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Malaysia’s new dawn, one month on

A month has passed since Pakatan Harapan (PH) won the election on May 9 in a stunning victory against the Barisan Nasional pact which has been in power since Malaysia’s independence. Both the new government and Malaysians are coming to terms with a new socio-political reality and a month on, the immediate aims and ambitions of PH have become clearer.

Singapore may be agitated by a seeming return to Dr Mahathir’s bristling foreign policy, but the Republic is hardly a primary target for the new administration.

Singapore may be agitated by a seeming return to Dr Mahathir’s bristling foreign policy, but the Republic is hardly a primary target for the new administration.

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A month has passed since Pakatan Harapan (PH) won the election on May 9 in a stunning victory against the Barisan Nasional (BN) pact which has been in power since Malaysia’s independence.

Both the new government and Malaysians are coming to terms with a new socio-political reality and a month on, the immediate aims and ambitions of PH have become clearer.

Once Mahathir Mohamad was sworn in as Prime Minister by the King, the new government wasted no time in announcing the key cabinet positions while also setting up a Council of Eminent Persons to advise the government on economic matters such as repealing the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and deep-diving into the 1MDB corruption scandal.

While the new government can count zero-rating GST from June 1 onwards as well as fixing the petrol price as fulfillment of its 100-day pledge, other promises have yet to be seriously tackled.

No moves have yet been made to write off the debts of Felda settlers – those working for national palm plantation operator, Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) - nor address the autonomy of Sabah and Sarawak, despite calls to review these issues from the respective stakeholders.

PH would do well to begin the process of addressing these campaign promises, as a vote swing in East Malaysia and among Felda voters was key to its election victory.

Another of its campaign promise was to suspend loan repayment for individuals who borrowed money for their studies if they are earning less than RM4,000 monthly.

On May 31, however, the Education Ministry announced that these borrowers would have to continue to pay their loans considering the amount of debts the country is saddled with.

Although some Malaysians understand that a debt should be paid regardless, critics of PH have used this issue as an opportunity to question whether any of its electoral promises can be satisfied at all.

Fortunately for PH, there remains considerable time for these promises to be fulfilled within the 100-day period.

Other promises such as increasing the minimum wage and an Employment Provident Fund contribution for housewives are in the process of implementation and due to be announced by August.

CLEAR DOMESTIC FOCUS

One area the government has clearly kept its promise is investigating corruption and reviewing ‘mega projects’.

No time was wasted in launching 1MDB investigations, including raiding former prime minister Najib Razak’s residences, unearthing ‘red files’ in the Finance Ministry, and bringing in various persons of interest for questioning.

The appointment of Tommy Thomas as the Attorney-General further signals the government’s intent.

Indeed, on his first day in office, he stated that 1MDB was his immediate priority and no one shall be spared from prosecution.

The government debt of RM1.087 trillion, consisting of official debt, contingent liabilities and lease payments for public-private partnership, has dominated headlines over the past few weeks.

Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng has been criticised for spooking investors with his decision to go public with the figure, but he has defended his move as necessary for transparency.

Thus far, Malaysians have been on the government’s side on this, even making donations to help cover the debt.

The government’s focus on domestic problems such as the debt issue has also resulted in the cancellation of High Speed Rail project between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

The move caused significant uproar, and has since been followed by a review on the proposed Malaysia-Singapore stock exchange link.

Singapore may be agitated by a seeming return to Dr Mahathir’s bristling foreign policy, but the Republic is hardly a primary target for the new administration.

The lack of a foreign minister appointment is indicative of the relatively low priority the new administration is placing on foreign relations.

The moves to cancel the MRT project in Kuala Lumpur and to review the East Coast Railway Line that is to be financed and built by China also suggest that the government is not using cost-cutting as an excuse to cancel the HSR project.

With an end to extractive single-party rule for the first time since independence, this election was also a victory for democracy and the empowerment of Malaysians.

A new political reality has seen increased levels of political participation from society keen to see PH’s promises fulfilled. Every move is scrutinised, be it the appointment of Mr Lim as Finance Minister or Maszlee Malik as Education Minister, to dissenting voices within the coalition coming from Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s Rafizi Ramli.

Both de facto PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim and Dr Mahathir have welcomed criticism and dissent both from within the coalition as well as from members of the public.

What is clear is Malaysians who voted for PH expect plenty from their new government, while those who did not are eagerly awaiting opportunities to cry foul.

With 33.8 per cent and 17 per cent of the popular vote going to BN and Parti Islam Se-Malaysia respectively, Malaysian society is still clearly divided despite PH’s strong mandate.

It is the duty of the government to now manage the expectations of an eager electorate while ensuring they are representative of all.

Thus far, PH’s actions in the past month have been met with enthusiasm largely from its supporters and the middle class. Should the PH succeed in addressing corruption scandals and the cost of living, it will go a long way to persuading other Malaysians to be more receptive to the new government.

Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Najib Razak has emerged as the most vocal critic of the new government, attack the Mahathir administration on issues such as the national debt, 1MDB and the review and cancellation of mega projects.

While his statements have hardly damaged PH in recent weeks, Datuk Seri Najib will surely pile on the pressure should the government fail to deliver on its promises.

Although he being no longer BN chairman casts some doubt on his political relevance, his criticisms could potentially be used as a galvanising point for those in the new opposition to win back support.


 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Rashaad Ali is a Research Analyst with the Malaysia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) of Nanyang Technological University.

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