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Hope for real reform with the Harapan manifesto

Thomas Fann  |  Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT | The Malaysian opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan launched their much-anticipated manifesto for the upcoming 14th general election last week.

It contains 60 pledges, broken into five categories or key focuses, namely: easing the cost of living for the rakyat; reforming administrative and political institutions; enhancing fair and equitable economic growth; restoring the status of Sabah and Sarawak in accordance to Malaysia Agreement 1963; and building a Malaysia that is inclusive, moderate and acclaimed worldwide.

Out of the 60 pledges made by Harapan in their manifesto, 19 are placed under their second core focus – to reform the administrative and political institutions, a recognition that to save Malaysia, it is not enough to capture Putrajaya, but to change the system by which the nation is governed.

From what was pledged in the Harapan manifesto for institutional reform, I believe they offer hope for real reform that our country so badly needs. These proposed reforms would restore good governance, provide an effective separation of powers among the branches of government, and safeguard our nation’s wealth.

Out of the 19 reforms under administrative and political reform, I am only going to focus on the six that in my view, are fundamental to change the system.

Limiting the power of the PM

What the 1MDB scandal has shown us is that the office of the Prime Minister 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 a deputy prime minister or minister, attorney-general, menteri besar or opposition leader.

He can explain away RM2.6 billion deposited into his personal account and thwart investigations into 1MDB. The Election Commission, Attorney-General’s Chambers, MACC and police, all seem to do his bidding.

With an annual budget of more than RM17 billion at his disposal, cash is indeed king. Harapan pledges to cut that budget down to RM8 billion, and distribute the myriad of agencies under the Prime Minister’s Office to other ministries.

In the manifesto, the prime minister will be prohibited from holding other cabinet positions, especially the finance portfolio. The term limit for the prime minister will be set to two terms. This will also apply to menteri besars and chief ministers under Harapan.

Restoring the authority of Parliament

Harapan proposes sweeping reforms to Parliament so that it can fulfil its role as the representative body of the electorate, to make laws, and be the check on the executive branch, not the rubber stamp that it is right now.

Select committees are part and parcel of all parliamentary democracies, and the fact that our Parliament has only one that focus on external matters, the Public Accounts Committee, speaks poorly of our legislative process.

Harapan wants to introduce select committees that would monitor all government ministries, and for discussions on issues of democracy, human rights, personal liberties and all manners of topical issues.

To reduce the power of the prime minister to influence the appointment of key officials to the EC, MACC, Human Rights Commission and Judicial Appointment Commission, such appointments must be affirmed by the relevant select committees.

As a commitment to bipartisanship, the position of the chair of the Public Accounts Committee will be reserved for a member of the opposition, with the leader of the opposition accorded the same status as a federal minister with similar allowance.

Reforms are also proposed for the Dewan Negara so that they can be an effective check and balance to the Dewan Rakyat. The number of senators appointed by states will be more than those appointed by the federal government so that the voices and rights of the states are protected.

Free and fair elections

For a decade, Malaysians have come out in the hundreds of thousands in Bersih rallies to demand for free and fair elections. Much of these demands are included in the Harapan manifesto.

This includes cleaning our electoral roll, improving the postal voting process, a minimum 21-day 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 delineation of electoral boundaries, Pakatan pledged that a fair ratio will be used during redelineation exercises, and to be transparent about the formula used to determine number of voters and size of constituencies.

Political financing

Currently, there are no laws to prohibit, limit or to demand accountability of money received by a political party. For now, one can just claim that the billions received was a personal donation from an Arab admirer, and it would suffice. The need to control political financing is to eliminate the purchasing of influence.

Harapan plans to introduce a Political Financing Control Act to make political donations transparent and free from corrupt sources. The Act will also provide qualified parties with yearly 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 PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who is ironically reincarnated as the leader of Harapan, the independence and integrity of judicial system has been in doubt.

Part of the reason is the role of the prime minister plays in the appointment of the Chief Justice and all the judges of the Federal Court, the Court of Appeal and the High Court.

The Judicial Appointments Commission was established in 2009 to ensure unbiased selection of judicial candidates for the consideration of the prime minister, but unfortunately the premier still has the final say regarding the appointment of judges to the superior courts.

Harapan pledges that the appointment of judges would be based on their qualification and experience without any political interference. Members of the Judicial Appointments Commission will be decided by a parliamentary select committee instead of by the prime minister.

Short of amending the Federal Constitutions 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 Federal Constitution would require two-thirds majority in Parliament, an unlikely scenario for Harapan in GE14, but then, who knows?

Refining the role of the attorney-general

Under Article 145(3) of the Federal 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 Mohamad Apandi Ali, who Najib appointed after the previous attorney-general was suddenly removed at the height of the 1MDB investigation, can declare that the prime minister did not commit any wrongdoing and will not be prosecuted.

Harapan pledges to immediate separate the responsibility of the AG from that of the public prosecutor. The attorney-general will be appointed from a qualified MP and will be a minister, acting as legal advisor to the government. The public prosecutor, meanwhile, 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 electorates are more concern with bread and butter issues, and in the case of Malaysia, issues of race and religion as well.

The Harapan manifesto, like any other, is not perfect nor comprehensive. There would be parts that are discomforting as it tries to reach out to certain demographics to allay their insecurities.

To many, it is populist with promises to abolish the GST, abolish road tolls, cheaper first cars, reintroducing targeted fuel subsidies, forgive unfair debts imposed on Felda settlers, and review and implement the Malaysia Agreement 1963. But these and many others are the election winning pledges, they are the carrots.

While we may rightly be concern if such populist promises are sustainable, we must surely understand that unless Harapan can clinch Putrajaya, the important promises to reform the institutions would be meaningless.

Given the choice before us this coming general election, to choose between the kleptocratic BN or PAS’ Islamisation agenda, the choice is clear for me.

Harapan is our best hope to rebuild our country and set it on a course for unity, justice and prosperity.

THOMAS FANN is a social activist and chairperson of Engage, an NGO involved in strengthening democracy, defending human rights, promoting social justice and protecting the environment.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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