After a year in power, has Pakatan Harapan learnt enough to save Malaysia from itself?

The question is whether it will be bold enough, united enough, and insightful enough to break the country’s path dependence where governance and politicking are concerned, says Penang Institute’s Ooi Kee Beng.

PENANG: The big debate in Malaysia one year after the change in government on May 9, 2018, concerns the unfolding nature of Pakatan Harapan (PH).

No one seriously doubts that it has charted a vastly different path for the country from that set by the Barisan Nasional (BN) that had ruled the country for over six decades.

The question is whether it will be bold enough and united enough to break the country’s path dependence where governance and politicking are concerned. More to the point, the key question is whether it knows what needs to be done.

THREE TAKES ON THE PAKATAN HARAPAN

Those who are prone to give the government the benefit of the doubt argue for Malaysian citizens to be realistic and patient, and to accept inexperience rather than incompetence as the reason for failures and strategic mistakes.

Those in the other camp continue highlighting the controversial issues of race, religion and royalty (the 3Rs) that have plagued the PH coalition.

Given the fact that the PH won power with only 48 per cent of the popular vote, this opposing camp is not an adversary to be glibly dismissed. Over the past year, this segment’s efforts to persistently discredit the government has been rather impressive.

To be sure, the PH government is new and inexperienced, and the coalition itself is a novel innovation. Although it strategised well enough to win the elections last year, it was not really prepared for power.

Taking over from a regime as central to the system as the BN had been has brought to the fore challenges that the government must now learn to handle on a daily basis.

The embarrassment of losing a stream of by-elections aside, the PH has to deal with the discursive stasis and cynicism that characterise a society used to living under coercive conditions for generations, and is now worn out from being bombarded by daily political contestation.

A third group — a mix of perpetual fence-sitters and sceptics — see PH failures and hesitations as an unveiling of hidden agendas and human weaknesses.

The final picture once all the cards have been laid, they are convinced, will be that PH is not that different from BN; and that this is revealing of the sad fate and path dependence that Malaysia is trapped in.

These fissures in the polity of the country are not likely to disappear anytime soon; but then that is why a movement bannered by the broad notion of “reform” has proven so persistent, and was finally triumphant.

The sense that Malaysia is in a rut where the building of the state, the nation and the national economy is concerned is what grew to reach tipping point on May 9, 2018.

Still, the more countries that in the consciousness of Malaysians were once basket cases — which include China, India, Thailand and Vietnam — surpass or will imminently surpass Malaysia, the greater the need to revisit the deeper mistakes made in Malaysia’s developmental strategy becomes.

The luxury of fixing internal ethnic and religious conditions to suit the BN agenda, it must now be admitted, wasted away many of the advantages the country had from the beginning, such as a good education system, a strong civil service, and a diverse and modernising economy.

For Malaysia to break away from the gravitational pull of the centrifugal forces that have pulled it towards zero-sum politics for so long, it needs to orient all energies towards creating a new escape velocity. The PH’s stunning win in 2018 was a jolt but a much stronger push is needed.

IDENTIFYING AND BREAKING THE CHRYSALIS

This is what is becoming obvious after a year of reform attempts by the PH government; egged on inexorably by game-changing regional geopolitical and economic changes such as the coming of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the long-term stalling of the global economy.

Calls for a new national narrative to supplant and overcome the binary dichotomies of “Malaysian Malaysia versus Malay Malaysia”, and “Good Governance versus the 3Rs” are being heard from various directions.

Such a narrative, if it is to slingshot the country into a new dimension of economic growth, in my mind, has to be a change in paradigm that focuses the country’s imagination on global opportunities.

In other words, it has to be a clearly externally oriented initiative, one that understands the forces now at play internationally and what Malaysia’s destiny is in that geostrategic whirlwind. Within this scenario, even Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Vision 2020 espoused in 1991 appears inward-looking.

No doubt the more obvious and immediate reforms have been about raising the integrity of key institutions and setting a new direction in judicial thinking.

The results so far have been a mixed bag, with the bigger failures being due to the continued relevance and efficacy of the opposition resorting to identity politics.

But what should be highlighted is the fact that the new government is considering a greater role and an improved reputation for the country on the international arena.

Setting more conducive conditions for the inflow of foreign direct investments, jumpstarting the country’s stalled digitisation, taking strategic stances internationally to enhance the country’s stature, and making the country’s economic agenda more regional in character, offer not only good chances for the country to make up for lost years.

These are also a way to end the isolationism and introvertedness that have encouraged racially charged and feudalist attitudes to flourish for so long.

If we take a historical view, all new nations — and Malaysia is stereotypical of this — go through a period of nation- and state-building configured by conceptual conservatism and stasis.

Over time, no matter how well this process works, an institutional chrysalis forms, turning the country’s political discourse and self-identity into a navel-gazing exercise.

The conceptual isolationism of the early decades, upheld by ethnocentric thinking, mass media control and draconian laws, once left devoid of a nation-building ethos, quickly spun into high corruption and broad authoritarianism.

