Main challenges for a PR Government
What happens in the unlikely event that Pakatan Rakyat (PR) wins and maintains control of the federal government after the 13th general election? This is a question which few people have tried to address systematically. In this article, I want to highlight what I think will be the five main challenges facing a PR federal government as a way to contextualise the policy options which such a government will have to address.
I have summarised these five main challenges into five ‘P’s: (i) Dealing with the ‘Past’ (ii) Distributing ‘Power’ between the federal and state governments (iii) Coming up with a new set of ‘Plans’ in the economic, political and social arenas (iv) Focusing on a smaller number of ‘Priorities’ which can be delivered within 100 days and one year and finally (v) Finding a set of ‘Procedures’ to deal with disagreements within the PR coalition.
Having been in power for 55 years, there are bound to be a whole list of ‘legacy’ issues which a new government has to figure out how to deal with. It would not be practical for a new federal government to conduct a massive witch hunt to weed out all those who have paid bribes to the previous government to obtain contracts, to find evidence to convict all Barisan Nasional (BN – the ruling coalition since independence) politicians who have received bribes or have amassed wealth beyond their means or to sack all civil servants who have been complicit in corrupt dealings involving the previous government. But at the same time, it makes sense for a PR government to outline a clear set of rules with regard to how it will, for example, deal with dubious contracts which the government has signed with private companies. This is important because there is a great temptation for PR to blame the previous BN government for many of the problems that it will face when it is governing. Instead of blaming BN in an ad-hoc manner throughout its first term in government, it would be better for PR to outline a place to clear out the skeletons in the cupboard early in its tenure in power.
PR has already given some indication as to the contracts it will attempt to cancel or renegotiate when it comes to power namely the contracts with toll operators and independent power producers. There are bound to be many other smaller contracts which are potentially disadvantageous to the government which could be renegotiated or cancelled. The criteria for contract renegotiation or cancellation need to be spelled out as soon as possible as a way of assuring the markets and the many companies which have large contracts with the government.
Similarly, PR needs to figure out the extent to which it wants to change the government procurements process. It will be a tricky balancing act since many of the current contractors have well established relationships with UMNO who are also Malay entrepreneurs who will question PR’s commitment to protecting Malay entrepreneurship if they are cut off from these government contracts. At the same time, this also presents an opportunity to introduce open tender processes that could potentially save the government billions of ringgit in expenditure.
More than important than mere contracts is the fate of those who wrongly benefitted from the awarding of these contracts and other government related concessions and favors. To what extent will a PR government go after the likes of Tajuddin Ramli, those involved in PKFZ, NFC and Scorpene submarine scandals? Will a PR government try to recover as much revenue as possible and will it try to convict the individuals involved in these scandals as well?
Similar questions surround the fate of BN politicians who may have amassed ill gotten gains through their government positions. Will PR go after the ill gotten gains of the individuals in question or will it also go after the individuals in question? Is there a cut-off mark under which some cases may not be investigated?
Here, it may be useful to establish an equivalent of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee established in South Africa after the abolishment of apartheid. In exchange for amnesty, politicians, civil servants and even businessmen who have amassed ill gotten gains can use this platform to ‘confess’ their past wrongdoing and return a percentage of their wealth to the taxpayer. Similar actions can be taken by individuals who want to blow the whistle on themselves and admit to past wrongdoing, not just in terms of financial gain but also in terms of other past abuses of power including granting citizenship to foreigners to allow them to vote, wrongfully jailing innocent victims, beating up public protestors, just to name a few.
This may be a cathartic experience for the nation for past mistakes to be revealed and for the nation to move on and firmly establish itself as a democratic nation with regular alternations in power. Question is, will a PR government subject itself to the same levels of scrutiny, including admission of past mistakes among those in PR who were formerly high ranking politicians in the BN government?
The second major challenge to a PR government is in the re-allocation of power between the federal government and the states. Right now, the PR state governments in Kelantan, Kedah, Penang and Selangor say that their hands are tied because of the lack of funding and cooperation from the federal government on key issues including the consolidation of water assets and pricing, the consolidation of wage management, the responsibility for public transportation and road maintenance and the proper allocation of federal funding including the oil royalties paid to Kelantan, Terengganu, Sabah and Sarawak.
With a PR government at the federal level, such excuses will no longer be valid. A PR federal government will have to pick the low hanging fruit in terms of distributing power and funds back to the states in areas which are clearly defined to be under state jurisdiction. This may not be as easy as it sounds. Even increasing the oil royalty from 5% to 20% will entail a redistribution of as much as RM10b ringgit from the federal government to the states. Hard decisions will have to be made with regard to where some of these cuts have to be made at the federal level.
Other issues concerning decentralisation of power from the federal to the state governments, a cornerstone of PR’s promises both in the Buku Jingga (Orange Book) and more recently in the Tawaran Jingga (Orange Offer), will require achieving an internal consensus within PR. The Democratic Action Party (DAP) will want to push for the restoration of local council elections, something which Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) and the Peoples Justice Party (PKR) seem lukewarm about. PAS will want to push for the implementation of hudud, especially in the states which it controls, especially Kelantan. Needless to say, DAP will object to this vehemently.
