OPINION: Moving forward, Malaysia needs a new narrative

Karim Raslan -- Ceritalah ASEAN

Posted at May 18 2019 03:34 AM

Traders in the Selayang market are seeing their businesses plummet due to the continuing presence of illegal foreign traders on the road-side outside the market. Team Ceritalah

The euphoria over the surprise victory of the Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad-led Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition last year has been swiftly replaced by a surprisingly bitter disappointment

For the past two months, Team Ceritalah, has been crisscrossing the country: everywhere from Kuala Kangsar to Penampang. It’s been a Herculean effort for the young team: listening and recording stories from the ground.

We tried to revisit all the people we interviewed before last year’s polls.

Team Ceritalah aren’t pollsters. We weren’t trying to do a scientific survey. Rather, we sought to take a snapshot of a country coming to terms with both immense change and the more mundane challenges of making a living. 

Those closest to the land – oil palm and rubber smallholders as well as rice farmers – have been the most frustrated. What they feel matters because agriculture still provides employment for some 6% of working Malaysians.

In Sekinchan – Selangor’s rice-bowl -- ‘Abang’ Zaki has had to deal with an inexplicable disease that has threatened his rice crop. Meanwhile, for Ah Seng, a fifty-something rubber tapper outside the royal town of Kuala Kangsar, low commodity prices have made his work almost futile. Understandably, all five of his adult children work in Singapore.

Perakian oil palm smallholder, ‘Abang’ Man is struggling with higher costs for fertiliser and pesticide. The slim possibility of an El Niño-type drought (which would squeeze supply) later this year might help push up prices; but generally the mood is despondent.

The former Barisan Nasional (BN) government tried to address these challenges through its popular BR1M (“1Malaysia People’s Aid”) direct cash transfer scheme. 7 million Malaysians received up to RM1200 per year. 

PH has (wisely) retained it, renaming it the “Bantuan Sara Hidup” (BSH or ‘Cost of Living Aid’). Some MYR5 billion is to be dispersed to 4.1 million households. However, Team Ceritalah discovered that bureaucratic snafus have meant that many potential recipients on the ground were unsure of their eligibility.

Similarly, in Selayang, to the north of the capital, local stallholders such as Lakshmi complained about the continuing presence of illegal foreign traders outside the market. Many have seen their incomes plummet drastically.

So as Malaysians have adjusted to an administration full of untested leaders (23 of the current 28 full Ministers had never held federal office previously), many have questioned the effectiveness of the new team. 

Certainly, their ability to connect with ordinary Malaysians seems to have evaporated. This failure is extraordinary given the cohesiveness and dynamism they displayed in the run-up to the 2018 polls. 

Instead of constructing a solid narrative around their very real achievements – the rebuilding of core institutions and the revamp of government processes – they have allowed themselves to be hijacked by their own poorly-executed policy initiatives and infighting. The bungled ratification of ICERD and the Statute of Rome have fuelled ugly, nativist sentiments. Indeed, the timidity of the Malay ministers has been a major let-down.

Moreover, for much of the majority Malay-Muslim population, the defeat of the once all-powerful ruling party UMNO has been a rude awakening. Fears of being side-lined by the wealthier and better-educated Chinese-Malaysians have been aggressively promoted, just as the former premier, Najib Razak has to sought to revive his reputation through the “Malu apa bossku” (“what’s the shame, my boss?”) social media campaign, drawing in elements of urban, motorbike-riding, working-class youth culture.

But the Malaysians we spoke to were also willing to give PH a chance.

And despite the challenges ahead, Malaysia could arguably be poised for a massive turnaround. 

China, once a long-time favourite for overseas manufacturing, has become increasingly unattractive to investors. 

Take your pick: trade war-inspired US tariffs, Beijing’s prickly attitude towards foreign business, rising input costs and the lack of progress in enforcing supply chain security such as IP theft and quality control. 

Multinational corporates are trying to reduce their risk profile hence hunting for countries to invest in. 

Malaysia should be leveraging off this. We have superb logistics (something for which we can thank the previous BN government) and an unbeatable strategic location. We are part of global supply chains, trade and tourism routes. We also rank 51st on the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index 2019, falling behind only Singapore in ASEAN. 

As Hasnul Nadzrin Shah, Director of Government and Regulatory Affairs at IBM told me: “Malaysians, when exposed to a more expansive world view, flourish because of their multicultural background,”.

And as Team Ceritalah’s journeys show: ordinary Malaysians have a strong work ethic and thirst to improve themselves. What is needed is to develop our human capital correctly. Malaysian workers should not be treated like economic inputs. Our people are our greatest—and in the long-run—only asset. 

They certainly deserve a living wage—but their productivity and value-add must likewise increase. 

Many fret about our education system.

While curriculums certainly must be looked at, the Education Ministry also needs to ensure that our youth (who represent nearly half of eligible voters) have a mindset that can adapt to global trends—including cooperation and group work—two skills essential in today’s labour marketplace. 

The government also must continue working on reducing red tape, whether it is for local SMEs or foreign MNCs. 

The Tourism, Plantations and International Trade and Industry Ministries must all up their game. 

Working with the civil service is important: but they also have to know that the people (who the MPs and Ministers represent) are the ultimate “boss”. 

Given the dramatic changes up ahead, it’s critical for the Ministry of Economic Affairs to lay out a clear framework (establishing a grand, over-arching narrative) that will determine the economic direction of the country for the next decade – steering the various ministries and agencies towards that goal. 

Tun Dr Mahathir recently made “shared prosperity” the latest mantra of his administration.

This is apt: all Malaysians deserve a share in the country’s wealth.

It is possible to help people in need, but also to be wise with our country’s finances and efficient in its administration.

Again: it is all about communicating. Like it or not, progressive Malay politicians of all hues - Anwar Ibrahim, Khairy Jamaluddin, Nurul Izzah, Shahril Hamdan and Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad—have to be brought into centre stage.

Needless to say UMNO’s current lurch to the right is a massive boost for PAS. This will endanger the nation’s moderate mission - because as we learnt from meeting Ibu Yeni a die-hard member from Banting, the party will survive the removal of its senior leaders and any alliance with PAS will only strengthen the conservative elements inimicable to development.

One year after 9 May 2018, the focus needs to be broader than PH’s survival. 

The really important challenge is Malaysia’s progressive future. 

If PH will continue with their squabbling and incompetence, the Malaysia we know and love will be swept away.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.