This is the historical point Malaysia has reached. The present calls for reform and the need for a new narrative are simply attempts to break the isolating and solid shell that the early period of nation- and state-building created, which now chokes further economic and cultural growth.

While observers look at domestic reforms to decide if the new government is capable of carrying out its electoral promises, and whether it is sincere or not in leaving identity politics behind; they should also ruminate over the range of attempts being made to open up the country’s political discourse as part and parcel of the country’s ongoing transformation.

Decades of inward-looking policies and zero-sum identity politics should lead Malaysia to look outwards for inspiration, in charting out its economic ambitions and move the country towards a collective goal to engage the global economy.

Ooi Kee Beng is Executive Director of the Penang Institute and Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. His latest book, Catharsis: A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia was published in 2018.

First published in Channel News Asia

Malaysians forget easily

by M. Shanmugam

Critics are entitled to find fault with Pakatan Harapan for not fulfilling its promises. However, it has been a good year for the country as a whole, with the government taking criticism in its stride and continuing to uncover scams left by the previous regime.

On the first anniversary of the new government, a can of worms opened up in the Defence Ministry (Mindef). Sixteen questionable land-swap deals involving 2,923 acres valued at RM4.7bil were made public.

On paper, the land-swap deals were watertight and supposed to benefit Mindef, with the private sector building new army camps, quarters and other facilities in return for land in prime areas.

However, implementation of the scheme was weak due largely to political interference. At the end of the day, Mindef lost out. It failed to capitalise on prime land it was sitting on in the Klang Valley and other major towns.

Among the parcels are 94 acres in Bandar Kinrara, Puchong, 280 acres in Setapak and 314 acres in Sungai Buloh. All three parcels are located in prime areas in the Klang Valley.

The questionable land-swap deals would not have come to light had there been no change in government. Likewise, many other dubious transactions would not have been exposed either in the last one year. The list goes beyond Felda and Lembaga Tabung Haji.

Who would have thought that the police would seize valuables and cash worth close to RM1bil from the house of former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and his wife Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor and several luxury condominiums belonging to friends of the couple.

In relation to the seizure, the government has filed two suits to seize RM711mil worth of the items from Najib, Rosmah and several others. It will be interesting to see how the suits would be contested, as anybody who puts a claim on the assets would need to prove when, where and how they had purchased the items.

Some parties have already clarified that they do not own the assets seized. OBYU Holdings, a company that is linked to Tan Sri Bustari Yusof, stated that although it owns the premises where some of the items were seized, it has no interest in the things.

Bustari, who is from Sarawak, is the golfing partner of Najib.

A year ago, businessmen, politicians and lobbyists waited for their turn to be called up to have a round of golf with Najib. Today, the former prime minister is said to be playing at golf courses far away from the city with only a few friends.

A year ago, he was the most powerful man in the country. He had a few operatives who provided him with “political intelligence” in return for cash. One of them is Datuk Habibul Rahman Kadir Shah who testified in court recently of the role he played for Najib.

Najib muzzled the mainstream media – through his aides in Putrajaya and those working outside his office.

At one stage in late 2015, the mainstream media was banned from even mentioning the word “1MDB” (1Malaysia Development Bhd) in their daily coverage. Negative news related to 1MDB was not given prominence.

One of Najib’s aides even called newspaper editors to “blackout” news of Jho Low partying in New York.

Today, it’s a totally new game.

People can criticise Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his government. They can hit out at the government without fear, although these very same critics had never questioned the previous government for mismanaging the country’s finances.

Contrary to what some may believe, there is a fair amount of political stability in the country. There are no signs of mass defections of elected representatives that could threaten Pakatan Harapan’s hold on the government.

So far, the ruling party has won four of the seven by-elections. The opposition Barisan Nasional won the last three by-elections, sparking hope for the coalition that was battered a year ago.

Nevertheless, so far, there is no danger of Dr Mahathir’s government collapsing.

The economy is still growing, but at a slower pace amidst a volatile external environment. To keep the momentum going towards a projected 4.9% economic growth for this year, Bank Negara cut the base rate by a quarter percent earlier this week to 3%.

The US-China trade war has had a profound negative effect on global capital markets. At one stage this week, China’s CSI 300 was down 2.6% while the S&P 500, which is a broad measure of US stocks, shed 1.8%.

The benchmark FBM KLCI is also affected. However, the ringgit is holding at about the 4.15 level against the US dollar. There are no riots or people going to the streets.

In comparison, one needs to only look at Venezuela and the chaos the country is in, although it has one of the largest oil reserves in the world. Turkey and Argentina have also seen a significant depreciation of their currencies.

The Pakatan Harapan government is not perfect, but then, it has another four years to improve and fix the economy. And really, if one were to look at the current political scenario, there is no viable alternative today.

Dr Mahathir even takes on the royalty, something that the previous leadership stayed away from. If anybody thinks that the Opposition – in its present state where an alliance with PAS is necessary – is a better alternative, they had better think again.