A PR federal government would also be under some pressure to apply some of these decentralisation measures consistently among the states, including those governed by the BN. For example, it would be inconsistent for the BN to give an increased share of oil royalties to Kelantan but not to the (likely) BN governed states of Terengganu, Sarawak and Sabah. Nor would it be consistent for PR to promise to pass this money back to these states on the condition that voters in these states vote in PR state governments.
It actually makes long term sense for a PR federal government to decentralise as much as is economically and politically plausible as an insurance policy in the likelihood that it loses control of the federal government in the future. Having greater democracy and decentralised power means that the states and local authorities which PR still controls can have more independence and hopefully, be more effective as well.
While one can question their effectiveness, there is less doubt that Prime Minister Najib has put in place a comprehensive transformation plans to address various shortcomings in the political, economic and social arenas. Most politically aware Malaysians are already familiar with the alphabet soup which is associated with Najib’s transformation programs – 1Malaysia, ETP, GTP, NEM, PTP – even if they are unsure about the achievements of these programs.
PR is not likely to follow in Najib’s footsteps in designing a similar ‘transformation’ program but it will still need to come up with concrete and well thought out plans of its own in order to shape the country’s political, economic and social agenda according to the vision and philosophy of PR and its leaders.
PR is better placed in some areas to deliver substantive positive change compared to the BN. It would be relatively easy for PR to deliver on promises of reform in terms of political rights and civil liberties by abolishing any laws which allow for detention without trial such as the Security Offences Special Measures Act (SOSMA), abolish the need to have a permit to print a newspaper and to allow political parties to have a presence in university campuses, just to name a few. But PR would also have to resist the temptation of using their power in order to intimidate and threaten the mainstream media newspapers and television which are owned or closely associated with BN parties. Similarly, it also needs to resist the temptation of using RTM1 and 2 as a government mouthpiece.
PR can also deliver significant institutional reform such as making the Election Commission (EC) and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) independent and allowing them to carry out their jobs without political interference. It would also have to tackle the tricky task of reforming the police force including finding new roles for existing Special Branch officers, assuming that their services will no longer be needed or needed less often. It is also needs to strengthen the civil service’s resolve to be professional and accountable rather than to force it to change its political allegiance from BN to PR.
In terms of the economy, PR will have to find new sources of economic growth as well as enhancing current sources of growth. Some of this can be realised by the freeing up of certain monopolies so that competitive forces can be released in currently protected sectors. Other initiatives require a longer time period to come to fruition such as increasing the innovation and R&D capacity in the country. One way in which this process can be expedited is to tap on the large Malaysian disapora, some of whom may be interested to come back and invest their time, expertise and money under a new non-BN federal government.
One of the biggest policy areas for PR to tackle would be in education since this is something which almost all Malaysians care about and where there is a widespread consensus that something drastic needs to be done in order to arrest the decline in the standard of public education in the country. PR has said that it would respect the rights of vernacular ( Mandarin and Tamil) and religious schools to flourish in the country. It will have its hands full in taking on the civil service as well as some within the PR who do not want to strengthen vernacular and religious education, especially in allowing more Chinese primary and independent secondary schools to be established.
These are only a few of the key policy questions which PR has to address/ if it comes to power at the federal level. The list can easily be longer. PR’s challenge is to design a strategic plan or plans in order to fulfill a set of political, economic and social goals.
Not all of the plans outlined in Part (iii) can be fulfilled in a short period of time. Some may even take more than one term to deliver the desired results. PR does not have the luxury of taking its time to deliver once it is in control of the federal government. It needs to prioritise its various objectives so that some immediate quick wins can be given the proper focus. Some of PR’s promises in its first 100 days in government have already been outlined in the Buku Jingga such as setting up an RCI on the problem of illegal immigrants in Sabah, providing free wifi to the rural areas in the country and abolishing certain corporate subsidies such as the gas subsidy to the independent power producers (IPPs). These deliverables may have to be adjusted if a PR federal government realises that some of the initiatives may take longer than 100 days to fulfill.
It is important for PR to show it can deliver concrete results and initiatives early in its administration so that it can build momentum for other initiatives later on. Without clear, focused priorities, PR may fall into the trap of wanting to do too much but failing to deliver anything significant in a timely manner.
Finally, PR will have to come up with certain procedures, both formal and informal, for dealing with disagreements between the PR component parties on key policy issues. I have already pointed out that local government elections and hudud are two potential flashpoints within the PR. There is no doubt that other controversial disagreements will emerge from within the PR coalition. Unlike in the BN, where UMNO can dominate and control major policy directions, the parties within the PR coalition are much more equal in terms of stature and also control of parliament and state seats. Even though the Prime Minister from PR, most likely Anwar Ibrahim, will yield considerable power, it would be difficult for him to ride roughshod over his component party members in the same way as Dr. Mahathir within the BN context.
The PR Supreme Council needs to be strengthened and proper procedures identified in order to solve conflicts emerging from within PR on issues of national and sub-national importance.
This article has barely scratched the surface of what a PR government may look like and the main challenges which it will face as a new ruling coalition. But hopefully, it has been helpful in outlining the major issues of contention and providing some guidelines as to how these challenges may be addresses so that PR can effectively deliver positive change to the country.
Ong Kian Ming holds a PhD in political science from Duke University. He is the project director of the Malaysian Electoral Roll Analysis Project (Merap), a political analyst and a lecturer at the University College Sedaya International (UCSI). He can be reached at im.ok.man(at)gmail.com