COMMENT | After 61 years, Malaysia finally managed a successful democratic change. Whether or not the democratic change meets our expectation, no one should take the credit away from the Malaysian people.
The dust takes a bit longer to settle. In the early months of the Pakatan Harapan administration, whenever I raised an issue that seemed to puncture the euphoria, I got attacked viciously.
I thought it was only natural because of the euphoria, sooner or later the dust would eventually settle, and we could get on with bringing change to the country.
Unfortunately, the euphoria seems to derail the focus of the Harapan administration a bit.
The deflation – from the euphoria to disillusionment – can be severe, if not appropriately managed.
There are signs that the euphoria has gone somewhat sour.
Plunging approval rating
I continue to follow the pulse on the ground through surveys and analytical profiling, a discipline I maintain from the campaign towards 14th general election.
Judging from online comments at major news portals, it is obvious that the country is highly polarised. Each community lives in our own bubble.
We are not aware the undercurrent that is fast developing in the other community, because we hardly interact with each other.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but someone must bell the cat.
The approval rating of the federal government since Harapan took over in May 2018 has been plunging, rather rapidly.
In June 2018, when asked to rate Mahathir Mohamad's performance as the prime minister, 72 percent Malaysians approved his performance.
The Chinese rated him highest at 87 percent approval, followed by the Indians at 84 percent.
Even the Malay respondents gave him a high 66 percent approval rating (given that Harapan did poorly with Malay voters during the 14th general election.
In a similar survey conducted two weeks ago, Mahathir’s approval rating as the prime minister has plunged to 53 percent. There is a consistent drop of around 20 percent across all races – Malays (from 66 percent to 45 percent), Chinese (from 87 percent to 65 percent) and Indians (from 84 percent to 64 percent).
In some states, the newly elected menteri besar, whom some of the sampled respondents could not name correctly, got a higher approval rating than the prime minister.
The Malay votes deficit
I notice of the most often repeated justifications for the plunging approval rating was Harapan’s failure to win a sizeable chunk of the Malay votes in 14th general election.
Proponents of this theory went on to theorise that to defend the Harapan administration; the prime minister must be given a free hand to do what is necessary to strengthen PH’s Malay votes.
This includes the efforts to bring in ex-Umno MPs to shore up Bersatu's number in Parliament.
The prime minister seems to argue today that the ex-Umno MPs will bring the rural Malay support with them.
This is good for Harapan in the battle for Malay’s hearts and minds.
The percentage of Malay voters who voted for Harapan vary from state to state and party to party.
Nationally, Harapan achieved less than 30 percent of the share of Malay votes.
Broken down by parties, PKR achieved a 31 percent share of Malay votes (calculated against the seats it contested), followed by Amanah at 26 percdent and BERSATU at 21 percent.
The share of Malay votes that Harapan obtained also vary by states and can be broken down roughly into four categories:
1. The share of Malay votes exceeded 40 percent (Selangor, Wilayah Persekutuan and Penang)
2. The share of Malay votes between 30 percent to 40 percent (Johor, Melaka, Negeri Sembilan and Kedah)
3. The share of Malay votes between 20 percent to 30 percent (Perak, Pahang and Perlis)
4. The share of Malay votes less than 20 percent (Kelantan and Terengganu)
Out of the 97 seats that Harapan won in Semenanjung, only 42 are in the states where PH’s share of Malay votes exceeded 40 percent.
Fifty-five seats are in danger of going to other parties in the next general election if there is a significant shift among Malay voters.
Harapan won on an economic platform
You may ask me by now – what’s with these numbers? What’s the relevance of approval ratings and the share of Malay votes in the 14th general election.
It is true that we did not win enough Malay votes in the 14th general election.
But we still won the majority in Parliament because enough swing Malay voters in the marginal seats across the country voted for Harapan.
They voted for Harapan primarily due to our economic promises to make their life better, not because Harapan has somewhat convinced them that we are more “Malay” than UMNO or PAS.
I have argued all along that the racial and religious dimensions will always exist in our society.
There are still ethnic and religious considerations among the Malays, the Chinese, the Indians (maybe less in Sabah and Sarawak).
As political parties, what we can do is to articulate middle grounds and focus on policies, so that the public discourse revolves around voters’ livelihood.
I repeated during the 14th general election that Harapan could only win if we convinced enough Malays that a change of government could lower down prices, create more jobs and increase wages.
We can never become more Malays than Umno or more politically Islamic than PAS. Race and religion are Umno’s and PAS’ strength; the economic platform is our platform.
True enough, the results of 14th general election validated this.
In spite of all the efforts to show Bersatu carried the Malay torch within Harapan (highest seats were given to Bersatu, Bersatu was given prominence in state Harapan chairmanship despite its relatively new presence), that gestures did not bring significant Malay votes to Harapan.
Bersatu got the lowest share of Malay votes among all the Harapan parties.
Thankfully Harapan still managed to win enough parliamentary seats because there were enough Malay economic voters who were ready to give it a chance, which explains the rapidly plunging approval rating for the federal government.
