be respected and upheld, Fadiah said this should not be seen as something unreasonable given that it has always been the basis for the people’s struggle for genuine change.
Khoo Ying Hooi, deputy head of the Department of International and Strategic Studies at Universiti Malaya, however, said some patience is needed given that this is the first time Malaysia had experienced regime change.
“I think there are certainly more public scrutiny and attention to government policies, which are positive signs as they will keep the pressure on the new government to fulfil the people’s will,” Khoo said.
For Fadiah, the power of the collective is important in building genuine democracy, which requires “raising critical consciousness among the people so as to enable us to challenge and dismantle the existing systems and structures that produce the destructive politics we have today.
“This is particularly important at a time where many choose to suspend criticism of the new government for fear of being labelled unreasonable, impatient, and disruptive.”
Zaharom Nain feels that it is too early to demand the dismantling of much of a system that has been in place and reinforced over 60 years.
“Of course,” the professor at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia said, “there are already genuine attempts at reforms through the cleaning up of institutions that are central for reforms, such as the Attorney General’s Chambers and the Election Commission.
“The various ministers need to be bolder, of course, and get rid of deadwood and worse, saboteurs in their midst.
“But parliamentarians who previously opposed draconian laws, assaults on personal freedoms, etc must step up to the plate now that they are part of the new government.”
An academic, who declined to be identified, is optimistic given that even now changes are happening although with a steep learning curve for the new government as shown by some setbacks that occurred recently.
“One evidence of such changes is, of course, the improvement of ranking in media freedom. I am, at least for the moment, quite forgiving of the fumbles that have taken place given the short time which this government is in power.
“However, I must caution the new regime that it must never waver in its commitment to reform and deepen democracy in the country in favour of short-term political gains.”
Social activist Anil Netto said it will not be easy to overcome the resistance to change after 61 years of racial politics, narrow religious views, cronyism and in the latter stages, kleptocracy.
“The new government, civil society groups, religious institutions, universities, schools and ordinary Malaysians must do all they can to promote an alternative and more inclusive narrative for Malaysia,” Netto said.
Care must be taken to ensure that development policies are targeted to tackle the real needs of the bottom 40% group, he said.
Additionally, promoting awareness of climate change and building climate resilience should be top of the agenda so that development policies are guided by this overriding priority.
Political scientist Azmil Tayeb of Universiti Sains Malaysia contends that on certain reforms, many Malaysians might have asked too much for the PH government to undertake in such a short time.
But, he added, many other reforms can be implemented “only if the PH government grows a spine and acts cohesively as a unit, and not be driven by agendas of its component parties.
“Genuine reforms can only be made by people who have strong convictions and are not afraid to stand up for what is right even if it’s against popular sentiment especially when it comes to highly emotional ethno-religious issues.
“Unfortunately, these people are nowhere to be found in the PH government right now.
“What is important right now is for the PH to move away from the destructive neoliberal economic policies to a more social welfare-based policies that put people’s interests ahead of corporate profits,” Azmil said.
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies senior fellow Lee Hwok-Aun said PH’s most promising efforts in reform relate to leadership appointments, institutional autonomy and checks and balances, and initiatives to inculcate less patronage and more integrity in the civil service.
“I hope,” he added, “Pakatan will deliver a candid, critical and constructive self-examination on the first anniversary of GE14.
“The government needs to come clean on its achievements and shortcomings – without resorting to claptrap self-praise characteristic of their predecessors – and the rakyat need some clarity on where the promises have been reset or scheduled since Buku Harapan did not give any timeline.”
Malaysians must continue holding PH to account while also tempering expectations, Lee added.