Should Malaysia wait until November for transition?

By William Leong Jee Keen

WHEN Pakatan Harapan went to the polls in GE14 there were two fundamental promises:

First, to carry out reforms in its Manifesto – the Buku Harapan consisting of 5 Pillars, 10 Promises in 100 Days, 60 Promises in 5 Years, 5 Special Pledges;

Second, the leadership of the Pakatan Harapan government will be a tag team with Tun Mahathir becoming the 7th Prime Minister and Anwar Ibrahim becoming the 8th Prime Minister.

The people voted Pakatan Harapan knowing full well the strengths and weaknesses of both men. Tun Mahathir with his strengths, tenacity and experience will be able to deliver on some but it would be unrealistic to expect him to deliver all of the promises during the first period with him as prime minister.

Anwar Ibrahim in the second period as the architect of the reform agenda is expected to deliver the rest of the promises, especially his proposal for affirmative action based on needs.

Definitely, the public expects this tag team of two to deliver the substantial reforms promised.

Tun Mahathir and his cabinet are now in the ring wrestling with the problems left behind by the previous regime. The country is in a bigger mess than was generally known before GE14. The going is tougher than expected.

Tun says he needs more time because the problems are worse than was thought. One year is not enough, he said two years. Now he says he would hand over after APEC in November. There are people who are asking him to stay on for the full term.

When should the transition take place? The Pakatan Harapan government the people voted in is a partnership. Unlike the normal partnership where both partners work together at the same time, it is a partnership where one partner works first and then hands over to the other.

The timing for the transition can be determined if we ask this question – what will the Pakatan Harapan government’s legacy be at the end of its term?

If the transition is badly timed and the reforms failed it may read like this:
“Here lies one who meant well, tried a little, failed much:
surely that may be his epitaph, of which it is a crying shame.”

This is adapted from a quote used by Anne Kruger, acting managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in her speech describing the failure of policy reforms in emerging market economies.

She took the quote from one of the lesser-known books of Robert Louis Stevenson called “Across the Plains.” The original quotation is this:
“Here lies one who meant well, tried a little, failed much: surely that may be his epitaph, of which he need not be ashamed.”

I changed the last part because an individual’s failure harms only him even if he did not try too hard for which he need not be ashamed. But a reformer’s policy failure is catastrophic. Millions of people suffer as a result – the poor, the jobless, the hungry.

In the case of Pakatan Harapan, it is a crying shame because the people presented Pakatan Harapan with the chance to carry out change on a golden platter. This should not be squandered.

The reform process

To appreciate when the time is for transition, it may be useful to understand the reform process. Reform does not happen automatically upon voting in the government. Voting in a new government is only the initial step in the reform process.

Based on a large body of policy reform studies by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the reform process requires overcoming tremendous political and technical challenges: Dealing with obstacles from policy design to strategies for reform adoption, implementation, monitoring and adjustments until the policy receives public acceptance.

The challenges facing would-be reformers fall widely across both time and space. The OECD concludes that making reform happen requires the government to “seize the moment” to successfully implement reforms.

Therefore, the question is not about choosing a date in the calendar like you are fixing a meeting, a dinner or a wedding. It is not whether May or November is better. It is about seizing the moment when the conditions for change are right. It is determined by the changing conditions of the situation.

For now, this window of opportunity for change is rapidly closing.

Meant well

Going back to the first part – “he meant well” – of Robert Louis Stevenson’s quotation regarding the would-be reformer’s legacy as it relates to Pakatan Harapan, we have the foreword in the Mid-Term Review of the Eleventh Malaysia Plan.

The Prime Minister wrote that reforms include achieving inclusive growth that must be carried out: “The euphoria that greeted our success in taking over the Government after the historic 14th General Elections on 9th May 2018 came with a caveat – sweeping reforms and accountability must be the order of the day…

“…As such, reform includes improving the governance, accelerating innovation, boosting productivity, moving industries up the value change, enhancing the wellbeing of the rakyat, particularly the bottom 40% of the household income group (B40), and achieving inclusive growth.”

The Pakatan Harapan government means well in carrying out its promises of reforms.

Inclusive growth requires dealing with the problems of identity politics which have raised their ugly heads. Instead of inclusiveness, we are having greater social exclusion, more frequent hate speeches, bigotry, racial and religious intolerance.

The polemics have grown to alarming proportions in the period after GE14. The political opponents and those who oppose the reforms have expectedly used race and religion in an attempt to win back popular support.

Tried a little

The second part of Robert Louis Stevenson’s quote – “tried a little.” The Pakatan Harapan government carried out a part of the promises or is in the process of doing so but found it difficult to do all of the 60 promises.

