by Gan Pei Ling / 12 April 2013 © Selangor Times
MALAYSIANS are finally going to the polls on May 5 after intense speculation for more than a year.
BN chief Datuk Seri Najib Razak pledged more cash handouts and development projects in a manifesto themed “Aku Janji” unveiled last Saturday.The ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) is going all out to regain the two-thirds majority in Parliament and five states it lost -in 2008.
Pakatan Rakyat (PR), which aims to unseat the half-a-century-old regime, promises lower petrol, water and electricity prices, to reform public institutions and wipe out corruption in its manifesto titled “Pakatan Harapan Rakyat” released earlier in February.
The manifestos provide a gauge for our 13.27 million voters the direction BN and PR plan to take our country, particularly for some three million people who will be voting for the first time.
So how do the two coalitions size up against each other? Selangor Times speaks to independent analysts and academics to get their immediate thoughts.
Business-as-usual for BN
Merdeka Centrer for Opinion Research programme director Ibrahim Suffian thinks BN’s manifesto is an extension and report card of Najib’s attempted reforms.
“It has a lot of explanations about what the (incumbent) government has done and the future projects that they want to put in place,” he said in a phone interview.
Najib took over the premiership from Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi exactly four years ago.
Notable reforms implemented during his administration include the abolition of the Internal Security Act, emergency laws and annual licence for newspapers.
He also set up the Performance Management & Delivery Unit (Pemandu) which introduced the “Government Transformation Programme (GTP)” and “Economic Transformation Programme (ETP)” in a bid to overhaul the bloated civil service and national economy.
Yet, Najib’s tenure has also been plagued by corruption scandals involving the National Feedlot Corporation, submarine deals and most recently, native customary land grab in Sarawak.
Ibrahim pointed out that as the incumbent government, BN has found it difficult to tackle corruption, cut wastage in the public sector and address other systemic problems in the economy.
“They promised to carry out open tenders but this has not been done,” he noted.
As such, the BN manifesto focuses on giving more cash back for the public and infrastructure development such as building more roads, highways and schools.
In comparison, the independent pollster said PR offers more groundbreaking proposals to promote good governance.
The three-party alliance has vowed to restructure the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, restore its integrity by focusing on big corruption cases as well as reviewing anti-graft laws.
PR leaders have also agreed to abolish the Official Secrets Act and enact a Freedom of Information Act after earning brickbats from critics for failing to include it in their manifesto.
However, Ibrahim and political economist Prof Dr Edmund Terence Gomez think that both manifestos are populist in nature.
While BN pledged to give more cash to low-income earners and increase subsidies, PR said it would lower fuel and utility tariffs, abolish the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN) and provide free tertiary education.
In addition, both coalitions have promised to raise government servants’ salary.
“They didn’t deal with the issue of how the government is going to pay for it,” said Gomez, an academic from Universiti Malaya Faculty of Economics and Administration.
He said the country relies on small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to drive economic growth but inadequate attention has been paid to economic reforms needed to spur the growth of SMEs.
To be fair, PR did mention it would set up a RM500 million innovation fund and divert government assistance from large industries to SMEs if it comes into federal power.
And BN has mentioned in its manifesto that it would implement a plan for the “transformation” of SMEs and set up a National Trading Company to promote SMEs’ products in overseas markets.
But Gomez hit out at Najib’s administration for failing to implement significant reforms under the much-touted New Economic Model, ETP and GTP.
“They have identified the problems in our government, economy, education and came out with recommendations.
“But they have had problems instituting the reforms over the past four years. Why should we assume that they will be able to keep their promises (in the manifesto)?” he said.
Gomez acknowledged that increasing the Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia for singles up to RM600 and households to RM1,200 is a highly effective way for BN to garner electorate support among t e poor.
The cash handout will provide temporary relief to low-income groups.
“But is it sustainable? Will it solve the issue of poverty?” questioned the public intellectual.
He noted that Sabah, Sarawak and other states in Peninsular Malaysia such as Terengganu, Kedah and Perlis remain the poorest states in the country.
And BN has failed to address the widening regional development gap despite being in government for 55 years.
Although a manifesto is a set of election promises to woo voters, it should still be based on sound policies that are feasible and sustainable.
Gomez highlighted that both coalitions have pledged to build more affordable homes without dealing with the core problem of escalating construction cost and property speculation.
Meanwhile, PR also seems to be contradicting itself by vowing to improve public transportation, reduce traffic congestion yet slashing car and fuel prices at the same time.
With cheaper cars and travelling costs, the public will have little incentive to adopt public transport.
