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Monday, August 30, 2021

Survival instincts in the new scheme of things

 

From Munir Majid

We claim to be a parliamentary democracy fashioned after the Westminster model, but in practice we really are a country run by executive authority and ruled by the ethic of a single party, despite the messy Pakatan Harapan interregnum.

A benevolent Tunku, a take-no-enemies Dr Mahathir Mohamad, a cleverly deceiving Najib Razak… Malaysia depends more on a single leader, the prime minister, than America does on its president.

When he is strong and good, we may prosper. When he is strong and bad, we enjoy the appurtenances of economic growth at the cost of values that we comfortably trade in (as they do in China) or assume have not atrophied (as they scarcely realise in the West).

Our greater problem is we have not been formed particularly by the “acuan” (perhaps best translated as shape) so often promised by our politicians of all description – of a democratic multiracial country where the rights of every race are guaranteed by the Constitution. On the contrary, we are increasingly divided by race and religion in an unformed democracy.

With the fundamentals of the system of governance and the structure of racial representation distant from promise – and thereby expectation – Malaysia has become a country that has a bone in its throat. In good times we try to swallow it down with balls of rice, but in bad times we choke.

So after the good, long and strong Mahathir years, which eroded values big time with pervasive corruption – which we allowed to happen – we are now in a very bad place accentuated by the Covid pandemic and economic deprivation.

What then can we expect of a prime minister constrained by the same bookends – unformed democracy and unresolved multiracialism – and facing the unprecedented health crisis while weakened by a coalition of political support that can hold him to ransom?

As the Cabinet is sworn in today, it is indeed the same old, same old between this prime minister and the last: six of one and half a dozen of the other. “Saudara dan Saudari yang saya kasihi” is now choreographed to “Keluarga Malaysia”.

However, for the sake of the people, we must hope this is not like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Having understood there will be no real change, of a fundamental or even stylistic nature, let’s try to pick out the little differences in the Cabinet where we might see a chink of light in the fight against Covid and to restore economic activity, nothing more.

There is a good change in the health ministry but it all depends on whether the prime minister allows the new minister authoritative space.

A couple of retentions in the area of the economy make sense for the competence they bring.

While the Cabinet as a whole may not be everyone’s cup of tea there are immediate challenges to be addressed. Let us give the government some space. In return, the prime minister must show inclusiveness in policy and its implementation to earn support.

The prime minister has only made general statements so far, such as the need to engage the views of experts in public health policy, who surely will tell him his reliance on vaccinations alone will not deliver the country from the pandemic, even if there was not the Delta variant.

There must also be a vigorous test and trace component to open up the economy.

The Covid-19 pandemic and economic recovery are inter-related and addressing each in isolation will be a failed strategy. Certainly, inclusive consultation of both health and economic experts will be critical. The country will want to see the prime minister executing what he comfortably talks about. We must not be misled – as the world is – by Biden’s nicely alliterative Build Back Better.

The prime minister also called for stable politics and cross-party support but he will not get it if he himself is not inclusive or if he embarks on wrong recovery strategies. He mentioned the role of Parliament – no concession or reform – a role which, having been violated these last 18 months, he must restore. Let’s see what he does.

He has limited his remit to the 21 months before the next general election, to address the pandemic and economic recovery. On that, he will be judged.

After 64 years since independence we are not settled on the country’s governance, unlike China or even in the increasingly dysfunctional United States.

Those in power run it the way they want to run it although one good thing about the pandemic has been the rise of civil society which has raised the bar of accountability and demonstrated its care by helping those down and out.

But reforms, and rethinking Malaysia, have to wait. In any case, they will not be the stuff of everyday politics.

A reset needs a profundity that politicians alone are not capable of, certainly not politicians used to domination. It is unlikely a prime minister cut from that same cloth, especially one so weak among his warlords, will start that process.

Let’s give space to a prime minister who does not make grandiose promises except for the limited but existential commitment to beat back the pandemic and to restart the economy. It’s in all our interests. - FMT

Munir Majid is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.

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