Unfortunately, in the past 19 months, good intention was not enough. It did not fully translate into action. As a consequence, a question of credible commitment to the reforms has arisen. Tun Mahathir fuelled this lack of commitment when he said:

“Actually, we did not expect to win, and we made a thick manifesto with all kinds of promises … We need to make sacrifices to fulfil our promises. If we can’t fulfil them, we will need a good reason that is acceptable to the people.”

This has caused much concern.

Failed much

The third part of the quote – “failed much” – depends on whether Anwar Ibrahim has sufficient time to design, implement and win over the citizens to accept the reforms; if not the reforms will fail.

The first determinant on the timing is the 12th Malaysia Plan. It covers the period from 2021 to 2025. This is to be tabled in Parliament in the third quarter of 2020. Anwar must surely be the one tabling the 12th Malaysia Plan because this is the roadmap for the reforms during his tenure as prime minister.

The second determinant on the timing is whether Anwar is given enough time to complete the reform process:

Electoral mandate: Popular support for the reform. For Anwar to push through the reforms there must be a strong electoral mandate. There was a strong electoral mandate given in GE14 but the support has turned against Pakatan Harapan as shown in the Tanjung Piai by-election. Therefore, the transition must take place before the people’s goodwill and patience with the Pakatan Harapan government runs out.

Effective communications: There must be sufficient time given for Anwar to carry out consistent, coordinated efforts to communicate and persuade voters and stakeholders on the need for the reforms and the costs of non-reform.

Solid research and analysis: To put an end to emotional appeals on race and religious differences, of objections based on stereotypes of the different races, unsound unscientific based arguments, prejudices and stigma, OECD suggests that an evidence-based and analytically sound case for reform serves both to improve the quality and enhance the prospects for reform adoption. Anwar needs the time to carry out solid research and analysis of the root causes of the problems and to convince the stakeholders on the wisdom and benefits of the solutions.

Leadership: According to OECD, all assessments on making reform happen point to the importance of strong leadership. Successful reform requires government cohesion. If the government is not united around a reform proposal, it will send out mixed signals and opponents will exploit its divisions and defeat is usually the result. The call for strong leadership does not mean a top-down iron fist approach. Successful leadership is about winning consent from all stakeholders rather than securing compliance through compulsion. This takes time.

Dealing with opponents: It pays to engage with those who will be most directly affected by the reform. An inclusive, consultative policy process is no guarantee against conflict, but they seem to pay dividends over time, not least by allowing for greater trust among the parties involved. In dealing with the opponents of the reform, it need not involve compromises on the essentials of the reform; it is often possible to improve the prospects of particular groups that will be affected by a reform without contradicting its overall aim.

The third determinant of the timing is the political cost for reforms.

The IMF published a note in October 2019 entitled “The political costs of reforms: Fear or reality.” Reforms have been successfully implemented and governments rewarded by grateful voters when the government acts swiftly at the outset of its term to exploit its “honeymoon” period. Overall gains and benefits to the people materialise gradually such that the reforms early in the term will show benefits at re-election time.

The IMF found that major reforms are associated with electoral costs when implemented in the year prior to an election. The results show a decrease in vote share of the coalition and reduction in the chance of the incumbent leader of the coalition being re-elected. This is because reforms may generate gains only in the longer term while they may engender short-term adverse distributional effects. This can prove electorally costly to the incumbent.

Time and effort are needed to engage those most affected by reforms by mitigating the potential social and distributional costs. Finally, credible political commitment to the reforms including strong ownership and enhanced dialogue to garner support from business and civil society is key.

Making the partnership work

If we take into account all these considerations, the period for the transition to take place is limited. November 2020 may be too late. By then the one favourable moment in time to effect change may be gone and lost forever.

This country is in dire straits. Tun Mahathir and Anwar gave us hope when both agreed to bury the hatchet to work for the good of the country. In return, the people put the fate of this country into the hands of this partnership.

Pakatan Harapan is now the glue holding this society together. To save this country the mutual trust and confidence of the partners in each other, in this partnership, must hold.

At this crucial stage, we need this partnership to carry us through the rough seas of reform to the safe port of peace, unity and prosperity.

We are all tired of sex videos, gutter politics, bigotry, charges and counter-charges of racial prejudice and discrimination, you boycott my business, I boycott yours, frogs jumping in and out, back-door governments and back-door deals.

We need sanity, rationality, good common sense and goodwill to pull all of us together. We are all in the same boat, so let’s stop shooting holes into it. If we continue, we will sink together.

We need Pakatan Harapan to hold on together. Pakatan Harapan must hold tight onto the hands of the people. The people have given their trust to Pakatan Harapan.

We pray that our Pakatan Harapan leadership takes charge and ensures that the reforms this country desperately needs are implemented. To do this, a timely handover is important. I am sure you and I, all of us, want a smooth and certain transition. – Jan 15, 2020

William Leong Jee Keen is the PKR MP for Selayang

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