Analysts: Open tiffs in Pakatan govt sign of good democracy, but worrying for voters

Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad takes a group photo with ministers and Pakatan Harapan leaders in Putrajaya May 9, 2019. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad takes a group photo with ministers and Pakatan Harapan leaders in Putrajaya May 9, 2019. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 15 — The rather tangled series of decisions on key policies within the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government is a good sign of a nascent democracy in the administration, analysts have noted.

However, too much bickering in public also puts a damper on the level of public confidence in the maiden government, they said.

Edmund Terence Gomez from University of Malaya felt that the PH government must come together to make unanimous decisions on important policies, and not let the issue blow up in their faces, owing to disagreements.

He pointed to the controversies surrounding the planned introduction of Malay-Arabic calligraphy khat in vernacular schools as a prime example.

“Well, it’s both. On the one hand, there is healthy democracy. You see a debate of sorts. You must remember, this is a coaliton of different parties with a different representation of people on the ground. Different way of thinking, different ideology.

“So all parties in the coalition do not have a common viewpoint about society, which is normal when you have a coalition and it’s good.

“So we shouldn’t be too surprised about it. However, having said that, the issue at hand is this: Before an issue such as khat or I would say even Lynas  was put on the table or brought into the public domain, they should have been discussed it and a consensus should have been be reached by Cabinet,” Terence said.

He noted that the trend of public bickering by PH Cabinet members has already happened several times, which is alarming to voters.

Terence also raised the role of Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, whom he felt as exerting too much power and resorting to unilateral decisions.

This adds to the perception that Dr Mahathir is acting as a “strongman” politician, who exerts immense control over the Cabinet, he continued.

PH has been grappling with a series of issues over the past month, notably the announcement by Dr Mahathir confirming that the government was dropping its requirement for Lynas Malaysia to repatriate its water leach purification residue as a precondition for its licence renewal due by September 1.

Instead, the firm was directed to explore a permanent disposal site to treat its rare-earth processing residue. This angered the anti-Lynas group who reminded PH of its promise to stop the company’s operations, after it led a campaign against it, citing long-term health concerns.

Vocal complaints over the proposed khat lessons, meanwhile, led Dr Mahathir to describe Chinese educationist group Dong Zong as racists after it launched a petition to force a reversal of the policy.

As for controversial televangelist Dr Zakir Naik, calls to deport the fugitive preacher to India intensified this week, after he reportedly made statements angering the Indians and Chinese in Malaysia.

Four Cabinet ministers — Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo, Human Resources Minister M. Kulasegaran, Water, Land and Natural Resources Minister A. Xavier Jayakumar and Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman — have called the government to deport Dr Zakir who is a wanted man in India.

Political sociologist Dr Sivamurugan Pandian also echoed Terence’s sentiment, adding that there needs to be a more “leadership-based” approach, instead of allowing public discord among PH leaders to drag on.

“It is part of constructive engagement in democracy which allows more openness and transparency, and the masses can interact with the institutions’ actions as well. However, as we belong to a plural and multi-ethnic society, some issues must be handled in a more ‘leadership’ based manner. Authority-defined decisions at a macro level must also consider everyday defined decisions taken at a micro level.

“If the decision is from the executive, then it should be delivered properly to the masses to avoid different interpretations, especially sensitive issues. Consensus among all members of the Cabinet will show that everyone agreed to what was decided in Cabinet,” the Universiti Sains Malaysia senior academic told Malay Mail.

Independent analyst Hoo Kee Ping felt that PH members are in for a bumpy ride as they try and move ahead together, owing to differing interests.

He pointed out that the component parties under PH only won the government by accident and were united by a common enemy back then — Datuk Seri Najib Razak — only to quickly find themselves in a fix later, with many internal disagreements.

“This bunch of parties, they came in with the same enemy: Najib Razak. So everybody has a different agenda when they came in, but a common enemy, and with their decades of fighting.

“All of them were fighting Tun [Dr Mahathir] for almost 40 years. Like [Lim] Kit Siang. Anwar was [fighting Dr Mahathir] almost 20 years. So remember, they were born crippled. PH was born crippled.

“They only came in because of the common enemy,” he said, adding that the coalition is therefore susceptible to conflicts of interest and opinions, as it tries to move forward as a government.