Deconstructing Anwar-Najib debate — democratic progress or degression?

by DR RAIS HUSSIN / pic by MUHD AMIN NAHARUL

SOME quarters suggested that the recent publicly held debate between Datuk Seri Mood Najib Razak and Opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is a sign of “maturing politics” and can lead to “more” democracy in our country. 

However, some questioned, how is a debate between a convicted felon and a prominent Opposition leader a sign of “mature politics” from any angle! This appears more as a mockery of good governance and integrity, and an insult to democracy, our country and the rakyat.

As EMIR Research recently put it in its article “Technocratic legal bailout framework to arrest ‘bailout-preneurship'”, the situation around Sapura Energy Bhd very neatly falls into the definition of “bailout-preneurship” or yet another type of corruption cartel in our country where in a very symbiotic relationship government-linked companies, banks and the government work together to first draw the money out and then use people’s money to clean up the mess.

Therefore, on a topic like this, Najib, given his conviction and array of corruption charges, should be the last person on earth to be given the right even to open his mouth and express an opinion or any “advice” as he has completely and overwhelmingly discredited himself as a policymaker and leader. 

When this convicted felon even raised his head to comment on this issue, he should have been immediately pointed to his place. But what do we see instead? 

We see him on national TV expressing his opinion, remarkably, not just on the Sapura bailout issue, but on the Malaysian economy prospects and the way forward as if this is his election campaign. And how was he introduced at the beginning of the programme? With Anwar, he was presented as a “big” or “prominent figure” in national politics. How is this possible after all that he has done? How is this a sign of mature politics or democratic progress?

As it transpires, there is a movement to re-legitimise Najib in line with the Overton window opportunity strategy (Figure 1) — when something completely unacceptable is gradually turned into a widely accepted norm.

First, we see him freely walking around while being charged and convicted for corruption in court, then campaigning in Johor elections, then having a seat among the royalties and now, appearing on national TV side by side with an indeed prominent Opposition leader to give “HIS VIEWS” on Malaysia’s way forward.

We all know well that to “change its political landscape” Malaysia must take a definitive and firm stance against pervasive corruption. By now, Najib, instead of appearing on TV shining in all the limelight, should have been behind bars together with his high-profile companions. And such decisiveness and a firm stance against corruption should start emanating from the political will in the first place. And until this is done, we also should not expect maturity from our leaders — ie focusing on rakyat and nation-building.

As for the content of the debate itself, Anwar clearly had the upper hand, not because of his oratory skills and vocalness, but because of the weight, essence, precision and total sense of the arguments he brought in.

Speaking of Sapura, he stressed the importance of a complete forensic audit as the first and foremost step before even considering a bailout. It is more than suspicious why Sapura bailout proponents, including Najib, vehemently oppose such a fair idea.

They try to create a sense of urgency by arguing that forensics would take time, while Sapura’s creditors have petitioned its bankruptcy for June 10, 2022. However, this is not something that cannot be solved through a proper process.

As the first step, the government should negotiate a delay in petitioning the bankruptcy, indicating to the creditors its interest in properly restructuring and reorganising Sapura to save the company, including what is due to the creditors. Creditors will surely be more than happy to accept this, as the recovery possibilities will be much higher.

Upon obtaining this delay, as EMIR Research earlier suggested in “Technocratic legal bailout framework to arrest ‘bailoutpreneurship'”, the proper bailout process should include:

• assessing and asserting the company’s viability as a going concern;

• bail-out sum to be exchanged for a fair percentage of equity in the company, so the government will be able to benefit from the upside in the future. No more free monies;

• a thorough forensic audit of book-keeping, capital management, governance structure, approval process, vendor payment process, etc;

• tying the bailout to a moratorium on dividend payments or share buybacks, as well as bonuses and other types of remunerations to the top management and board of directors for the time being, while the company is benefitting from the government support; 

• curbing excessive executive pay;

• revision of long-term incentive plans and bonuses;

• requirement of payroll maintenance;

• demand that all creditors receive haircuts;

• Ousting the management who presided over the company descend and found guilty of mismanagement (that is why a forensic audit is essential) and imposing clawbacks on their salaries and remunerations.

The above is only fair when public funds are potentially involved, and some of these steps Anwar had emphasised in the debate.