First published in The Star

Najib’s RM42m trial: Spider web of money transfers involving his personal accounts

Editor’s note: The trial so far is difficult to follow but this summary by Kenneth Tee helps us focus on the paper trail. Basically you can see RM37 million flowed from Ihsan Perdana to one of Najib’s account, and another RM5 million to another of his accounts. And you can see Najib paying out from these accounts to a variety of recipients.

By Kenneth Tee

KUALA LUMPUR, April 29 — A flurry of fund transfers involving Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s personal bank accounts were part of a complex money trail that has emerged in the former prime minister’s money laundering trial.

Najib is currently on trial over seven charges, including money laundering and criminal breach of trust of over RM42 million belonging to former 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) subsidiary SRC International Sdn Bhd.

At the start of Najib’s trial, Attorney General (AG) Tommy Thomas said evidence would show that the RM42 million flowed from SRC International through two other companies before reaching Najib’s accounts.

So what happened to the RM42 million in Najib’s accounts that are said to be proceeds of unlawful activities, or funds from illegal sources?

Here’s what we know so far of the complex web of bank transactions that involved major local banks.

Malay Mail gives you a quick breakdown of money transfers between Najib’s bank accounts based on news reports and testimony provided by the 21st prosecution witness — AmBank Jalan Raja Chulan branch manager R. Uma Devi.

SRC International’s bank accounts

SRC International opened two bank accounts at AmBank’s Jalan Raja Chulan branch in 2011, which is where the story begins, based on court evidence available so far.

SRC International’s first AmIslamic Bank current account (2112022009-736) was registered at this bank branch on January 28, 2011, with four authorised signatories that comprised of two directors and two senior officers from SRC International.

SRC International then opened another AmIslamic Bank current account (2112022010-650) at the same branch on November 10, 2011.

The listed signatories for the second account were five SRC International directors, namely Datuk Ismee Ismail, Datuk Che Abdullah @Rashidi Che Omar, Datuk Suboh Md Yassin, Shahrol Azral Ibrahim Halmi and Nik Faisal Ariff Kamil.

SRC’s money starts flowing

A total of RM4 billion was pumped into SRC International’s two accounts at AmIslamic Bank within months of their opening in 2011, based on bank statements.

This was done via the injecting of RM2 billion (in four separate transactions of RM500 million) into account-736 all on August 29, 2011, while another RM2 billion was credited in one lump sum into the account-650 on March 28, 2012.

About two years later after the mass influx of billions in ringgit, a total of RM85 million started being transferred out from SRC International’s account-650 via four transactions that were detected between July 2014 and February 2015.

All four transactions were authorised by SRC International directors Nik Faisal and Suboh, with the recipients of these funds being Putra Perdana Construction Sdn Bhd and SRC International’s wholly-owned subsidiary Gandingan Mentari Sdn Bhd.

Based on bank statements, RM35 million went to Putra Perdana’s Maybank account on July 8, 2014, while the remaining went into Gandingan Mentari’s AmBank account in three separate transactions (RM40 million on December 24, 2014; RM5 million on February 5, 2015 and RM5 million on February 6, 2015).

Interestingly, Gandingan Mentari transferred out the same three amounts (RM40 million, RM5 million, RM5 million) on the same day they came in, passing on the money to Ihsan Perdana Sdn Bhd.

(Ihsan Perdana is registered as Yayasan 1Malaysia Development Berhad’s corporate social responsibility programmes provider and is also purportedly SRC International’s corporate social responsibility partner).

These three fund transfers totaling RM50 million to Ihsan Perdana were authorised by Gandingan Mentari’s two signatories, who also happened to be the two SRC directors Nik Faisal and Suboh.

SRC’s money into Najib’s bank accounts

Najib had a total of five AmBank accounts (one savings and four current) registered with AmBank Jalan Raja Chulan branch, according to bank documents.

His current accounts are listed as 2112022009-694, 2112022011-880, 2112022011-898 and 2112022011-906 while his savings account is listed at 2110020090-481.

Najib’s two older accounts ending 694 and 481 were closed on August 30, 2013 under his instructions in a letter he wrote to the bank branch manager, with the remaining balance of RM12,436,711.87 and RM82.67 respectively transferred to one of his new accounts (account-880).

For the next part, we will focus on accounts ending 898, 906 and 880 that were all opened on July 31, 2013.

It must be noted that, Najib had appointed SRC director Nik Faisal to manage all three current accounts in a letter dated July 31, 2013 (same day current accounts were opened).

Watch out for the complex web of transactions below, where millions in ringgit get passed around between these three Najib accounts that were also used to issue cheques out to other entities.

1. Najib’s account ending 880 (AmPrivate Banking-1MY)

During its brief existence of less than two years from July 2013 to March 2015, Najib’s account-880 received RM64 million via three transactions, based on evidence highlighted in court.

Account statements shown in court revealed that two of the transfers originated from Ihsan Perdana (RM27 million on 26 December, 2014 and RM10 million on February 10, 2015), while another transfer of RM27 million from an unspecified source took place on July 8, 2014.

