2-Day Countdown to 13GE – The BN Manifesto: Old Wine in New Bottles
The two Manifestos put out by Pakatan Rakyat and the Barisan Nasional provide a basis for comparison shopping.
Part One of this article attempts to set out the key challenges that the nation faces and reviews the extent to which the BN Manifesto offers policies and proposals that would address these challenges. Part Two examines the specific elements of the BN Manifesto.
Part One – The Unmet Challenges
The much-touted BN Manifesto launched with great fanfare by the Chairman of the Barisan Nasional Coalition is largely an irrelevant document lacking vision, devoid of substance and offers little hope of change or an outline of actions that are urgently needed to meet the challenges faced by the nation at this momentous point in its history.
The BN Manifesto is a rather weak, uninspiring and stale document. The Manifesto is a disappointment as it fails to offer coherent programs to meet the grave challenges facing the nation.
The nation's key challenges are grouped under three headings:
An uncompetitive economy that is entrapped as a Middle Income Country with GDP growth rates below 6 percent that are inadequate to move the country to the group of High Income countries by 2020;
Private investment has failed to respond to generous incentives as government policies and the GLCs have crowded out the private sector1;
There are unchecked illicit capital flows, which place Malaysia in the highest tier among emerging countries; total illicit flows amounting to RM 873 billion flowed out in the decade 2001 to 2010;
An economy in which the debt of the Federal Government has grown rapidly and is now almost 70 percent of GDP2; the Federal Government’s spending policies founded on deficit spending add to the pool of debt;
The level of household debt has reached 80.5 percent and is growing because of virtual stagnation in real earnings in the face of rising levels in the cost of living; Malaysia has also one of the largest gaps in income disparities in the region.
The Constitution has been subverted as power has come to be centralized in the hands of the Executive branch which for all intents and purposes is unaccountable to the Legislative and Judicial branches; Laws on the books grant unchallenged power to the all-powerful Executive branch; Ministers are above the law as the Judiciary is denied the right to adjudicate on the exercise of powers by Ministers;
Many of the institutions are in disarray; for instance the cancer of corruption grows unchecked as the institutions responsible have been politicized ; the forces responsible for maintaining public safety and checking crime – the Police - are feared as the number of deaths in custody and other abuses grow;
Transparency and accountability do not exist because of the Official Secrets Act; the absence of a free press which inhibits debate and the limited space provided in Parliament for wide-ranging debate and to voice minority issues and concerns;
The Education system produces graduates that are only fit to join the ranks of the unemployed;
Malaysia now fits rather aptly the description provided by former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Badawi - “…. A nation with First World infrastructure and Third World mentality……”;
A Nation Divided
The distance between the Peninsula and the states of Sabah and Sarawak remains wide after almost a half century;
National unity remains fragile; inter-ethnic relations have suffered as a consequence of the “divide and rule” policies pursued by the Government; hateful and poisonous statements promoting the hideous philosophy of “Ketuanan Melayu” have contributed to polarization;
Widening income disparities have further fuelled disunity; marginalized groups such as the Orang Asli, the Indians and native people of Sabah and Sarawak have been denied a place under the Malaysian sun;
Discriminatory policies have contributed to massive out migration; the Malaysian diaspora accounting for well over a million, represents talent that the economy has lost.
These are the key challenges that the nation faces 56 years after emerging as an independent nation.
These 56 years coincide with uninterrupted power exercised by a succession of BN governments.
That power has not been used for the greater good but has in recent decades been abused by a small elite for its own benefit.
The 2008 General Election represented an awakening and sent a clear message to the BN to embark on a program of real and genuine reforms. In a word, the electorate gave the BN a second chance.
That opportunity has been missed and the BN in its arrogance has chosen not to heed the message that was loudly delivered in March 2008. Reform remains distant on the BN horizon.
Part Two – Dissecting the BN Manifesto
The BN Manifesto projects a rather cynical view. It treats the electorate as made up of discrete groups that can be cajoled or bribed with handouts: a cash grant, a road here, a water pump there and the false vision of a “High Income Country“ based on spurious assumptions.
In a word, the BN proposes to continue to misgovern this nation in much the same fashion as it has in the past decades.
The Manifesto offers no inclination to change. It is akin to a second hand car salesman laying out his pitch to sell a papered and freshly painted vehicle that is well past its useful life.
The BN fails dismally in a reading of the electorate. It is no longer gullible.
The key elements of the BN Manifesto need closer scrutiny and review. The proposals hardly deal with many of the challenges outlined in Part One.
The multiplicity of proposals contained in the BN Manifesto does not provide a coherent vision or a guide to how the BN will helm the nation if it gains a further five years in power legitimately or otherwise.
All that is evident is that there will be little or no change from what has transpired in the recent past.