Speaking of the future of Malaysia, given limited time in not so many but weighty and powerful words, Anwar talked about widespread corruption and the so-called “tummy economy”, the people’s livelihood pressing issues, such as costs of living, affordable healthcare, affordable housing, the quality of education and quality employment.

He suggested the pathway towards resolving these issues, which among other things, include starting with eradicating corruption, establishing standards for correct management with proper accountability and integrity, and getting rid of historical identity politics as time has changed.   

Note that Najib did not once mention this, likely because racial/identity politics remain central to Barisan Nasional/Umno’s narrative to appeal to its political support base. Therefore, the concepts of a more “inclusive” Malaysia, or “1Malaysia”, or “Keluarga” Malaysia are mere empty rhetoric. 

In striking contrast to Anwar, Najib came with “relict solutions” that brought Malaysia down to its knees in the first place and, if anything, contributed more to the problem than solved it. 

He spoke a lot about the necessity to continue investing in big infrastructure projects — “making the cake bigger”, which Anwar immediately countered as to be enjoyed only by the elite few among politicians and their cronies.

Making the cake bigger reflects the overused rhetoric of the high-income advanced economy, whereby there are two overarching issues: 1) HOW the cake is grown, ie legally, ethically, etc, and 2) HOW the increased size of the cake is shared/cut to ensure better equitable sharing of wealth?

Also, time has changed rapidly since 2016, together with the advancement of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). With the advancement of 4IR, no one is talking anymore about the economies of scale and big infrastructure projects — those are dinosaur relict terms. Instead, the focus now is all on micro, lean, small, agile, start-ups — all coming together like pieces of one puzzle into a thriving ecosystem. 

Najib was unable to grasp this neither during his tenure nor now. Thus, many resources were wasted while missing (the opportunity to) properly embarking on 4IR and leaving Malaysia clueless with only one well-entrenched and thriving ecosystem — the corruption ecosystem in the form of cartels everywhere, anywhere.

Najib claimed in the debate that during the time of his administration, the Gini coefficient had been reducing, while two months into Pakatan Harapan or PH (administration) the Gini coefficient had increased. 

We must understand that the Gini coefficient, calculated based on income and its distribution, is an indicator lagging behind the overall national industry development. 

And to evaluate Malaysia’s industry development based on available data, during Najib’s tenure, foreign direct investment as a percent of GDP, value added by industry as a percent of GDP and economic growth forecast were all in a declining trend. Export as a percent of GDP fell from 91.42% (in 2009) to 68.56% (in 2018). Youth unemployment and underemployment were on an increasing trend. 

Our Global Innovation Index has been in permanent steep decline since 2013. Our technical skills and talents have been stagnant or even deteriorating over the last few years. Not to mention the ballooning government debt throughout Najib’s administration. And the list can go on.

So, not surprisingly, we saw the Gini coefficient increase by the time PH took over. This is not to say, though, that PH has not contributed to the problems faced by Malaysia.

All in all, public debates between political leaders are good. However, there must be a debate motion and there must be a resolution in the best interest of the rakyat. 

Also, why was the public not allowed to express their opinion in real-time, as the debate takes place in our time of advanced technologies? Why do we only hear two choreographed questions from a probably carefully selected audience? Also, how about real-time fact-checking for all the facts stated in the debate, as done by more developed and democratic economies?

And yes, 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Bhd) took a backseat in this debate though it is the single largest kleptocracy and/or corruption case of the world, for which many have been convicted including Najib for the grandiose theft of the nation, as Najib’s team cleverly put a condition that all ongoing cases in the court of law to be excluded from the debate. 

Anwar should have instead spoken about Tim Leissner and Roger Ng’s conviction, not forgetting the Falcon Private Bank that was shut down in Singapore as a result of this theft !

Nevertheless, there is also good news, which is people’s reaction to all of this. The rakyat has deciphered all of these events correctly and their reaction was correct — an avalanche of anger, disgust, resentment and infuriation that even Najib’s paid cyber-troopers cannot combat. 

And the rakyat needs to keep this momentum of being angry enough to close the Overton window of opportunity for kleptocrats with their relict policies in the forthcoming election and finally set Malaysia on the path of progressiveness and economic sense.

  • Dr Rais Hussin is the CEO of EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.