After the influx of funds totalling RM64 million, over RM63 million was transferred out from Najib’s account-880 via multiple transactions, including distributions to his other accounts and for credit cards.

Here’s where the funds of over RM63 million went:

  1. RM20 million was transferred out to Najib’s account-898 (RM10 million) and account-906 (RM10 million) on July 8, 2014
  2. RM3 million was transferred out to Najib’s account-898 (RM1 million) and account-906 (RM 2 million) on July 23, 2014
  3. RM3,282,734.16 was transferred out to be credited into two Platinum credit cards on August 13, 2014 (It is currently unknown who these credit cards belong to)
  4. RM27 million was transferred out to Permai Binaraya Sdn Bhd on December 29, 2014
  5. RM10 million was transferred out to Najib’s account-906 on February 10, 2015

2. Najib’s account ending 906 (AmPrivate Banking-MY)

For account-906, many would be familiar with this account as bank documents and witness testimonies previously showed that Najib had used this account to issue 14 cheques worth RM7.2 million to multiple recipients.

The cheque recipients include a welfare home, political parties Umno and Upko, contractors who installed water tanks or carried out renovation works at Najib’s residences, and several associates that among other things helped monitor Chinese sentiment in six local Chinese dailies.

As mentioned earlier, this account-906 of Najib’s received RM22 million via three fund transfers from Najib’s account-880 between July 2014 and February 2015.

This same account-906 also received RM10 million (August 21, 2014) and RM1 million (August 28, 2014) from yet another Najib account (account-898), banking statements reveal.

Beside the transfers in totalling RM33 million from Najib’s account-880 and account-898, RM5 million from Ihsan Perdana also found its way into the account-906 on December 26, 2014.

3. Najib’s account ending 898 (AmPrivate Banking Y-1MY)

This account-898 received a total of RM11 million via two fund transfers from Najib’s account-880 in July 2014, as mentioned earlier.

This account-898 also received RM3.5 million from account-906 on February 11, 2015.

Account-898 is notable for issuing a RM3.5 million cheque on January 21, 2015 to law firm Hafarizam Wan & Aisha Mubarak.

Back to the present

Najib has since closed all three current accounts (880, 906 and 898) as of March 9, 2015 and transferred all remaining balance in a single cheque to the account of Ihsan Perdana.

Compared to the millions in ringgit that once flowed through these three current accounts, the remaining balance when they were closed is a pittance —— RM690.11 (account-880), RM101,952.14 (account-906) and RM721.57 (account-898).

Last year Najib was charged with seven charges related to criminal breach of trust, abuse of power and money laundering involving RM42 million of SRC International’s funds.

Trial is expected to resume today, the same day the High Court will deliver its decision on whether Najib succeeds in his challenge against all seven charges which he claimed were defective.

Trial had previously been set to run until May 10.

So far, 21 witnesses have testified and the prosecution has already handed over to Najib’s lawyers 35 volumes of documents totalling some 7,000 pages that it would be relying on in the trial.

Throughout the course of the trial, Najib’s lawyer Tan Sri Muhammad Shafee Abdullah had claimed that Najib was a “victim” of a conspiracy by fugitive businessman Jho Low.

First published in MalayMail.com

Let’s have a happy first anniversary

By Marina Mahathir

AS the cliche goes, time has whizzed by. Wasn’t it just yesterday we were queuing up by the thousands at polling stations, and then getting together with friends to wait for the results? And waited and waited?

Meanwhile, our phones buzzed with unofficial results. Yet on TV we were made to twiddle our thumbs until the early hours of the morning. Another long tense wait followed. We voted for the government we wanted and yet we didn’t know for an entire day whether it would be sworn in.

Who doesn’t remember the emotions of that day? The camaraderie at the polling stations, the frustration of people not being allowed to vote past closing time despite the extra-long queues, the exhilaration of winning and then that long agonising wait for the new government to take over.

Whichever side you may be on that day, all Malaysians should take pride in one thing: in this chaotic violent world today, we were arguably the only developing country that changed governments – after sixty years! – in the best way possible, through the ballot box.

Without a single drop of blood being shed. Just read about all the elections now being held elsewhere and see how unusual this is.

It was certainly a new experience for everyone, to see a new government sworn in.

Faces we had barely seen in the news were suddenly ministers.

But how refreshing that was to see a Cabinet that looked like us, instead of a bunch of tired and jaded entitled folk who had been there too long.

But reality can be a hard bone to swallow. Only those who believe in fairy tales could have expected things to become wonderful overnight.

We didn’t get extra change in our pockets and justice and equality the day after the elections.

There are only four people in the Cabinet who have actual experience in governing, two at the Federal level and two at the state level. It’s not a skill that one picks up overnight.

Furthermore, they were inheriting an almost broken machine that had to be fixed up first. Some patience is needed.

Having said that, one year on, the government’s track record is uneven.

On the one hand, we are finally seeing some people being brought to court. The media has a new freedom, which even they are finding it hard to get used to.

I read a letter from a teacher who praised the Education Minister for lessening the burdens put on teachers in schools.

