Not right time for Anwar to institute reforms, say analysts

PM still has to face 6 state elections later this year and he can only institute some of the reforms he promised, if his govt survives them

by JUNE MOH / pic TMR File

PRIME Minister (PM) Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim (picture) does not have a lot of room to propose political reforms at this juncture, said Pacific Research Centre principal advisor of Malaysia and Senior Fellow at Singapore Institute of International Affairs Dr Oh Ei Sun.

He said Anwar still has to face the six state elections later this year and he can only institute some of the reforms he promised, if his government survives them.

“There has to be first and foremost some sort of a fixed-term arrangement for the government, such as that an elected government could serve out a fixed term of say four or five years. This is to ensure political stability, thus, business confidence.

“It may require constitutional amendments, but is likely to be welcomed in a bipartisan manner, as both sides of the political divide have experienced falls of government,” Oh told The Malaysian Reserve (TMR).

He added that there should be a refocusing of socio-economic policies from race-based to needs-based, in line with the Malaysia Madani vision.

“But this is likely to encounter a lot of resistance from the more race and religion-conscious Perikatan Nasional (PN) side,” he said.

However, independent political analyst Khoo Kay Peng was of the opinion that Anwar had enough room to implement reform, but he needs to do it properly and deftly.

“Key reforms that Anwar should focus on are no political appointees in any GLCs, instructions to ministries to focus on economic competitiveness, regional opportunities and address income bottleneck.

“Education must be reformed to stop unproductive race-centric discussion. Focus on quality and delivery, public sector reform to improve efficiency and impact, infrastructure improvements to support the economy, and address brain drain with concrete plans,” Khoo said to TMR.

He lauded Anwar’s announcement to terminate political appointments to GLCs, however, he needs to get down to the nittygritty of political appointments.

Meanwhile, Nusantara Academy for Strategic Research (NASR) senior fellow Azmi Hassan said the PM should look deeper at the political appointment on advisory boards, which is part of a common organisational structure of GLCs and government agencies.

“Until now, there are appointees of the advisory board who are not experts on the areas given to them. I realise that supportive political members will be given thank you notes (appointment) by their parties.

“To instil confidence in the investors, however small a political appointment, whether it be just a member of the advisory board, it needs to be related to the appointees’ expertise and experience.

“It (political appointment to advisory board) is still happening because it is up to the decision of the minister of each ministry to make the appointment. Anwar did not look into this nitty-gritty, so I think he needs to set up a special committee to vet this,” Azmi said.

He added that there was no official or standardised vetting process except for a small one by the Public Service Department (JPA), which is mostly done by the ministers themselves.

“The appointments to (advisory board) will create some uneasiness not only among people but also foreign investors. It shows Anwar’s seriousness in tackling mismanagement in terms of lack of experience or lack of qualities in all of these appointments.

“I think Anwar needs to establish a special setup to instil confidence (in people and investors),” he said.

Azmi added that this special setup is nothing new. He gave an example that all appointments by the White House need to go through a special setup that is separate from the White House so all the appointments will be vetted.

“Not in terms of security but suitability, whether it is appropriate in terms of experience and academic qualification,” he said.

The Straits Times earlier reported Oh as saying that Anwar was not rushing out reforms as he was still looking to consolidate his position and also redirect his administration’s focus on Malaysia’s sluggish economy and rising inflation driving up living costs, especially for lower-income groups.

He said economic revitalisation must necessarily take priority over all other issues, at least in the short term, as the country was undergoing yet another stretch of economic downturn. So, all these reform issues would have to take a backseat to the economy.

In earlier news reports, Bower Group Asia deputy MD Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani said Pakatan Harapan (PH) was going slow on reforms, after its previous administration’s experience of having alienated the bureaucracy and making sweeping changes as soon as it came to power, which led to destabilisation within its own ranks.

Asrul said PH, as a coalition, had learnt that it needs to be more patient and calculated in introducing key legal reforms.

Concurring with Oh, Asrul said Anwar was in the midst of consolidating his position as PM.

“Despite the agreement between PH and its coalition partners, he still needs to tread strategically to incorporate the manifestos of all parties,” he said.

Meanwhile, a Chinese-language daily reported that the unusual makeup of the new government coalition offers the potential for achieving more important reforms.

The newspaper said that compared to previous governments, the ethnically and culturally diverse East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak will have greater influence and therefore greater equity in federal decision-making while the appointment of the country’s first deputy PM from the region will add a new focus to regional development and political inclusion.

It added that Malaysia’s fractured politics, in which no single coalition can lead alone, means that party leaders will be forced to govern based on compromise, mutual benefit and cooperation to accomplish any goals.

Azmi reportedly cautioned voters against having overtly high hopes for PH delivering on all its election promises now that it is part of a Unity Government.

Despite being in the driver’s seat, he said, PH is constrained by the need to reach an agreement with others in the coalition.

“Do not put too much hope that all pledges will be fulfilled not only by PH, but also manifestos from other coalitions in the government,” Azmi said, adding that much give and take will be required regarding manifestos and election promises.

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition