A manifesto on the back foot

The term back foot refers to being at a disadvantage, and forced to being defensive of one’s position, usually used in sports where a player is outmaneouvred by an opponent. Barisan Nasional’s recent behaviour indicates it is operating in such a manner.

For the first time in Barisan’s history, it unveiled its election manifesto before nomination day, needing to respond to the Pakatan Rakyat manifesto launched more than six weeks earlier. In fact, when Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Tun Razak announced Parliament dissolution a few days before, he called for peaceful transition should there be a change in government either at the federal or state levels, indicating that this would be indeed possible in his opinion. His deputy has also recently admitted that Pakatan is a tough opponent.

Whilst these are mere indications, the most telling of all are the contents of the Barisan manifesto, numerous items of which are plainly either replications of proposals already contained in the Pakatan manifesto, or following in the footsteps of policies already instated by existing Pakatan-led state governments.

To get a better idea, all of these items were first introduced in Selangor and Penang: increasing NGO representation in local councils; initiating the need for gazetting of native customary rights, or orang asli, land; giving allowances to Kafa teachers in Islamic schools, financial assistance to Sekolah Agama Rakyat, and public disclosure of contracts. Perhaps one ought to take it positively that the Pakatan states were able to blaze the trail as best practice case studies for the rest of the country to follow suit.

As for items that seem mysteriously similar to the Pakatan manifesto, this is because they are. These include the proposal to revisit constructing the Pan-Borneo Highway in East Malaysia, revamping the National Automotive Policy to gradually reduce car prices by 20-30%, as well as increasing payments to oil-producing states in excess of 20%, on top of many others. A quick reference to the Pakatan manifesto would reveal these exact proposals. One wonders at the irony of the Barisan leaders who in one breath ridicule a manifesto that in the next, they imitate.

To evaluate a manifesto, one must first establish the root problems of the country, which here I will classify into three categories namely public administration, the economy, and race relations.

One, Malaysia has an extremely top-heavy system of government, with decisions entirely made at the Executive level, highly centralised in Putrajaya, with a severely weakened Judiciary and ineffective Legislative. Two, Malaysia’s economy is either dominated by government-linked companies (GLCs), monopolies in essential goods industries, or highly influential and well-connected cronies leaving little competition for the small to medium players. Three, the issue of politicised race and religion which will only prevail as long as political parties continue to be defined along such terms.

The Barisan manifesto does little to address the first problem, where in fact it plans to set up yet another ministry to address urban economic and social challenges. With an already bloated government of 30 ministers and 38 deputies, it fails to convince that a new ministry would be an effective resolution to the problems of urban poverty.

Whilst proposals to boost public transport, waste management and water services nationwide are welcome, there is no mention of empowering state or local governments in such regard, who would be better equipped at knowing local issues. In terms of governance, although it is encouraging that steps are being taken to strengthen the MACC, no mention is made of internal mechanisms for checks and balances. One needs only recall that the three officers responsible for the late Teoh Beng Hock’s interrogation have been referred to the MACC Internal Complaints Committee with no further update on their being reprimanded.

On the count of the economy, the manifesto seems to commit to flooding the market with a host of 1Malaysia-brand items, clinics and centres through its Kedai Rakyat 1Malaysia, setting up of Klinik 1Malaysia, and so on. This has effectively created a second parallel market for those classified as lower income, operating on a second track outside the real market of goods and services. This has created a ‘government-economy’ alongside the ‘market economy’.

Instead of addressing the economy holistically, the government has introduced an entire ecosystem of a subsidised market. There is also a significant lack of mention in addressing macroeconomic targets such as balancing the budget. One also wonders at the beneficiaries of this subsidised market, where the manifesto also unreservedly states that the Barisan would “introduce more 1Malaysia products driven by GLCs”.

Finally, the manifesto stated that “we abhor the politics of hatred and division”, whilst it believes in “social justice and being inclusive, touching and improving the lives of all Malaysians irrespective of race and religion”. Numerous contradicting public statements by Barisan leaders notwithstanding, it is the very nature of the Barisan political parties formed along ethnic lines that will make it impossible to exit the game of playing the race card to its own benefit.

Without solutions that can truly and fundamentally reshape the Malaysian structure of public administration, the economy, and race and religious relations, through the reforming of systems and institutions, we will not be able to make that great leap forward. In fact, in Barisan’s own terms, “we cannot put at risk what we have; we cannot gamble away our future”: these words ought to be a stark reminder to all who go to the polling booth come election day.

(A version of this was published in theSun on Wednesday, 10th April 2013. This is the slightly different, unedited version).

Tricia Yeoh blogs on triciayeoh.com

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