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Malaysia: The Need To Move From Personality To Policy Based Politics – Analysis

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Are the new parties making the same mistake?

Malaysian politics has notoriously been based upon personalities rather than policy. For decades, personality politics has failed to serve the best interests of Malaysia, currently in recession, and facing growing poverty and inflation. 

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Shifting from personality to policy based politics would be the single most important reform that could be made to enhance the nation’s democratic system.

However, the tragedy for Malaysia is that the proliferation of new political parties arriving on the scene are making the same mistake as the incumbent parties. 

It can be strongly argued that over the last two decades Malaysia has been dominated by personality based politics. 

Abdullah Ahmad Badawi came into the prime ministerial office in 2003 after Mahathir Mohamed’s retirement from office. Malaysians showed Badawi or Pak Lah resounding support in the 2004 general election on the hope he would make a difference to government, dominated by Mahathir for twenty years. 

Similarly, Najib Razak succeeded Badawi as prime minister in 2009. He initially brought with him good personal goodwill with the 1Malaysia slogan. However, Najib’s personal reputation rapidly slipped over the 1MDB financial scandal, leading to his 2018 electoral defeat to Mahathir Mohamed. Once again, the Rakyat pinned their hopes on Mahathir, who was at that time perceived as a changed man willing to ‘right the wrongs of the past.’ With around 20 months as prime minister, Mahathir dominated his cabinet and became the prime political face of the nation once again. 

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In 2020, Muhyiddin Yassin takeover the government from Mahathir after the Sheraton Putsch, where it became a Muhyiddin Yassin regime labelled Perikatan Nasional. Last year, Ismail Sabri Yaakob took over from Muhyiddin with a cabinet of basically re-arranged deckchairs. 

Likewise, on the opposition side, PKR is equated with Anwar Ibrahim with policy almost totally reflective upon his ideas. The DAP has been strongly aligned with the Lim leadership, which has passed from father to son. 

Abdul Hadi Awang has been the face of PAS for more than a decade now, steering it away from the days where “PAS for all” was resonated to the electorate. 

In effect, all six administrations over the last twenty years carried the same set of policies. The only difference was narrative and style. 

Since 2019, politics has been focused on the tussle for the top position in government. All the same leaders who have occupied political leadership for decades have been fighting for power. Political crises in Malaysia haven’t been over any fundamental differences in policy. They are simply about who, with which group will rule. 

Malaysian political mindset

Most of Malaysia’s political leaders over the last two decades have shared the same trait – a need for power. They have all been driven to the top of their respective parties by their sense of being able to control and manipulate the political domain so they can takeover governance. 

This has created erroneous situations where the federal cabinet was expanded to a cumbersome size of 32 ministers and 38 deputy ministers over the last two administrations. Gone out the window is the concept of efficiency of government. Malaysia has the largest political cabinet in the world. 

Cabinet jobs are not about governing, but rather awarding those who pledge loyalty to the sitting prime minister. 

The second trait of most of Malaysian leaders is their low sense of altruism. A prominent leader once told the author that he entered politics for business opportunities. People tend to become politicians to pursue their own self-gratification rather than serve in the interests of the people. There are so many examples of this, they need not be repeated here. 

It is often the case that the Rakyat comes off second best when political decisions are made. Too many decisions are made to benefit political business interests, where many of these decisions fall under the Official Secrets Act, and can’t be exposed. National security in Malaysia is too often about protecting the secrets of politicians. 

Thirdly, there is a sense of grandeur with Malaysian leaders. All have their own ‘gaya’ or style, which is expected to be acknowledged and respected by others. For this reason, it has to be questioned whether Malaysia’s leaders are of the people, or of the elite? Even some Pakatan Harapan politicians who came to power inside the cabinet displayed distinct changes in personality that they will have to answer the people for in the coming general election. 

Even the PAS executive councillors in the poor state of Kelantan needed Mercedes-Benz as official cars.

The final aspect of Malaysian leaders is their rhetoric. Many are too easily stirred to hold up a kris (traditional Malay knife) and proclaim the Malay cause, but in action do so very little, where poverty, drug abuse, unemployment, and poor access to amenities among Malays is on the increase. 

