Alternative Views: Younger political leaders needed for a new Malaysia

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 13, 2021 - September 19, 2021.
Alternative Views: Younger political leaders needed for a new Malaysia
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In the space of 10 days, there were two legal cases with different outcomes that suggest a need for a change in the mindset of politicians if the country is going to come out looking better from the pandemic and economic slowdown.

On Sept 1, the prosecution, at the behest of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), dropped all charges of alleged corruption against former Felda board member Datuk Noor Ehsanuddin Mohd Harun Narrashi. The reasons were that the former Kota Tinggi Umno MP had repaid the money he had received and the key prosecution witness had stated that the funds were mere loans.

A few days later, the Kuching High Court ordered the federal government to implement voting for those above the age of 18 by end-December. Currently, only those above 21 can cast their vote in a general election.

At a glance, the ruling by the Kuching High Court gave a glimmer of hope for the emergence of a new force that may determine the shape of the Malaysian political scene, starting with the Sarawak state election scheduled to be held early next year.

However, closer scrutiny of the statements by de facto Law Minister Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar gives rise to doubts as to whether the government will comply with the court ruling.

Wan Junaidi said that the Election Commission (EC) has been directed to comply with the ruling but added that the government has not made a firm decision on whether it would appeal against the decision. He also alluded that the preferred date for the implementation of voting for those above 18 is towards the end of 2022.

Both developments suggest indecisiveness and a tinge of trust deficit in the government that has seen the return of Umno to power.

Firstly, although MACC explained at length why it dropped the case against Noor Ehsanuddin, Transparent International Malaysia rightfully questioned the delay in the decision, after 24 witnesses had given their testimony.

As for voting for those above 18, until the EC comes up with a firm timetable for its implementation, nobody really knows if it will happen.

As the world recovers from Covid-19, countries that have taken firm action to stem the pandemic and build confidence are reaping the benefits. Consumer demand has picked up strongly in the US while China is expected to grow at 9% this year.

Sadly, Malaysia is still mired in a political quagmire because the politicians have failed to deliver, so far.

Bank Negara has forecast the economy to grow at about 3% to 4% this year, which is nothing much to shout about if inflation is taken into account. Gross Fixed Capital Formation, which is an indicator of new investments, contracted by 14.5% last year, which is the worst performance since the 1998 Asian financial crisis.

Since May 9, 2018, the government has changed three times and with it, so has the prime minister. The developments certainly do not help in shoring up investor confidence.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri has reached out to opposition leaders and warlords controlling his own party, Umno, in setting the tone for conciliatory politics. He has appointed his predecessor, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, as the chairman of the National Recovery Council (NRC) with ministerial status.

The prime minister calling on the ruling party and opposition MPs to work together is not a norm in Malaysia. Whether it will work to bring about political stability is anybody’s guess.

Amid the continued political uncertainties, there have been calls for a change in mindset and process in determining political decisions and government policies affecting the people. One is by former banker Datuk Seri Nazir Razak, who promotes the agenda for a “Better Malaysia”, which entails a more consultative and less elitist process in making policies affecting the people. It requires procedures and processes to be put in place that allow for political decisions to be a product of discussions and debate among citizens.

Towards this end, Nazir suggests the setting up of a Better Malaysia Assembly under the auspices of the Council of Rulers, comprising individuals nominated by parliament, the executive and civil society. The recommendations of the assembly are to be debated in parliament or be subject to a referendum.

On paper, it seems like an ideal solution, considering that the political system and politicians have failed. But in reality, it is difficult to implement as it would require a radical change in the mindset of politicians.

Almost all the leaders of political parties have been politicians all their life. It is not enough that they have been hogging the positions for long, some have even paved the way for their children to succeed them.

A paradigm shift in Malaysian politics can only happen if a more youthful set of leaders is allowed to head political parties, including those in Sabah and Sarawak.

The current set is too deeply entrenched in their positions and almost everyone is hoping to have a shot at becoming prime minister. This was evident in the run-up to Ismail’s appointment.

Younger leaders are more decisive in embracing the inevitable, including having to deal with voters above the age of 18. They come with less baggage, and hence, are less likely to be bogged down with issues such as a trust deficit.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair was reported to have remarked that politicians were at their best when they knew the least. By the time politicians learn the ropes, people would have got tired of them and their popularity and power would have waned. Blair was only 44 when he moved into No 10, Downing Street.

Malaysians have always voted for mature politicians. The epitome of such a tendency was when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad became prime minister again in May 2018 at the age of 92. The irony is that today, he is still offering to manage the nation.

But having mature politicians at the helm has not been working for the past 28 months. It is not the recipe for a good and stable government that is open to embracing changes.

It is time for the older set of political leaders to leave the stage. And there is an incentive for political parties to embrace youth over maturity. The first political party to do so stands a better chance of getting the support of some 1.5 million new voters who are above the age of 18.

M Shanmugam is a contributing editor at The Edge

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