Lets review each of the broad elements of the BN Manifesto:
Easing the Cost of Living
Handouts under the BR1M and other programs will not ease the cost of living. The other measures such as opening clinics, Kedai Rakyat 1Malaysia etc. will have only a marginal impact on the cost of living while the changes in automobile policies copy the PR proposals.
The larger role for GLCs that is proposed is counterproductive. GLCs stifle private sector activity and are displacing true private sector investment. Promised divestment has not been transparent and has led to transfers to cronies at give-away prices. GLCs are more interested in foreign investing than in expanding domestic activity
Uplifting Urban Well-being
The programs and activities listed are mundane and are for the most part those that any caring Government would provide in any event.
Access To Quality Health Services
The intention to establish a National Health system is a coded message. It indicates the intent to activate the privatization of health care through a system of compulsory insurance. The introduction of such a scheme will lead to a higher burden for households. The main beneficiary will in all likelihood be a crony corporation.
Towards Greater Efficiency in Public Transportation
Many of the programs listed are already underway. Programs outlined benefit toll operators and other vested interests. There are no guarantees that users will find services affordable.
World Class Infrastructure Development and Rural Transformation
A program of further transportation networks and related infrastructures is questionable. The immediate beneficiaries will be the concessioners who would make killings via over-inflated construction costs and toll collections.
Strengthening Women's Participation
It is significant that no new legislation is planned to protect single mothers and abandoned wives. This social problem has become acute and is largely ignored by the BN.
Building a Resilient, Dynamic and Innovative Economy
The BN Manifesto promises an investment program of RM 1.3 trillion. No indication is given either about the time period over which this will be achieved or even more starkly as to how this target is to be achieved given recent trends in capital flows - a fall in FDI and massive outflows of domestic capital, the limited headroom for borrowing given the high level of debt and the disincentives faced by the private sector.
The accompanying employment generation targets are equally implausible given demographic trends, the lack of an adequate flow of high skill workers to fill jobs in the high income sectors. These are unachievable targets given existing policies and the absence of any foreseeable change.
The BN Manifesto makes a remarkable statement “Building towards achieving per capita income of USD$15,000 (RM45, 000) by 2020.” This appears to be a backtracking from the recent emphatic pronouncements of Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Pemandu that Malaysia would achieve the status of a High Income Country by 2018.
It is amazing that there appear to be two significant changes: there is no longer a reference to US$15,000 being the threshold for “High Income” or that this income level will be attained by 2018.
The reference to tax reform needs careful interpretation. This is a coded undertaking. Policy will lead to the introduction of a highly regressive GST tax system with the burden falling on middle and low income households and individuals.
Income tax reductions on individuals will only benefit a few and will be targeted to favor the rich as the total number of Income Taxpayers is small. Many beneficiaries of a reduction of corporate taxes will be the monopolistic corporations.
Note that there is no mention of the intention to withdraw consumer subsidies, already agreed to with the IMF, impact of which will be higher prices for consumers. Overall the so-called fiscal reforms will have a negative impact on households at the lower end of the income spectrum.
The proposed payment of “Continuing special cash payments and development & operational funding exceeding 20 per cent of oil and gas revenue to Sabah, Sarawak, Terengganu, Kelantan & Pahang” is a rather nuanced statement that attempts to respond to the PR pledge to pay royalties in the amount of 20 percent.
It is noteworthy that BN does not pledge to pay royalties but intends to make “special payments” and to pay for development projects controlled by the Federal Government. This is a retreat from meeting the contractual and legal obligations embodied in the Petroleum Development Act concerning royalties.
The pledge to “Ensuring GLCs continue to develop entrepreneurs by divesting non-strategic GLCs and increasing outsourcing programmes for bumiputera companies” is a continuation of present policies under which outsourcing is directed to benefit a handful of well-connected companies.
Moreover, the intent to only divest non-strategic GLCs means that GLCs will continue for the most part to play a dominant role whereby SMEs would have few opportunities to expand and grow.
The sop of RM 500 million extended to the Indian community to enable it to increase equity is another racial quota based program. No lesson appears to have been learnt from the Maika fiasco. This will be a program that will benefit the elite in the Indian community but do little for the marginalized underclass.
Building towards Educational Excellence
This is another long wish list. Even if fulfilled, it is unlikely to uplift the quality of education and raise standards. There is no indication that merit will play a role.
The manifesto is wholly silent about the greatest challenge faced by the national system of education - that of racial polarization. The current curriculum has been politicized.
The BN continues to be committed to using the educational system to deaden the imagination of schoolchildren, one that is prepared to unleash and appease the forces of sectarian religious obscurantism and repression to maintain its power, and a government whose leadership and thinking are characterized by an appalling lack of intellectual discernment and distinction cannot deliver outcomes that are demanded by the nation.
