By Raman Letchumanan

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--Let me first congratulate YAB Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim for his appointment as the 10th Prime Minister of Malaysia.

On a scale of 1 to 10, the number 10 denotes excellence, perfection, the highest aspiration or achievement, or most commonly an A+.  It is a fitting crowning glory for Anwar who has aspired to that top position for 24 years. Conversely 1 can also denote the same depending on calibration.  

The 1st Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, was aptly known as Bapa Kemerdekaan/Malaysia (father of independence/Malaysia) for achieving independence and giving birth to Malaysia (then Malaya) in 1957. 

It was an unprecedented tumultuous period then, transitioning from colonial to self-rule. However, Malaysians achieved it peacefully compared to many independent nations, which was wrought with violence before and after.

But 65 years since, Malaysia has self-inflicted itself into a deeply divided and polarized nation, and fast heading towards an independent failed state.  Will Anwar become a Bapa Reformasi (father of reformation), his rallying call since he was sacked from government and jailed 10 years in between? 
Will he rise up, reunite and reverse the trend to make Malaysia a prosperous developed nation, the likes of a roaring tiger of the 80s and 90s. Will Malaysians once again relive the spirit of unity and togetherness as one nation, one people, like in 1957?

Or will Anwar sacrifice the rakyat on the altar of political expediency and party ideology, just like his recent predecessors. What I write here may be unpalatable to many during this moment of euphoria, but time waits for no man.

On the eve of the GE15 polls, I published an article asking a rhetorical question, Would PH win GE15? To discerning readers, it was not so much who wins but who governs better thereafter. I exhorted that the time has come to vote for capable individuals and not along party lines. 
To a certain extent, the voters have thrown out tainted leaders, and several others won with narrow margins. But this concept, of prioritizing rakyat over party ideology, holds the key to sustainable governance in the so-called unity government we have now.

What unity government?

Thanks to the grace and wisdom of our Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Anwar now claims to head a government with two-thirds majority in Parliament. Along with it comes tremendous power including amending the constitution, but also an opportunity to shape and reform Malaysia for the better.

Despite naysayers aplenty who pushed for an immediate minority government headed by Anwar, the Agong worked towards a unity government to reign in the warring factions. 
From being kicked out in the first sitting of Parliament, Anwar now inherits a super-majority government, with Perikatan National preferring to be a responsible opposition providing check and balance.  

Yet pundits, including the electoral watchdog Bersih, are exhorting how a unity government should function. 
These include a confidence-and-supply agreement, power sharing  arrangements, equitable positions in administration and government, paid opposition shadow ministers to literally ‘shadow’ the government on day-to-day business.

In fact, all these mechanisms only serve to keep the politicians in power, and govern by the least common denominator. It only serves the interests of the politicians and not of the rakyat. It operates as a lame-duck administration, until the parties within in collusion with the opposition seize the opportunity to topple the government. 
Have we not learnt any lesson post-GE14, when a similar arrangement led to three changes of government? We need a stable government of reforms not compromises.

Hence, it should be instructive that the Anwar-led government does not operate on a unity government basis. Such an arrangement would indicate a marriage of convenience, and parties eloping when opportunities arise. Governance will be predicated on a compromise of party ideology, and not the interests of the rakyat.

It is gratifying that Anwar has said cabinet appointments will not be made in exchange for support, though it was in the context of reducing the size of cabinet. Henceforth, such a ‘non-entitlement’ approach should be normalized throughout his administration, government and government-linked institutions.    

Principles and good policy

A government can only be stable and sustainable if it is principled and based on fair equitable policy benefiting the rakyat.  Principles in the context of a nation refers to upholding the constitution, rule of law, and oath of office. Good policies are those which benefit all segments of the rakyat, and not based on populism and expediency.

In this respect, I would say Anwar’s maiden press conference left much to be desired. Rather than raining platitudes like on a campaign trail, he should have set the direction and guiding principles of his administration. He could have gone deeper by highlighting the commonalities in the election manifestos of the various parties.

For example, on corruption and abuse of power, as Prime Minister he should have stated it should be left to the judiciary, the attorney-general, and the investigating authorities to handle. 
However, he would ensure all these institutions would perform independently and impartially without any interference, and if there are abuses they shall be held accountable. It is not for the Prime Minister to answer how individual cases will be handled. But he has to ensure that faith in these institutions will be restored immediately.

On Anwar not taking his salary, this could have been handled better. The salary and perks are provided by law as just compensation for work done. Anwar, while encouraging many others, could have offered to donate his salary to a special fund, which could be used to eliminate hardcore poverty, for example. We don’t want a case like Lim Guan Eng who initially flew economy class on being appointed as Chief Minister.

Indeed, a more substantive reform to reduce costs would be Anwar committing henceforth top civil servants shall not receive any ‘gaji buta’ sitting on various boards and institutions, such as what a former chief secretary and former treasury secretary-general testified in court. 
Or that ministers and politicians shall not be appointed to various boards, and receive several times their primary job compensation. Or henceforth, overseas trips with large delegations which gobbles up hundreds of thousands of ringgit, shall be trimmed drastically.

On rising cost of living, where after a few days of frenzied work during holidays, Anwar could only say the targeted mechanism for subsidies will be worked out in 2 weeks’ time. 
However, this same high-powered committee and top ministers/officials were working furiously the last couple of years on this issue. Are we to understand they couldn’t do this then, and wait until a new prime minister comes on board!

In any case, the solutions are all there. It cannot be a matter of dishing out the ever shrinking cake, but growing the cake itself through sound economic policies, free market, flourishing enterprise, and less government and cronyism in business. 
Anwar should know our prices are kept artificially low through subsidies and low wages, compared even to our lesser developed neighbours. Will Anwar dare address these elephants in the room?

Anwar shouldn’t be micro-managing but manage-by-exception. He should sweat out the 1.6 million bloated civil service which gobbles up half of our tax payers money, and ensure government does not monopolize and retard free market enterprise.
In a nutshell, Anwar as PM10 with a two-thirds majority, should act as a statesman, rise above party politics, dare to institute necessary reforms, and provide the much needed healing Malaysians crave for.

Will he leave his legacy as Bapa Reformasi when the country needs it most?

*Raman Letchumanan is a former senior fellow at the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore, a former director at the Minister of Science, Technology and Environment, and a former head of environment/disaster management at the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta.*