Are critics being too harsh on Malaysia’s year-old Pakatan Harapan government?

Malaysia’s 14th General Election went down as one of the most iconic – if not the most iconic – election in the country’s history, as the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition rose to power on 9 May last year, toppling a 61-year-old Barisan Nasional regime in the wake of Najib Razak’s scandal-laden administration.

Yet, the most recent survey by research firm Merdeka Centre revealed that the new government’s approval rating drastically fell from 79 per cent at the end of May last year to 39 per cent in Mar this year.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s approval rating also plummeted from 83% to 46% during the same timeframe according to the findings of the survey.

Malays, who make up the majority of the Malaysian citizen population, appear to have shown the highest level of dissatisfaction with Mahathir’s government, with 58 per cent of the Malay respondents stating that Malaysia “was heading in the wrong direction under the new government”, according to CNBC.

Director of political consultancy firm Bower Group Asia’s Malaysia office Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani told Bloomberg: “The government still lacks political support or buy-in from the Malay community and if this remains unattended could have an adverse electoral impact for Pakatan Harapan.”

Despite that, the new government has been perceived by civil society and human rights groups as pandering to the Malay majority’s demands, particularly in relation to the status of ethnic and religious minorities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons.

Calling the PH government’s reforms a “profound disappointment”, Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said at a joint press conference with Amnesty International on Wed, a day before the government’s first anniversary, that “If you look at the way most governments proceed, it is in the first year of their governance that the most reform is made. This is when the political momentum is there and people are expecting for things to change.”

Mr Robertson criticised what he perceives to be a delay on the part of the government in repealing draconian laws such as the Sedition Act, the Prevention of Crime Act (Poca), the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma), and the National Security Council Act, in addition to the death penalty, due to pressure from the UMNO and PAS parties.

The PH government, added Mr Robertson, seems to have caved into pressure from the Malay Rulers in pulling out from the signing of the Rome Statute of the International Crime Court.

“There’s far too much of the government coasting on the prevailing political winds. It has to stand up and show some conviction,” he said.

“It feels like we are heading in the wrong direction,” he added.

Adviser to SUARAM Kua Kia Soong called the government’s delay in repealing the above laws a “totally unethical backtracking on the PH GE14 manifesto”.

“There have been engagements with civil society but no improvement in promised reform of repressive laws,” said Dr Kua.

Dr Kua added: “The anti-kleptocracy campaign appears to have been selective as crony capitalism is again the name of the game especially with regard to the mega projects up for grabs and Mahathir’s penchant for privatisation holding sway.”

While election watchdog Bersih dubbed the new government’s reforms in electoral departments as “commendable”, given that the government had only just entered its first year, chairman Thomas Fann said that “there are weaknesses where there are many promises not fulfilled”.

Among such promises, he said, is the absence of approval by a parliamentary committee on key positions such as member appointments for the EC, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) and the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC), The Star Online reported.

Associate director and lead analyst for Malaysia at risk consultancy Control Risks Cheng told CNBC that the PH takeover has “generally been good” for the country, highlighting that the coalition has made the effort to improve the independence of several public institutions, including the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.

“These are important institutional reforms that have been undertaken by Pakatan,” said Mr Cheng.

He highlighted that under the new government, there is an “improvement from the Najib era when power was centralized”, under which “many of these agencies — meant to be independent and act as a check on executive power — were not allowed to function the way they were supposed to because they were subject to political influence”.

Malaysian research firm Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs told CNBC that the PH government has done “reasonably well” in delivering its election manifesto promises, having shown effort in tackling corruption and ensuring transparency in handling the country’s finances.

The Star Online reported the prime minister as saying in an interview marking PH’s first anniversary in Putrajaya on Thu (9 May): “We don’t go around shouting about our achievements. Nobody expected us to win. They said this coalition is fragile and that it will break up.

“But we have stayed together and worked together and we are very united and we have one single objective – to bring back the Malaysia that we knew.

“That, to me, is an achievement,” he highlighted.

Dr Mahathir added that PH’s manifesto “is for five years, it’s not for one year”.

“There are some promises which must be delayed because of legal problems — for instance certain changes we need to make require some changes in the Constitution.

“For that we need a two-thirds majority, not just the government, we need the support of the opposition,” Bloomberg quoted him as saying.

Despite the alarming findings from the Merdeka Centre poll above, CNBC observed that its latest survey indicated that 67 per cent of voters are willing to give the government more time to fulfill its promises.

Damansara Member of Parliament and Political Secretary to the Minister of Finance of Malaysia Tony Pua echoed the sentiment, suggesting that it is unrealistic to expect a year-old government to undo decades of damage inflicted by previous regimes under BN.

“Reforms will take time, reforms will take a couple of years … But we believe that the economy will turn around, we believe that once we get out fundamentals right again, once we get rid of the corrupt practices of the past … Over time the economy will only get better,” Mr Pua said.

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