By: Murray Hunter

The Pakatan Harapan coalition general election victory almost a year ago was supposed to herald a new reform era in a country spavined by corruption, cronyism and racism.

Very soon after Mahathir Mohamed was returned as prime minister after a 15 year absence and in a new role, he quickly made good on Pakatan’s promises to eliminate the GST, re-introduce fuel subsidies, seek the immediate release of Anwar Ibrahim from jail and charge former Prime Minister Najib Razak over the 1MDB scandal.

However, public disenchantment of the new Pakatan government very quickly developed as the pace of reform appeared to slow. The government flip-flopped over child marriage, then backflipped over its intention to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination due to protests organized by the ousted United Malays National Organization and ultra-nationalist Malay groups.

Shortly afterwards, it backed down from ratifying the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court due to criticism from the Johor Royal Family. The report completed by the Council of Eminent Persons (CEP) on reform was put under the Official Secrets Act, and has not been made public. More recently, Mahathir’s quick dismissal of the Suhakam Report finding that “state agents” were most probably responsible for the abduction and disappearance of religious leaders Amri Che mat and Pastor Anthony Koh disappointed many.

There is now a perception that the Pakatan government won’t deliver what it promised. The by-election result in the Semenyih constituency was an indication of this, confirming Medeka Centre polling that both the prime minister and Pakatan were rapidly losing popularity.

However, those expecting the government to create a new Malaysia forgot about the complex nature of the Pakatan coalition itself, the electoral landscape and the institutional and attitudinal impediments to reform. 

The Nature of the Coalition

The leading party, in terms of influence but not numbers is Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, formed by Mahathir in the runup to the general election to give himself a political vehicle. Although the party manifesto talks in terms of maintaining fundamental rights and fighting corruption, Bersatu is really a nationalist-Malay organization, believing in Islam as the state religion, upholding the Malay monarchy, maintaining Malay privilege and that of natives of Sabah and Sarawak, and keeping Malay as the national language. 

Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) has twice Bersatu’s representation in the Federal Parliament and supports the abolishment of the New Economic Policy, the instrument that provides special privileges for Malays and other indigenous groups. In practice however, the party most often reflects its leader Anwar Ibrahim’s views. PKR’s structure is very similar to UMNO’s, and is currently strongly factionalized between the Rafizi Ramli and Azmin Ali groups. Recent party elections brought accusations of vote buying.

Under the Pakatan agreement, Anwar is due to take the reins of Power from Mahathir sometime in 2020.

The third member is a breakaway group from PAS called Parti Amanah Negara, primarily a Malay based party standing for progressive Islam. It has 11 members of Parliament, where its leader Mohamed Sabu is Minister of Defense.

Next, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) is primarily a Chinese based party, although it has sort to be multi-ethnic over the years. The DAP is based on social justice, democracy, and secularism. Its support comes from working class and professional urban voters, where the party played a major role in assisting Pakatan win the last general election.

The above coalition mix suggests that its orientation is going to be towards maintaining the current status quo, according to the various party manifestos and actions. Other than the fight against corruption and support of popular policies like the abolition of GST, the pressure for reform comes only comes from the DAP and some members of PKR.

Thus Pakatan is a paradoxical coalition where the push for reform comes from a minority. What’s more, Mahathir has dominated coalition, calling the major shots in terms of policy and administration.

If and when Anwar Ibrahim actually becomes the Prime Minister, it’s still very unclear as to whether he will follow the reform path or pursue his wishes to implement a more Islamic path in government administration and education.

Anwar’s position a big unknown.

Analysts close to government say it is attempting to buy time on reform by blaming the previous government and economic situation. However, talking reform is one thing, achieving it another. If the Pakatan government is going to firmly commit to reform, it has to overcome many impediments, some rarely discussed.

The Electoral Landscape

Although 65 percent of Malaysia’s population could be considered urban, cities’ parliamentary representation is well under that. About 70 percent ofy seats are rural based, thus heavily over-representing rural voters. Thus DAP and to some extent PKR representation are below what they should be, while UMNO, PAS, Bersatu, and Amanah are overrepresented,  a legacy of decades of gerrymandering by the previous ruling coalition.

Thus any party or coalition group that wants to win a general election must win over a rural Malay electorate, making the politics of race and Islam of paramount importance. Until there is real electoral reform, race-based politics are crucial. Any reforms perceived as threatening Malay privilege would cost at the next election.

