Commentary by Mustafa K. Anuar
CRITICS of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim might dismiss his rejection of a spanking new Mercedes-Benz S600 car for his official use as a crass public relations stunt that was aimed at giving good optics to the general public.
Apart from cancelling the purchase order of the limousine said to be worth more than RM1 million, the Tambun MP-elect also turned down the idea of renovating his office, which can gobble up a big chunk of public funds.
Such gestures are not trivial because being driven in a new, expensive car and having a renovated office, for instance, seemed to have been turned into almost like rites of passage by political leaders of yore who made it to Putrajaya.
Such a mindset is also exemplified by a state government, whose menteri besar and his associates – upon taking office – bit a giant slice of public funds only to satisfy their collective desire to buy a fleet of Mercedes-Benzes. In the meantime, people in the state were told to pray for salvation in the hereafter.
In other words, this culture of ministers having a rich taste at the expense of the people, particularly the poor and the needy, must cease. And Anwar needs to provide leadership by example.
Reducing the salaries of his ministers, as Anwar has also suggested, may not necessarily help save substantially the national coffers, but such an action can still be a part of an austerity drive.
Furthermore, the salary cut is a significant symbolic gesture for the ministers to show empathy for the people who are facing, among other things, financial problems, a sluggish economy and unemployment.
At the very least, it is hoped that such initiatives would help prevent an ugly disconnect between ministers and the rest of society.
Of course, we do not need a bloated cabinet, as in previous administrations, only to reward members of the coalition partners with ministerial offices. Nor do we need special envoys and advisers who in the recent past gave an impression that their role was largely like that of hangers-on, which was a waste of money.
A lean cabinet of competent ministers should be able to manage the country in the best possible way, particularly in the effort to resuscitate the economy.
The prudence shown by Anwar should also serve as a grim reminder to ministers and members of the civil service that taxpayers’ money must be used judiciously for the purpose of serving the needs and improving the living conditions of ordinary Malaysians.
Every sen counts, as Anwar rightly asserts, and it therefore makes much sense that there should be transparency and accountability in the “unity government”, while the opposition is expected to play a vital role to ensure checks and balances.
It is in this context that Anwar’s insistence that there should not be government procurements without tender, deserves appreciation and encouragement.
This, as we know, would go a long way towards curbing corruption and cronyism, as well as leakages of national coffers.
Malaysians have already seen how people’s money was plundered and spent lavishly not for public benefit when political leaders were not made to account for their actions.
Incidentally, such noble intentions do not require slogans, much less billboards and posters along highways and road junctions to highlight them. Such physical sloganeering unnecessarily costs so much of taxpayers’ money.
This is, of course, not to suggest that prudence and commitment to transparency on the part of the government should be solely dependent on the discretion of the prime minister. After all, prime ministers of various hues and preferences come and go.
Anwar’s initiatives should set the tone. But at the end of the day, there has to be institutional reforms to ensure that real change is taking place in our country.
For instance, there should be enough legal provisions to ensure that the judiciary, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and the Attorney-General’s Chambers are fully and fiercely independent.
Given the huge task ahead, the “unity government” must be mindful that it is entrusted to work towards improving the lives of the ordinary Malaysians. – November 30, 2022.