By Alfian Z.M. Tahir
Faced with massive debt inherited from the previous government, Malaysia’s new administration focused during its first month in power on campaign promises to cut costs and lower that burden, analysts said.
Led by the world’s oldest prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government faces the task of delivering on electoral pledges that also include investigating alleged corruption committed by the old government, according to observers.
“They have honored their promises despite some financial restraint,” Hisommudin Bakar, executive director of the Ilham Center, an independent think-tank, told BenarNews. “Overall, they have delivered and will continue to deliver, I hope.”
The view was shared by Awang Azman Awang Pawi, a political analyst at the University Malaya, who said the new administration was doing its best to salvage the nation’s economy.
Lim Guan Eng, the new finance minister, disclosed recently that Malaysia’s debt and liabilities had exceeded 1 trillion ringgit (U.S. $251 billion).
During their campaign that led to last month’s upset victory in a general election, in which the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition was ousted for the first time ever in Malaysia’s 61-year history, Pakatan candidates promised to fulfill 10 goals in their 100 days in office.
The platform promises included: reducing fuel prices; abolishing student loans and a 6 percent good and sales tax (GST); alleviating the “non-working” status of housewives by putting them under a contribution scheme like other working adults; setting a nationwide minimum wage; and providing better health care.
In addition, PH promised to investigate financial scandals including the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state investment fund that lost Malaysia billions of dollars and to review Chinese-backed mega infrastructure projects to determine if money was being spent properly.
Democracy, transparency as main objectives
At the end of the new government’s first month in office, half of the promises have yet to be fulfilled, but voters were able to evaluate government performance not just by manifestos but also by how the country was run, according to Hisomuddin.
Since taking office, the government of Mahathir – who will turn 93 next month – has announced that Malaysians will have a three-month tax break before it introduces a more modest sales-and-services levy, effective Sept. 1.
Additionally, instead of abolishing the student loan program, it decided to lift a travel ban on thousands of defaulters, while studying the best mechanism to get students to repay without facing financial hardships.
Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the first woman to hold that post in Malaysia, announced that a contribution scheme for women previously classified as non-working was under study. The government was able to set a fixed price for lower grades of fuel.
These efforts have drawn far less attention than the new administration’s promise to quickly investigate former Prime Minister Najib Razak for alleged corruption along with financial scandals tied to 1MDB and its former subsidiary, SRC International. The government also moved to cut a high-speed rail link between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, citing its cost against a return on investment.
Mahathir, who previously served as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, succeeded in convincing rural Malay voters to vote against BN this time, a move the opposition had never been able to pull off in Malaysia. Before he led the opposition to victory in the May 9 election, Mahathir was a longtime pillar of Barisan Nasional who developed a reputation as an autocratic leader during his first 22-year stint as PM.
“Surely with the progressive ideas thrown in by many of the newly [appointed] ministers and by many of the parliamentarians from PH, democracy and transparency will be the main objective. We can hope for a better future in terms of integrity and accountability,” Hisomuddin said.
Since Barisan lost the election, Najib and wife, Rosmah Mansor, have been barred from leaving the country. They also have been questioned separately by the Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) over how 42 million ringgit ($10.5 million) in money from SRC International ended up in Najib’s private bank accounts, when he was prime minister.
Their appearances before MACC followed searches of their home, his former office and other residences where, police said, they seized suitcases containing nearly $29 million in cash and expensive items, along with 284 boxes containing luxury handbags. U.S. justice officials have pointed out that more than $4.5 billion (17.9 billion ringgit) was stolen from 1MDB since its inception in 2009 until its advisory board was dissolved in 2016.
Najib has maintained his innocence.
“The investigation and the probe are done according to the rule of law. The confiscation of handbags, cash, and jewelry are part of the process,” analyst Awang Azman told BenarNews. “But that does not mean that Najib and Rosmah are guilty.
“But the way they are treated on social media has somehow given us the idea that they are stealing our money, and that is not right.”
A ‘press conference’ government
Meanwhile, an executive council member of the youth wing of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the anchor party of Barisan, disagreed with the new government’s efforts to fix the economy.
Armand Azha Abu Hanifah said it had been flip-flopping for almost a month as major promises on student loans and fuel prices had yet to be fulfilled.
“The government of the day is nothing more than a ‘press conference’ government – announcing everything but not delivering on major promises,” Armad told BenarNews.
Lambasting the new government, Armand said Najib’s administration was able to deliver on its promises despite being hit with endless controversies and scandals.
“Now after realizing that the debt is high, they decide to cut down on mega projects and make hundreds of poor Malaysians jobless,” he added.