The Environment Minister was very proactive and quick in dealing with the Sungai Kim Kim toxic fumes disaster.

I’m sure there is more but we just don’t hear about them.

The good news is being overwhelmed by the bad news. Partly this is because of the relentless attacks by the opposition.

I do wish they would behave like a good opposition because a good democracy always needs one.

But they’ve become single-issue fanatics. Everything is only about race and religion.

I do understand that they are unable to talk about corruption without a lot of the mud splashing back on their faces but seriously, are there no other policy issues that they are interested in?

What are their views on climate change for instance? Or equal pay for equal work for women?

What do they think about the attacks on Yemen, causing the deaths of 5200 civilians, and a further 50,000 deaths from famine?

What are their views on genocide, say, in Myanmar, and what do they think is the best way to deal with it? What do they think is the appropriate response to attacks on houses of worship around the world that cause so many deaths?

What is their stand on nuclear arms? On what issues would they be willing to join the government in a bipartisan stand?

I would really like to know the answers to these. Is it simply too much to expect this from the opposition or from their paid trolls on social media?

I live in hope though because if they intend to rule again, the least we can expect is a government that can sing more than one note.

But we cannot lay the entire blame on an opposition deprived of ideas.

The government too needs to stop looking like amateurs. I don’t understand why a government that was so soundly voted in should get defensive at all about any of their policies. Especially social policies.

Why be afraid to raise the age of marriage and ban child marriage altogether? Why attack minorities who voted for you just because the other side keeps baiting you on them?

Why the need to respond to every single thing that reporters ask you about? Some things benefit from better investigation and longer reflection.

Other things are best left to the technical people who actually know what they’re talking about.

I think some people forget that they’re now in government and they don’t have to fight for media coverage anymore.

The one thing I really wish this government had done from the beginning is to have some sort of coordinating mechanism so that ministries no longer work in silos.

This was a huge problem in the old government when, for example, the Health Ministry didn’t know how international trade agreements affected them simply because they were negotiated by the International Trade and Industry Ministry.

Or how only the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry dealt with gender issues when in fact women are affected by policies from every ministry.

In Indonesia, there is such a thing as a Coordinating Minister whose job is to ensure horizontal cooperation between ministries.

Something like that would be very useful here too in my opinion.

But since it’s the first anniversary coming up soon, let me end on a positive note.

I remember the days when we all felt like there was not enough air to breathe, when hate poured out of our TV screens like poisoned rivers, when nobody could even fly a balloon without being arrested and taken to court. Those days must never return.

For at least the next four years, I wish to see a kinder, gentler and fairer government – one that considers every single citizen in this land a Malaysian, whether they voted for it or not.

I’d like to have a government that respects us all and not treat us like ignorant children, that spends its resources on what would benefit all of us and not on monitoring imaginary insults.

It would be terrific if this was a government that raised the level of intellectual discourse in this country, that doesn’t ban books but instead invites people to debate them in an orderly civilized way.

A government that shows us through very clear values and by example how to be exemplary citizens.

It’s not just about putting down the other side, it’s also about how you raise the bar for governance.

Raise standards and the other side will have to keep up. And the rakyat wins either way.

Happy first anniversary in advance, Pakatan Harapan. And happy first anniversary, rakyat Malaysia Baharu.

First published in The Star Online

Open letter to Council of Churches Malaysia – Too Xing Ji

I write to you in good faith as a fellow citizen of Malaysia to humbly ask that the Council of Churches reconsiders its decision to object to the Devouror Concert on April 21, 2019.

The reason is simple: Cancelling the concert on the basis that it offends the sensitivities of Christians sets a very dangerous precedent for Malaysia.

Over the years, the Malaysian Christian community has had its freedom of speech and belief, unjustly taken away on many occasions by the authorities, to avoid offending the sensitivities of those who follow the religion of the Federation.

Here are a few examples:

  • The ban of the use of the word “Allah;”
  • The seizure of Bibles printed in the national language;
  • The removal of crosses from the facades of churches.

The logic and policy behind those actions, and the cancellation of the Devouror Concert, are exactly the same.

We cannot complain when the authorities take away our freedoms to make other people happy, when we ask them to do the exact same thing to those who offend us.

Today’s actions undermine the position of all of us who seek the refuge of the law from the tyranny of the majority.

Respecting someone’s right to freedom of speech does not mean that we have to respect the content of the speech itself.

In fact, the CCM will be all the more respected, if it expressly states that even though it continues to find heavy metal offensive and distasteful, it respects the right of the people of Malaysia to exercise their freedoms in a democratic society, by allowing the concert to proceed.

We have not fought so hard all these years to achieve Malaysia Baru, only to start emulating our oppressors before the year is out.

The choices that we make today will determine which path our country will take in the ongoing national conversation. Do we choose freedom over fear; tolerance over mistrust?

It is still not too late.

I am begging you. Please reconsider.

First published in malaymail.com

Quietly doing what needs to be done

EDUCATION Minister Dr Maszlee Malik has come under criticism over and over again.

