NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.
A favourite line of attack adopted by the Barisan Nasional (BN) government these days is the accusation that the opposition are only capable of making empty promises and hence are unable to govern.
To corroborate this premise, the prime minister recently suggested three points, namely: that the opposition coalition has failed to formalise itself under a common party symbol, that the inability to formulate a shadow cabinet reveals a lack of credibility, and that the opposition’s sweet promises are in reality “venomous poison” that will eventually bring financial ruin to the country. In stressing the last point, he even went so far as to say that the Buku Jingga, the opposition’s official policy manifesto, “is not worth the paper it is printed on”.
Now, that’s all very fine for the prime minister to partake in showboating, especially when the mainstream media will offer no space for a rejoinder by the opposition. Unfortunately, even with the near-monopoly of information that he enjoys, it is disappointing that the prime minister has to resort to mischievous half-truths, unabashed hypocrisy and outright lies in order to malign the opposition.
Take the first point, on the matter of a common symbol. It is true that after four years of working together as a de facto coalition, Pakatan Rakyat (PR) is still not a registered entity. But what the PM has conveniently failed to mention is the fact that an application had actually been submitted three years ago, and has since been sitting at the doorsteps of the Home Ministry awaiting approval. Thus, the prime minister has really got some cheek to accuse PR for “failing” to register as a single party!
The second bone of contention has arguably a little more merit. It cannot be denied that the PR coalition has to date not drawn up a “shadow cabinet” (although Utusan Malaysia has kindly taken upon itself to produce one on behalf). While this is an oft-repeated criticism, I feel that it is rarely discussed in the proper context.
Many who speak of a shadow cabinet often refer to the British equivalent. Yet there are two great dissimilarities at play here. Firstly, unlike the British parliament, the Malaysian parliament accords no institutional space for an “official opposition”. Members of a would-be shadow cabinet would be neither recognised nor given the same amount of standing, respect or access as their British counterparts. In fact, the way our parliamentary sessions are conducted, even the opposition leader has no real opportunity to debate directly with the prime minister.
Secondly, when Labour was in power prior to the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, both the Conservatives and the Liberal-Democrats had their own separate shadow cabinets. This is due to the nature of multiparty democracy in Britain, in which coalitions are ad-hoc and not formalised arrangements. In our country, we have a pseudo “two-coalition” system with entirely different dynamics. Added to the fact that the formalisation of the opposition coalition under a single umbrella is being deliberately blocked by the government, the demand for a shadow cabinet is grossly unfair.
That said, to say, as the prime minister did, that a shadow cabinet is “fundamental” in proving governing ability is disingenuous. Take the United States for example. There, whichever party in the opposition does not have a “shadow president” until a presidential candidate is chosen in the lead-up to the national elections. And even then, besides selecting a running-mate, the alternative president does not go further by naming a shadow cabinet.
What Malaysia really needs more than a shadow cabinet is a capable opposition who are able to “check” the government by provoking accountability and pointing out shortcomings. And in this regard, I believe the PR leaders are doing their job. For example, can anyone recall prior to 2008 the national budget being scrutinised as meticulously as is done today? Furthermore, various scandals, leakages and problems have been successfully unearthed and made public in the last few years due to diligent detective work by opposition MPs.
Finally, is it not an exercise in hypocrisy for the BN to attack PR for not having a shadow cabinet, when the BN themselves are unable to form shadow executive councils for each of the four PR-ruled states? At least all three parties in PR have publicly agreed on an alternative prime minister – does the BN even know who their chief minister-designates are?
Moving on to Najib’s third point – that PR is unable to govern and are only good at mouthing populist policies that will bankrupt the country. This is of course a serious matter. After all, Malaysians want to be convinced that they are voting for a credible alternative government.
In rebutting this point, I will not attempt to rattle off the string of achievements that have been accomplished by the “inexperienced” PR state governments over the last four years, particularly their success in overcoming fiscal deficits, plugging leakages, reducing corruption, increasing investments, and implementing welfare policies.
Instead, I would like to make a few observations about the federal government. Let us consider some of the more recent policy decisions by Putrajaya. Firstly, there is the recently-launched Go-KL free bus service in the inner-city. I must say that free public transport is a fantastic way to promote sustainable urban mobility. I would also hail it as an innovative idea, if it weren’t for the fact that a similar service had been pioneered in Penang through the inner-city CAT (Central Area Transit) buses and the bridge-crossing BEST (Bridge Express Shuttle Transit) service, both provided free (wifi included) courtesy of the Penang state government.
And then we have an announcement in the recent national budget about a programme to provide women with free mammogram scans for cancer detection and early intervention. An admirable idea indeed, and I am prepared to accept that its resemblance to the MammoSel programme introduced by the Selangor state government two years ago is purely coincidental.
Next, it is impossible to ignore the infamous BR1M welfare assistance programme. Giving cash aid to poor families – now where have I heard that done before? Surely not in an “irresponsible” PR state? It must be another coincidence, along with the selection of the target group of households earning less than RM3,000 monthly income, a key demographic originally highlighted by the “worthless” Buku Jingga.
Speaking of irresponsible policies, the Buku Jingga’s proposal to abolish highway tolls by nationalising toll companies has of course been the target of stinging ridicule. Yet was it not only last month that the prime minister announced a proposed government takeover of the Eastern Dispersal Link in Johor Bahru in order to make it toll-free?
Let us not also forget the abolishment of the ISA and the formation of a Royal Commission of Inquiry to investigate the problem of illegal immigration in Sabah, two more Buku Jingga proposals that have since been adopted by the BN government. At the rate it is going, all the “poisonous” promises in the Buku Jingga are set to be fulfilled.
If imitation is the best form of flattery, then the prime minister must have a very brown nose.