Losing economic focus
It is not that I do not understand the financial predicament that the federal government found itself in, having inherited the economic mess from Najib Razak’s administration.
It is precisely because the public appreciates the degree of financial ruin that they took chances with Harapan in the 14th general election.
But our key constituents are economic voters across the races.
From the first post-14th general election survey until this month’s poll, reducing higher cost of living and fulfilling election promises tops the key concern of the voters across the board.
After a while, the public is losing patience with what is seen as mere excuses on the part of the Harapan administration.
We can’t fulfil all the promises immediately within the 100 days (trust me, the public does not even expect that), yet at the very least the PH administration must be seen to be solely focused on laying the groundwork to fulfil them (election promises) at some point in the future.
It is understandably a work-in-progress, but we do need to see some progress.
After a while, it is no longer enough to charge former government leaders with cases of corruption, because so long as there is no marked improvement (concerning economic livelihood) on the ground, the restlessness will continue.
In some areas, things did get worse after we took over.
Late payments of living allowances to Felda settlers is a regular feature of our administration.
Not only we are not able to write off their debts that were questionably piled on them by the previous administration; we could not help making things better for them when the commodity prices plunged.
While reducing prices will take a while, any sudden removal of aids previously provided by the government, when implemented without a more effective substitute program, helps the opposition builds a negative narrative against the Federal Government.
We will take some time to restructure PTPTN, but why resort to the opposite of our election pledge, when we have not heard anything about any efforts to refinance PTPTN bonds to lower the financing cost?
Can we not use the prime minister’s good standing with the Japanese to re-finance these bonds? The annual saving of 2-3% of interest on bonds worth of RM40 billion, easily translates to RM1 billion.
The public does not expect a miracle; they expect efforts. They need to see our focus is fixated on making their lives better.
Instead, more often than not, we give excuses why we could not deliver.
Unfortunately, we also have been serving the public with one political drama after another. We are all guilty of that, but the public looks up to the cabinet for a steady direction in this turbulent time.
We can’t afford too much distraction because we need to deliver economically. We were elected mainly because of our economic promises.
But if there is one thing that the Harapan administration can be most proud of in the last seven months, it is our penchant for unnecessary distractions.
I can’t for the life of me understand why our cabinet ministers went on to focus on ratifying the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Icerd), without weighing in the sentiments on the ground.
We could achieve more if we focus on making sure the multiracial Malaysians get a fair treatment in every sphere of their life, regardless of race and religion.
We don’t need to make noisy political statements to honour non-Malay top achievers who deserve scholarships, as much as we don’t it to make a fuss when we extend assistance to deserving Malay graduates to increase their job marketability.
The distraction handed on a silver platter the opposition’s best cause to rally Malay voters against Harapan, especially when more and more swing voters (as shown by the plunging approval rating) feel that Harapan is dishonest with its election pledges.
A week before the rally, a friend asked me: do you think they will get 5,000 people because Umno no longer has money to ship these people?
I told him:
Don’t give them a cause.
Electoral reform, anti-corruption and better livelihood were among the main causes that galvanised PH supporters to join Bersih rallies. We came down because we believed in the cause.
The moment you give the racially oriented segments of our society a cause, people who are galvanised by the cause do not need free buses or pocket money to join more anti-Harapan rallies.
They participate because they genuinely believe that either Harapaan is bad for the Malays, or because they feel cheated that their life got worse since Harapan took over.
True enough, the number of people who joined anti-Icerd rally this month should give us a point or two to ponder.
Focus on delivery
In that same context, I wish to caution the Harapan leadership that the public is disgusted with the recent wave of Umno MPs switching side.
To swing voters, it is yet another evidence that the Harapan administration is more focused on internal power dynamics, rather than focusing on delivering on our election promises.
We also dilute our reform credentials in the eyes of Harapan hardcore supporters.
To those who argue that the orchestrated mass migration of Umno MPs is necessary for strengthening PH’s grip on Malay voters, there is no indication this is happening.
In fact, it provokes angrier sentiment against PH among the Umno-PAS supporters.
Instead of winning them over with economic narratives and delivery, we are pushing them further and further away (much in the same way the engineered defection that toppled the Perak government did not endear the Harapan supporters to BN then).
My biggest concern is this: the recent exodus of Umno MPs, instead of weakening Umno, strengthens PAS as the biggest Malay party (now that Umno has been weakened).
If more and more Malay fence-sitters become disillusioned with Harapan's lackadaisical economic delivery, they will readily swing to PAS in the next general election.
The only way that is achievable and responsible for forging a united and moderate Malaysia is to focus on our economic platform.
Harapan must go back to our election pledges.
We need to demonstrate seriousness in making life better for the ordinary Malaysians, not to be dragged by endless cloak-and-dagger political manoeuvres of the old Malaysia.
I urge the Harapan leadership to take stock of the developments and urgently re-focus our efforts.
And it must begin with the Harapan presidential council sending a clear signal that we will stop the cloak-and-dagger orchestration of more Umno MPs crossing over.