As a teacher, I have seen his numerous efforts to improve our education system, how he reacts almost immediately when needed, and how he has humbly recognised teachers as the heroes of the future.

He helms one of the largest ministries, under which there are about 10,000 schools, half a million teachers, and 500,000 students, excluding those at tertiary level.

I attended a few talks by Dr Maszlee before he became involved in politics. I like his character and his thoughtful responses to questions and he seems to have his mind on the right priorities.

However, he has been under intense scrutiny since he became Education Minister, and there have been baseless accusations that he has done nothing since last year other than initiating menial changes in the system, such as changing the colour of shoes for pupils.

Perhaps the work that his ministry is doing to unclog the education system makes boring headlines, which is why I would like to highlight what he has done, at least in the things which I can to relate to.

1. Reducing the non-teaching burden of teachers: This is something he emphasised from the very beginning. Most Malaysians can agree that teachers are burdened by unnecessary paperwork and clerical duties that take their energy and time away from their actual and most important job – teaching. Today, many teachers spend more time doing other things instead of their core duty.

Under Dr Maszlee, the Education Ministry introduced a set of reforms (five initiatives, nine interventions) this year to reduce the burden of teachers by 25%. From filing and documentation to monitoring the textbook borrowing scheme, recording of class assessments, taking students’ attendance, and assessing the cleanliness of school canteens (apparently, this is a duty some teachers are burdened with), the work of teachers has been streamlined, simplified or simply removed.

The administrative burden of teachers has been reduced with the collaboration of the National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP). At last, someone like Dr Maszlee is willing to listen to the grassroots and adopt the bottom-up approach in formulating policies, instead of just coming up with new things without considering teachers on the ground.

Yes, teachers are still burdened at school. They are still dreading clerical work and nonstop filing. But I personally feel less burdened and I know things will get better with time.

2. Revamping the curriculum: Some things, however, cannot be done with haste, like curriculum change. There have been critics who argue that the minister has done nothing to correct our national curriculum/syllabus, which is deemed as below par and biased. However, this minister has quietly formed the National Education Policy Review Committee and engaged various stakeholders, including NGOs and experts who are not bureaucrats (a more inclusive approach), to recommend improvements to the curriculum. The National Civics and Religious Education curriculum is also being reviewed to ensure that values are practised and inculcated. The minister expects the new curriculum to be implemented in 2021 based on the recommendations made.

Dr Maszlee always highlights the ministry’s key initiatives: values-based education; equitable, inclusive and quality education; and autonomy and empowerment of learning institutions. I believe all these elements will be included and considered in the curriculum. Schools, according to Dr Maszlee, should be a place where learning is fun and where children are nurtured and protected.

I am looking forward to discovering other improvements that the Education Ministry can execute even though I know that Dr Maszlee is being criticised by a lot of people. I love how close he is with my fellow teachers where he uses his own social media accounts to directly connect with and reach out to them, be it through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and even YouTube. No education minister has ever reached out to this extent, and I know a good minister when I see one through his efforts. I hope this beautiful rapport can benefit both in enhancing the quality of the curriculum and producing better teachers.

SELANGOR TEACHER

Banting

First published in The Star Online

PH still the better choice, warts and all

By Wan Haron Wan Hassan

A number of political developments and events have unfolded over the past few weeks, casting a pall over Malaysia Baru.

They are causing great stress, strain and concern to the people.

1. The Rome Statute

Malaysia will not be ratifying the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) – a month after acceding to the treaty.

A visibly upset Dr Mahathir Mohamad said the government “was forced” to withdraw from the treaty following confusion created by those with political interests.

The foreign minister, meanwhile, revealed that the forces of “the deep state” were busy scheming a coup against the government.

Mahathir also alluded to the involvement of royalty in opposing the treaty.

People are obviously unhappy with this development. Like the ICERD affair, the Rome Statute has fallen victim to spins and misinformation.

Even Umno’s Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah was on record as saying that the royal institution has been misled by overzealous quarters, who include some academics.

Tengku Rithauddeen said that mischief had triumphed over truth in the case.

2. Tabung Haji, Felda and LTAT

Lembaga Tabung Haji continues to be a troubling issue with the latest announcement of 1.25% returns to the depositors for 2018. It is the lowest return in history – the depositors had been enjoying an average return of about 6-7% dividends over the last few years.

The reasons behind this are easy to understand.

TH has been in the red for a few years now on account of abuse and financial mismanagement. They have been operating with a deficit of about RM4.1 billion for 2017, with liabilities of RM74.4 billion outstripping assets of RM70.3 billion.

They have been declaring good dividends over the past few years, not from income but from non-income sources, which is illegal under the Tabung Haji Act 1995. Accounts have been doctored to misrepresent, mislead and distort the true state of affairs.

At a recent special briefing for Pakatan Harapan MPs, it was revealed that the fund had suffered losses amounting to RM10 billion which were kept off the books.

On Felda, the government announced that it had to inject RM6.23 billion following soaring losses and debts over the past decade.