Enhancing Security and Public Safety
The list of promised actions is silent on the issue of police violence and the increasing number of deaths in custody. The failure to act against such abuses is a serious violation of human rights.
The intention to “Upgrading the welfare, professionalism and capability of the police, armed forces and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency” misses the point.
The recent incursion in Sabah has demonstrated the political failure to handle matters and brought home vividly the disastrous consequences of BN manoeuvres in the past to gain political advantage via Project M.
There is no evidence offered in the BN Manifesto that actions will be taken to put right past failures by implementing the recommendations that the ongoing Royal Commission of Inquiry is likely to propose to resolve and end once and for all the long-standing problem of the illegal legalisation of illegal immigrants which have made Sabahans minority and even refugees in their own land!
Nurturing Youth: 11. Weaving a Network of Social Safety Nets
The measures that are promised under these headings are neither radical nor likely to address many of the pressing social ills such as drug addiction or the plight of abandoned wives and single mothers.
Promoting Islam, Religious Freedom and Harmony
Appointment of a Minister is unlikely to resolve issues concerning jurisdiction in the case of disputes involving parties professing different faiths. The need to promote Inter-Faith harmony and dialogue is ignored.
Fighting the Scourge of Corruption
The measures proposed are hollow as the MACC is not being empowered to prosecute. It remains subordinate to political appointees and cannot act independently of the Attorney General. No mention is made of the need to have all elected officials to publicly declare their assets.
The BN appears to deviate from the practice adopted by the PR administrations.
The BN has offered no justification for not making the MACC truly independent in the manner of the Hong Kong Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).
Revitalizing the Public Service and Enhancing Good Governance
The measures proposed do not deal with the need to streamline the size and scope of the public service. The public service, with a size of 1.4 million is over-staffed and agencies have overlapping functions. No actions are promised to de-politicize the civil service and restore its neutrality.
Promises for a Global Movement of Moderates
The proposals listed are unimaginative and lack credibility. The BN Manifesto places much emphasis on seeking non-permanent membership of the Security Council but makes no substantive case as to what it hopes to achieve.
It is noteworthy that no mention is made about Malaysia’s stance about nuclear non-proliferation, the fight against terrorism, and the upholding of human rights and the promotion of free trade.
Not even lip service is paid to intentions concerning the ratification of human rights treaties and conventions to which Malaysia is a signatory. The Manifesto is silent on the issue of empowering SUHAKAM to uphold and safeguard human rights.
Providing Affordable and Secure Housing
There are a broad range of targets and promises made but little is said about how these programs are to be financed. The current high cost of homes has led to a sharp increase in household indebtedness. The BN Manifesto remains silent on how this burden is to be eased.
Preserving Nature's Resources
The long wish list of proposed actions may placate those concerned with environmental issues. However, no mention is made of the need to enforce anti-pollution measures linked with hazardous industries.
The BN leadership and the mainstream media have taken to task the Pakatan Rakyat Manifesto. They described the PR Manifesto as “populist”, “unaffordable”, “naïve” and used a host of other terms to denigrate the document. Partisan attacks of the kind are par for the course and are inevitable.
However, objective assessments of the PR Manifesto noted that the proposals outlined presented a coherent agenda that dealt with the problems confronting the nation. Reasonably clear priorities were identified.
There is a general view that the PR Manifesto has a degree of credibility. The BN Manifesto, on the other hand, appears to have been crafted without reference to the challenges the country faces; it lacks coherence and comes across as a “cut and paste job” promising the moon and the stars to each and every segment of the population.
The long list of promises is not prioritized. No indication of the costs entailed in implementing all of the promises and how these costs are to be met as provided.
The electorate is being sold remedies comparable to snake oil – a miracle cure for all. At the end of the day, by 2020, the nation is promised the nirvana of having reached the status of a “High Income Country” painlessly with a per capita GNI of US15, 000.
Malaysians, for the first time, have a real choice. They can opt for a change by choosing to go with the Pakatan vision of a better future. The alternative is to buy into the BN promises. The latter are, in part reckless because they will demand a combination of higher taxes and larger debt burdens.
The BN Manifesto offers little change from the present trajectory of wide income disparities, an uncertain economic future because of loss of competitiveness and greater racial polarization.
There is an aversion to ditch failed policies that are holding the nation back. This reluctance is in large measure attributable to the stranglehold exercised by vested interests who do not desire change. These change as a threat to rent seeking.
Malaysians face a choice. The choice is between maintaining the status quo and unleashing reforms that will lead the countryt to greater prosperity, harmony and a more equitable society.
The choice is critical not just for this generation but also for our children and children's children. The right choice must be made.