“It will likely congest our streets even more (and increase carbon emission). At an age where everyone is concerned about climate change, is it a wise move?” Gomez remarked.
A better Malaysia
Finally, providing quality public education is central to eradicating poverty and nurturing the human resources needed to steer Malaysia towards achieving developed status. But the declining standard of our education system has become a common complaint among parents, teachers and students.
Educationist Datuk Dr Toh Kin Woon said the BN’s approach to education has been a failure.
“They talk about creating a world-class education system but I don’t see how they can achieve it,” Toh said in a phone interview.
The retired academic believes under PR, at least there is hope that greater emphasis will be placed on meritocracy in the recruitment and promotion of teachers.
“There’s also hope that there will be greater decentralisation, providing state education departments and district offices more flexibility in the implementation of education policies,” said the soft-spoken Toh.
He said decentralisation in decision-making in the government has helped to raise education standards in countries like the United Kingdom and Australia.
The former Gerakan politician added that PR is more forthcoming in its pledges to provide equal resources to schools from various language streams.
On top of that, the young coalition vowed to loosen the government’s stranglehold on our tertiary institutions and restore academic freedom by abolishing the Universities and University Colleges Act.
Overall, PR seems to offer a bolder manifesto to reform our government, economy and education.
But aside from the manifestos, the quality of candidates put forth by political parties will influence voters’ decision in the polls too.
Come May 5, whichever coalition makes it to Putrajaya, it is up to citizens to hold the political parties accountable to their election promises and ensure the new government implements responsible policies to develop the country.
Sidebar: What’s in it for the women and indigenous people?
WOMEN make up half the population in the country but local political parties have been slow to adopt policies to promote gender equality.
Both Pakatan Rakyat (PR) and Barisan Nasional (BN) have pledged to increase women’s participation in decision-making roles in their manifestos.
But are they serious in removing obstacles that hinder female participation in politics and the economy?
In the 12rh General Election, only 23 women were elected to Parliament, making up slightly over a tenth of the 222 seats.
The statistics are even lower in state legislatures, where there were only 27 BN female lawmakers and 21 from PR out of the 576 state seats.
Women’s rights activist Maria Chin Abdullah thinks both coalitions should put forth more women candidates in the upcoming polls if they were committed to their pledge.
“We definitely need more women in Parliament and State Assemblies,” said the executive director of Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (Empower) in an email interview.
She pointed out that both coalitions are more interested in giving out cash to married women in their manifestos.
Policies that empower young or single women are notably missing.
“Both are weak in substantive empowerment due to the welfare approach. There’s nothing wrong in giving money but it’s a short-term measure,” said Maria.
The saving grace for BN, she said, is that the coalition claimed it would implement schemes to support women working from home.
“But what about men who choose to work from home? Why are they not encouraged?” questioned the activist.
She said the policy is based on a false, stereotypical assumption that only women work from home.
Furthermore, Maria took the BN regime to task for failing to implement significant gender reforms after 55 years in government.
“Women’s groups have been fighting for the recognition of other forms of rape in our laws such as marital rape and gang rape, the review of Syariah laws that discriminate against Muslim women, the implementation of sex education to reduce sexual violence against women,” she cited as examples.
She added that there has been little effort by the BN regime to address the increase of women affected by HIV and AIDS, human trafficking and review the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act.
Maria gave PR credit for addressing some of these issues in its Agenda for Women, which was launched separately last year.
It also promised to adopt gender budgeting, which is about breaking down government data to ensure public resources are allocated equally to both sexes.
“It will shift the burden of women’s welfare from the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development to the Health, Education, Transport and other ministries that also deal with women’s problems,” she explained.
Meanwhile, both BN and PR have promised to uphold the indigenous people’s native customary land rights (NCR).
However, Centre for Orang Asli Concerns director Dr Colin Nicholas said if BN was sincere, its federal and state governments should have withdrawn from court battles over land disputes with the indigenous people.
“Why make free promises now?” questioned the academic-turned-activist.
He highlighted that PR has vowed to gazette 141,000 hectares of Orang Asli land but he said that is less than 20% of their customary land.
“It’s not enough and it’s what the BN government recognises as well,” said Nicholas in a phone interview.
While the Pakatan Rakyat-led Selangor government has tried to gazette Orang Asli reserve over the past five years, the Kelantan government has been embroiled in land disputes with the Orang Asli there.
“It’s very difficult to ask the Orang Asli there to vote for PAS,” he said.
Nicholas said both BN and PR should come forth and support the UN Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, implement laws to comply with the it if the coalitions are truly for indigenous people.