This included the latest police report by Felda on Najib Razak and its purchase of Eagle High Plantations at a highly inflated price of RM2.3 billion, whereas the market price was only RM440 million.

Then, Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu dropped another bombshell when he announced that the audit report for the Armed Forces Fund Board (LTAT) has to be re-declared because its report last year was manipulated.

It remains to be seen how many billions more have been squandered.

It is unfortunate that the PH government is the bringer of bad news, left with the unenviable task of cleaning up the mess.

Yet, many are gullible enough to believe the spins and lies being churned out by some political parties bent on blaming PH for the mess.

3. MA63

The bill to amend the constitution which sought to restore the status of Sabah and Sarawak as equal partners in the Federation of Malaysia was defeated in Parliament with only 138 MPs voting for it while 59 abstained.

How this will pan out remains to be seen, and it will require all the skill, wisdom and foresight of all parties concerned to work out a solution or a compromise.

4. Other troubling issues

In the countdown to the Rantau by-election tomorrow, we see racism and religious bigotry rearing their ugly heads.

PH is still saddled with the legacy of financial and administrative mismanagement, questionable development projects, massive corruption and mega scandals, and a compromised jury and civil service.

The high cost of living continues to be a bane. One cannot fail to mention the real threat of global economic slowdown and trade wars between superpowers.

Silver linings

Yet, there is good reason for us to feel upbeat about the prospects ahead as we look at some of the other significant unfolding events.

1. Mahathir on Anwar

A few days ago, Mahathir reiterated that his successor would be Anwar Ibrahim, in another statement to show his commitment to the two-year timeline.

The naysayers and prophets of doom will be unimpressed by this latest development. We can expect them to continue with their conspiracy theories, spins and deception. They will stop at nothing to create a wedge between the two men and sow seeds of discord between the component parties of PH.

2. Najib’s trials

Najib’s klepto trials are finally underway with the seven charges in relation to SRC International involving RM42 million, while another six CBT charges in relation to 1MDB involving RM6.6 billion will begin next month.

The remaining charges will also be tried this year.

The people have been waiting for this, after months of debate and trial by media.

We shall see when the hard facts are revealed whether the realities will take a bite at the facade of beliefs and perceptions about the cases.

And at the end of the day, we will get to see whether the people will continue to cheer and support “Bossku” as some do now.

3. ECRL

There are indications that both China and Malaysia are now close to a resolution on the East Coast Rail Link, with the project expected to cost less with a deal for China to buy our palm oil.

4. Other positive news

The controversy surrounding Ronald Kiandee’s chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee is resolved.

Right commission Suhakam made a brave finding on how state agents abducted Pastor Raymond Koh and Amri Che Mat.

The PH government has finally agreed to launch further investigation into the matter when the police get a new chief next month, so that investigations are not compromised by the involvement of current and previous police chiefs in the cases.

There is now greater urgency to establish the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission to address grouses and take enforcement action against the police.

Fireman Muhammad Adib’s inquest has also debunked the many allegations by some quarters, especially the extremist groups who see a racial slant to the tragedy.

We will realise that there is more good than bad under PH in the New Malaysia.

But people are impatient and expect immediate results.

There is still a long way before the next polls. And there is reason for us to remain upbeat that things will get better as we move forward.

When it comes to the crunch, the PH government is still our best bet for a safer and better future. Warts and all, PH is still a better choice than Umno/BN and PAS. They remain trapped in a time warp with the old mindset of racial chauvinism.

Wan Haron Wan Hassan is a senior practising lawyer, active in civil society movements.

First published in Free Malaysia Today

Nearly a third of Pakatan Govt’s economic promises achieved, says Ideas

KUALA LUMPUR: The Pakatan Harapan Government, which swept into power in May last year, has fulfilled nearly a third of its economic promises but more needs to be done, the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) says.

In its first edition of Projek Pantau, a report card on PH’s performance in fulfilling promises in its Buku Harapan manifesto, issued on Tuesday it highlighted:

  • The government moved quickly to implement its signature promises, including abolition of GST;
  • The government has allocated significant resources to supporting Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) and encouraging technological adoption;
  • The government has significantly improved the transparency of the budget and the government’s overall financial position; and
  • The government has laid out an ambitious plan to tackle corruption which includes important reforms of the public procurement system.

However, Faiz Zaidi, executive at the Democracy and Governance Unit, Ideas pointed out: “In many of these areas, the real test will be implementation but it is encouraging that the government is on track to deliver these important reforms.

“The government should maintain momentum in these areas and should ensure these successes are communicated clearly to the public to build confidence in the government’s performance,” he said.

For this first edition, Ideas analysed 192 sub-promises, broken down from 23 main promises. Ideas said it considered all promises in Pillar 1 (Reduce the People’s Burden) and Pillar 3 (Spur Sustainable and Equitable Economic Growth), alongside three promises in Pillar 2 (Institutional and Political Reforms).

“Our overall conclusion is that the government is performing reasonably well in delivering its manifesto promises. Nearly one year into their first term in office, over 29% cent of their economic promises are either achieved or on track,” it said.