Does Pakatan really want reform?

The current anomaly benefits Bersatu over PKR and the DAP. This is especially the case if more UMNO defections come and the party expands into Sabah, as Mahathir has vowed. It is vital electoral reform takes place to place to bring in the concept of “one vote one value” through rearranging constituency boundaries and/or implementing some form of proportional representation before Pakatan can undertake any serious reform in the area of ethnic-equality of opportunity.

This is a major barrier to reform and will allow Malay-nationalist groups to dominate the national narrative, and sabotage any new initiatives.

The Civil Service

The Malaysian civil service is probably the most difficult barrier to overcome. There is an unspoken mission among offices and staff to protect the Malay agenda. Any policy or program is likely to be sabotaged if it is perceived to threaten Malay interests. The system has been built over the past 20 years on political nepotism, with civil servants clearly and openly aligned with the last government.

It is also a bloated service, employing nearly 1.8 million people, with duplicative ministries and agencies, wasting massive resources, built on job generation to keep ethnic Malays happy.

Although these problems have to be dealt with, retrenching staff would be politically costly. Thus it could take more than a decade to eliminate excessive numbers of employees, nepotism, and the culture of the Malay agenda.

Steep Learning Curve for New Ministers

Senior civil servants have been used to dealing with ministers who didn’t know their portfolios and were only interested in issues of personal benefit, swinging the balance of power from elected government to the bureaucracy. It is a daunting task for inexperienced ministers who don’t understand procedures and have little in-depth knowledge of their portfolios to manage their ministries.  

The Royal Families

There are nine quite diverse royal families in Malaysia, and an Agong (king) who is selected by the Conference of Rulers every five years as head of state. The respective sultans and raja primarily act as constitutional monarchs, and traditionally had a close relationship with the former government. A few members of UMNO and a former Prime Minister had royal blood, and it has long been rumored that backroom deals and concessions were given for favors done for the government of the day.

Governments traditionally kept the royalty happy through bargaining. There were only a few ripples during the 22 years of Mahathir’s previous reign, in which he passed constitutional amendments to cut royal immunity from the law and eliminate veto powers over parliamentary bills.

Royalty have on a few occasions asserted their power independently, as when the Raja of Perlis refused to accept the Barisan Nasional nomination for Chief Minister of Perli,s Shahidan Kassim and appointed Md Isa Sabu after the 2008 election. Sultans have sometimes been partisan as was seen in the Perak Constitutional crisis in 2009.

Mahathir’s current spat with Johor’s crown prince over appointment of a new chief minister for the state, Malaysia’s second most populous, shows that royalty remains a potential barrier to reform, especially on matters of Malay position, religion and their own survival. Continuing to placate the royalty will be at the cost of reform.

Deep State?

Just recently Foreign Affairs Minister Daifuddin Abdullah and Federal Territories Minister Khalid Samad talked about a “deep state” within Malaysia. They are referring to a network of royal family members, senior military personnel, senior police officers, GLC office holders, high ranking civil servants, politicians, intellectuals and business people who have a common interest and deep commitment in protecting the Malay position.

They are said to hold regular informal meetings around the country to deal with threats to the perceived order. This could be a discussion with someone who ‘needs to be pulled into line,” taking action within the law, or even through extrajudicial action through ex-police or ex-military people loyal to the cause. 

To recapture the confidence of the electorate who voted Pakatan into power in the last general election, reform is needed on the New Economic Policy which grants financial advantages to bumiputeras. The government must again attempt to put through constitutional amendments to restore the original position of Sabah and Sarawak in the Federation if it is to count on the support of Sabah and Sarawak voters. The electoral system must be overhauled so a future government will not be shackled by the Malay heartland on reform.

It’s very difficult to see the Pakatan Government dominated by Bersatu being too interested in reforming the NEP, or even seriously tackling the inequality of the electoral system.

The state of the civil service is dismissal and the problems haven’t even been defined yet, let alone solutions found. Ministerial experience takes time, some patience is needed here. However, criticisms are increasing when Pakatan ministers are seen to behave just like their predecessors. When the sedition Act is now been used like Lese Majeste in Thailand, debate on the role of Royalty in Malaysia will be supressed. Expect a period of testing between the government and Royal Houses to continue until new boundaries are renegotiated. Finally, the real secrets of government are still being kept secret. Reform begins with transparency and Mahathir himself doesn’t appear ready to step into that environment.