OPPOSITION coalition Pakatan Harapan launched its much-anticipated manifesto for the 14th general election on March 8.
It contains 60 pledges, broken down into five categories or key focuses, namely:
– Reducing the cost of living for the people;
– Reforming administrative and political institutions;
– Enhancing fair and equitable economic growth;
– Restoring the status of Sabah and Sarawak, in accordance with the Malaysia Agreement 1963; and,
– Building a Malaysia that is inclusive, moderate and acclaimed worldwide.
Out of the 60 pledges made by PH in its manifesto, 19 fall under the second core focus – to reform administrative and political institutions, a recognition that, to save Malaysia, it is not enough to capture Putrajaya, but there must be a change to the system by which the nation is governed.
From what is pledged in the PH manifesto with regard to institutional reform, I believe that the pact offers hope for real reform, which our country so badly needs.
The proposed reforms will restore good governance, provide for the effective separation of powers between the branches of government, and guard our nation’s wealth.
Out of the 19 reforms, I am going to focus only on six, which are, in my view, fundamental to change the system.
Limiting the power of the PM
What the 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal has shown us is that the Prime Minister’s Office in Malaysia is all-powerful, nothing short of a dictatorship.
He has the power to remove anyone who is a threat to his position, be it the deputy prime minister, ministers, attorney-general, menteris besar or opposition leader.
He can explain away the RM2.6 billion deposited into his personal accounts, and thwart investigations into 1MDB.
The Election Commission, Attorney-General’s Chambers, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and police all do his bidding.
With an annual budget of more than RM17 billion at his disposal, cash is indeed king.
PH has pledged to cut the budget down to RM8 billion, and distribute the myriad agencies under PMO to other ministries.
Under PH, the prime minister is prohibited from holding other cabinet positions, especially the finance portfolio. The term limit for the prime minister is two terms. This also applies to menteris besar and chief ministers.
Restoring the authority of Parliament
PH proposes sweeping reforms to Parliament, so that it can fulfil its role as the representative body of the electorate, to make laws and check on the executive, not the rubber stamp that it is right now.
Parliamentary Select Committees are part and parcel of parliamentary democracy, and the fact that our Parliament has only one that focuses on external matters, the Public Accounts Committee, speaks poorly of our legislative process.
PH wants to introduce PSCs that monitor all ministries, and for discussions to be held on matters relating to democracy, human rights, personal liberties and all manner of topical issues.
To reduce the power of the prime minister to influence the appointment of key officials to the EC, MACC, Malaysian Human Rights Commission and Judicial Appointment Commission, such appointments must be affirmed by the relevant PSCs.
As a commitment to bipartisanship, the position of chairman of PAC will be reserved for a member of the opposition, and the leader of the opposition will be accorded the same status as a federal minister with a similar allowance.
Reforms are also proposed for the Dewan Negara, so that it can provide effective checks and balances to the Dewan Rakyat.
The number of senators appointed by states will be higher than those appointed by the federal government, so that the voices and rights of states are protected.
Free and fair elections
Over the past decade, Malaysians have come out in the hundreds of thousands in Bersih rallies, to demand free and fair elections. Many of these demands are included in the PH manifesto.
They include: cleaning the electoral roll, improving the postal voting process, having a minimum of 21 days for the campaign period, fair media access to all contesting parties, lowering the voting age to 18, automatic voter registration, and giving accreditation and early training to independent election observers.
For the redelineation of electoral boundaries, PH has pledged that a fair ratio will be used in such exercises, and to be transparent about the formula used to determine the number of voters and size of constituencies.
Currently, there are no laws to prohibit, limit or demand the accountability of money received by a political party.
For now, one can just claim that the billions received were a personal donation from an Arab admirer, and it would suffice. The need to control political financing is to eliminate influence-buying.
PH plans to introduce a Political Financing Control Act to make political donations transparent and ensure they are free from corrupt sources. The act will provide qualified parties with annual funding, using a formula that is transparent and consistent.
It also intends to limit the assets of parties to not more than RM1 billion.
Judicial and legal reform
Since the assault on the judiciary in 1988 by the administration of former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who, ironically, is now politically reincarnated as the leader of PH, the independence and integrity of the judicial system have been in doubt.
Part of the reason is the role the prime minister plays in the appointment of the chief justice, as well as all the judges of the Federal Court, Court of Appeal and high court.
JAC was established in 2009 to ensure the unbiased selection of judicial candidates for the consideration of the prime minister, but unfortunately, the prime minister still has the final say regarding the appointment of judges to the superior courts.
PH has pledged that the appointment of judges will be based on their qualification and experience, without any political interference. Members of JAC will be decided by a PSC instead of the prime minister.
Short of amending the federal constitution to pre-1988 status, such measures would go a long way to restore the much-needed independence of the judiciary, and the confidence of the people in our justice and legal system.
To amend the constitution would require a two-thirds majority in Parliament, an unlikely scenario for PH in GE14, but then, who knows.
Refining the role of the A-G
Under Article 145(3) of the constitution, the attorney-general is also the public prosecutor, and has the power, exercisable at his discretion, to institute, conduct or discontinue any proceedings for an offence.
Herein lies the problem and the conflict of interest.
That is why Mohamed Apandi Ali, who Prime Minister Najib Razak appointed after the previous attorney-general was suddenly removed at the height of the 1MDB investigation, can arbitrarily declare that the prime minister did not commit any wrongdoing and will not be prosecuted.
PH has pledged to immediately separate the responsibility of the attorney-general from that of PP. The attorney-general will be appointed from qualified MPs and will be a minister, acting as legal adviser to the government.
The PP will be an individual who is free from political interest, with autonomy in carrying out prosecution.
Institutional reforms do not win elections
But truth be told, these important institutional reform pledges are unlikely to win elections when most of the electorate is more concerned about bread-and-butter issues, and in the case of Malaysia, issues of religion and race, as well.
The PH manifesto, like any political manifesto, is not perfect, neither is it comprehensive. There are parts that are discomforting as it tries to reach out to Malay voters to allay their insecurities.
To many, it is populist, with promises to abolish the goods and services tax and road tolls, cheaper first car, reintroduce targeted fuel subsidies, forgive unfair debts imposed on Felda settlers, and review and implement the Malaysia Agreement. But these and many others are the election-winning pledges, they are the “carrots”.
While we may rightly be concerned if such populist promises are sustainable, we must surely understand that unless PH can clinch Putrajaya, the important promises to reform institutions would be meaningless.
Given the choice before us in GE14, to choose between the kleptocratic Barisan Nasional, or PAS with its Islamisation agenda, the choice is clear for me.
PH is our best hope to rebuild our country, and set it on a course towards unity, justice and prosperity. – March 15, 2018.
* Thomas Fann is a social activist and chairman of Engage, a civil society organisation involved in strengthening democracy, defending human rights, promoting social justice and protecting the environment.
* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.