However, Ideas said other areas however, are in more trouble, in particular a number of highly ambitious targets that are proving difficult to reach:

  • The government has implemented a range of measures to reduce the cost of living, most notably abolishing GST. So far – these measures have focused on short term measures, such as subsidies and price control, rather than structural reform to different product markets to lower prices more sustainably.
  • The government has successfully restructured BR1M into Bantuan Sara Hidup, but it has not been put under the purview of a statutory body which could prevent political misuse.
  • In housing, although the government is implementing a detailed strategy we judge that this will be insufficient to achieve the ambitious promise to build one million more affordable homes, given the continued focus on a government-led approach which has failed to deliver in the past.
  • In healthcare, the government’s increase in the health budget is far below the level needed to reach 4% of GDP. Ultimately the discussion on providing sustainable healthcare need to be elevated.
  • Ambitious reform of Government Linked Companies (GLCs), in particular delivering the promise that GLCs will not compete against private companies seems increasingly unlikely as the government has committed itself to no clear strategy.
  • Although trade and investment continue to rise, the government has stalled on ratification of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the prospects for an EU Free Trade Agreement also look slim.

This links to a wider concern voiced by many that the government needs to frame a clear and compelling trade and industrial policy for Malaysia.

“In these areas, we recommend that the government recalibrate its approach to ensure that the ambitious targets of the manifesto can be achieved,” Faiz said.

The top three areas the government has said and done little or nothing to demonstrate that progress is being made:

  • The government has allocated significant resources to upgrade infrastructure in Orang Asal communities, but has not set out a comprehensive approach to address the other issues facing these communities – including land rights and education.
  • On tax, the government has so far only proposed modest reforms, although the government has formed a Tax Reform Committee it is not clear what direction reform is likely to take, or even what the scope of reform might be. The government will have to balance the competing demands of raising additional revenue to fund public services and sticking to its promise of reducing the tax burden.
  • Although the government has set allocated resources to support SMEs in the form of loans, it does not seem to be applying the same attention to reviewing and reducing the regulatory burden on business, and small business in particular.

In these areas, Ideas recommended the government move quickly to set out to reconfirm its political commitment to these promises and set out clear policy direction to achieve them.

“We also urge the government to be more strategic and coordinated in communicating with the public. This is important not only to demonstrate what they have achieved, but a maturing democracy like Malaysia needs informed citizens who are able to raise the political debate to a higher level,” Faiz said.

First published in The Star Online

Coup d’etat possible if govt is not careful on Malay issues, says Khalid Samad

KUALA LUMPUR: It is important for the government to tread carefully on Malay issues, because a potential coup d’etat could take place, given that the Malays are the majority in the country, says Federal Territories Minister Khalid Abdul Samad.

“Nothing is impossible. Especially since 70% of the population are Malays and they are sufficiently influenced to believe that the position of the Malays is in danger.

“As you know, the police and military are also fundamentally Malay-based institutions. That is why it is very important for us to handle this issue with care,” he said.

Khalid was speaking to reporters in the Parliament lobby on Monday (April 8), in response to Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, who was quoted as saying that the Cabinet’s decision to withdraw from the Rome Statute was a “political” move done in fear of a coup d’etat.

Khalid drew the example of the 2013 Egyptian coup d’etat, when Mohamed Morsi was removed by the military as the President of Egypt.

“Even in Egypt, where the issue of racial diversity does not exist, but the sense of insecurity and uncertainty with the emergence of a new government, following a democratic election, was capitalised by the ‘deep state’.

“So, in our position, we must be careful,” he said.

Khalid said the government’s decision to withdraw from the Rome Statute was because the Conference of Rulers was dragged into the matter.

He said that many issues such as questioning Malay rights and the position of the rulers can be potentially capitalised on by quarters with vested interests to create public disorder and mass mobilisation.

“Because, as you all understand, the issue we are facing are accusations that the government is anti-Malay, anti-Islam and anti-royalty.

“After the academicians have come up with statements portraying that the statute will jeopardise the position of the royalty, so we have to take this issue (Rome Statute) into consideration,” he said.

On Sunday (April 7), a group of student activists claimed that a summary paper, prepared by a group of academics to convince the Conference of Rulers to reject the Rome Statute, was one sided.

Saifuddin was also quoted on Sunday as saying that history had shown that the attempt of a coup d’etat is usually plotted by the “deep state” and it is a common reaction towards democratic advancement following an election.

“(There was the) possibility of the issue being manipulated to the extent that people go to the streets, moved by the ‘deep state’ and certain apparatus,” he was quoted as saying by several news reports.

The deep state refers to a secret government or network, typically consisting of the military, secret police, intelligence agencies or even civil servants, which acts independently of the country’s political leadership.

Saifuddin, however, refused to clarify the definition of a ‘deep state’ within the Malaysian context.

Last Friday (April 5), Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said the government was forced to withdraw from the Rome Statute following “confusion created by those with political interests”.

First published in thestar.com.my