Whose future will manifest?

BOTH the Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Harapan manifestos for the 14th general election make optimistic reading. If either of them were implemented in their entirety over the next five years, the country would, on balance, be a better place.

Inevitably, both documents have their weaknesses, beginning with internal ideological inconsistencies as a result of multiple authors inserting their own preferences where they can, and there being multiple demographics to attract.  No political party in the history of democracy has been able to design a combination of promises that pleases 100 per cent of the population: there will be winners and losers, and the more a party thinks they will actually attain power, the more compromises there will have to be. Only small parties with nothing to lose that have the luxury of ideological purity.

My colleagues at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) have produced summaries from the perspective of our principles across the economic, social and governance policies of both manifestoes.

The ideological inconsistencies are most evident in the economic sections of both manifestos. For example, while BN wants to empower small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and diversify the economy, the Price Control and Anti-Profiteering Act – already an anti-market policy that has contributed to the closure of many small businesses – will be amended to extend the authority of the Ministry of Domestic Trade, Co-operatives and Consumerism to act against traders that make ‘excessive’ profits.

As for PH, their populist declarations sound good but may backfire. First, the government deficit will still need to be financed if the goods and services tax is abolished to return to the sales and services tax – where there is no guarantee that prices will go down. Second, overly increasing the minimum wage as promised could be damaging if SMEs cut back on employment; while the proposed raises probably won’t reach the 1.4 million low-income workers in the informal sector at all. Third, controlling imports of rice may lead to higher prices; it would be better to enhance productivity of local farmers and encourage competition by liberalising imports.

On social policy, BN’s promises on universal childcare provision, increasing women’s participation in Parliament and all sectors are welcome (although incentives are always preferable to legislation in arriving at any quotas), as are flexible hours for mothers with young children (although this should perhaps be extended to fathers as well). The commitment to reduce dropout rates among Orang Asli children is urgent, and ending Bumiputera discounts for property valued over RM1 million makes sense.

The PH manifesto too promises to ease financial burdens, including the continuance of a reformed 1Malaysia People’s Aid (BR1M). But some of the promises will require huge investments, such as the commitment to free public education to tertiary level. However, autonomy for the universities is a welcome reform that Ideas has long advocated.

On governance, BN’s proposal to improve direct democracy through a public petition mechanism is praiseworthy, as are pledges to publicise local government audit reports and live televising of council meetings. The promises to introduce a Political Financing Act, an Ombudsman (to resolve disputes between citizens and government) and Parliamentary Select Committees are all commensurate with Ideas’ advocacy to improve the quality of our democracy. However, the manifesto is silent on the repressive laws that exist: and the specific mention of the recently enacted Anti-Fake News Act is hardly comforting. Equally disturbing is the proposed further centralisation of power in the Prime Minister, with many more units (presumably with their own budgets) proposed in the PM’s Department.

The governance reforms proposed by PH are wide-ranging: from limiting the terms of the PM (and disallowing a second portfolio), greatly empowering Parliament including through committees and strengthening the Dewan Negara, increasing the independence of check and balances such as the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and Attorney General’s Chambers, restoring greater federalism including through the Rulers and implementing the 1963 Malaysia Agreement, and abolishing a slew of draconian laws.

As lofty as some of these promises sound, ultimately it is not just manifestos that win elections. Far more crucial are the qualities of the candidates and their party leaders who would form the leadership of government: including whether they actually intend to honour the pledges stated.

And so, once the candidates for the winning manifesto settle down to govern, at least citizens will have a document to hold their MPs to account for the next five years.

It is only in doing so that we elevate the election manifesto from a feel-good document to a solemn contract between government and the governed.

With thanks to Adli Amirullah, Wan Ya Shin and Aira Azhari, whose full statements can be found at ideas.org.my.

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