The country has seen its share of Hollywood style launches – multimedia corridor, regional corridors, biotechnology, and now Industry 4.0, that lead nowhere. When the Rakyat needed an indigenous vaccine, there wasn’t one. The only people who benefitted were the event organizers, consultants, directors of NGOs set up for the occasion, and contractors. 

The country has been served up numerous white elephants, while certain people run away with the loot. In Malaysia, massive infrastructure projects, industrial parks, and buildings are sometimes nothing more than monuments to greed. 

Inconvenient questions about how the government is going to tackle growing poverty, growing unemployment, and inflation are not answered. The 12th Malaysian Plan has elaborate plans to build a new aerospace hub, national biometric identification system, and the development of numerous new agencies, but is very thin on issues of growing unemployment and poverty. Inflation is not even acknowledged. 

There is now a national food crisis, but all that can be done is give out APs to selected firms to profit from the scarcity. 

Instead of solving the nations problems, the country’s politicians have embarked upon a two year theatre of power struggles that put Frank Underwood and the House of Cards to shame. 

Top of the agenda for the next twelve months will be winning party elections and heading for a general election. Rugilah Rakyat (the peoples’ loss), who are finding it difficult to put food on the table. 

Enter the new parties of hope

Many of Malaysia’s political pundits, and there are now more pundits than politicians in town, are pinning some hope on a new array of political parties, particularly Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman’s Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA). Syed Saddiq, formally dubbed “boy minister”, who takes selfies with people like Zakir Naik and Mahathir Mohamed was put under some scrutiny by Kua Kia Soong in a recent letter to the editor

Kua asked some unanswered questions: Does MUDA have non-racial solutions for Malaysia’s political institutions, education, economic, and social development? And, Does MUDA have a non-racial solution to Malaysia’s National Cultural Policy?

All we see is Syed Saddiq getting media coverage and promoting his movement. So far we have seen MUDA can horse trade with Pakatan for seat allocations in the coming Johor state election, but nothing on policy. 

On the Gerak Independent front, the last few days have seen personality turmoil. One candidate has withdrawn his candidacy, while being rebuked by another. The group is receiving criticism for standing candidates in Pakatan held constituencies. The group has failed to make clear their stands on the issues of secularism and Islam in government. Siti Kassim is being popularly touted as a potential prime minister on sentiment, rather than any strong policy manifesto. 

Mohd Shafie Apdal has confirmed that Warisan will stand in the coming Johor election, but little has been said about the party’s policies for the peninsula. 

All the new entrepreneurial political party start-ups appear to be based upon personality rather than politics. 

Its time for Malaysia to turn the page on personality politics. Those elected to government only mange rather than govern with any vision for what they want to mould Malaysia into for the future. 

The reality in Malaysia is that many enter politics with a humble array of assets and meagre wealth, and retire with amassed fortunes. Show me a retired politician who lives a frugal life and I will show you an honest politician.

The motivation of Malaysian politicians is all wrong. We need to imagine a Malaysia that has altruistic politicians who have solutions to the nation’s problems. We need to imagine a generation of politicians who have empathy for the plight of the Rakyat (people), and espouse what they are going to do for them.

The country needs politicians who will tell the Rakyat how they are going to fix the education system. Not just say they will fix it. The country needs someone to say how they are going to fix the country’s retirement crisis, not just say they will fix it. The country needs someone who will tell them how they are going to improve the economy, build better SMEs, and create opportunities for all those who want jobs, not just say they will fix them. The country needs someone who will tell the Rakyat how they will improve the health system, not just say they will fix it. 

Imagine a leader who relentlessly pursues a better path for the country. Malaysia today needs policy, not personality. 

Murray Hunter’s blog can be accessed here 

Murray Hunter

Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 30 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, and researcher. As an entrepreneur he was involved in numerous start-ups, developing a lot of patented technology, where one of his enterprises was listed in 1992 as the 5th fastest going company on the BRW/Price Waterhouse Fast100 list in Australia. Murray is now an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, spending a lot of time consulting to Asian governments on community development and village biotechnology, both at the strategic level and “on the ground”. He is also a visiting professor at a number of universities and regular speaker at conferences and workshops in the region. Murray is the author of a number of books, numerous research and conceptual papers in referred journals, and commentator on the issues of entrepreneurship, development, and politics in a number of magazines and online news sites around the world. Murray takes a trans-disciplinary view of issues and events, trying to relate this to the enrichment and empowerment of people in the region.

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