By Kee Thuan Chye
I’m surprised that even intelligent people are questioning whether Pakatan Rakyat (PR) is ready to govern at federal level. I must admit I read this on an online news website and the full implications of what they said at a forum last Sunday may not have been comprehensively conveyed, but the gist of it is, they seem sceptical.
To me, the question of whether PR is ready to be the federal government is an unfair one. Was the Alliance ready to rule when the British handed the administration to it in the 1950s?
I believe we have to give people a chance. In many instances, when they are given that chance, they simply step up to the job. That’s what PR did when in 2008 they won, to their great surprise, the state governments of Penang, Selangor, Kedah and Perak. They had no prior experience then of doing the job but they got down to business straight away.
Some observers would say that the PR government in Perak was doing quite well, headed by Nizar Jamaluddin, until Barisan Nasional (BN) inveigled its way into the driver’s seat. The public knew practically nothing about Nizar when he was sworn in as menteri besar, but he turned out to be an effective and likeable leader for the 11 months he served. In other words, he stepped up to the job.
Meanwhile, the state governments of Penang and Selangor have shown their abilities to rule in their first time out. There is a buzz of excitement about Penang these days that had not been there for at least a couple of decades. Lim Guan Eng’s government attracted investments totalling RM10 billion in 2011.
But more than that, the Penang and Selangor state governments have won plaudits from the Auditor-General for their financial management. They have succeeded in increasing revenue and reducing public debt. As a Selangor resident, I can say that the government under Abdul Khalid Ibrahim has not done anything I would object to. In fact, among other things, I support its bid to take over the four water concessionaires in the state.
Were they ready to rule before 2008? Did either one have a shadow executive council prior to that year’s general election?
So I’m surprised that lawyer Andrew Khoo, whose views I usually hold in high regard, expressed at last Sunday’s forum his reservations about PR’s readiness to govern.
I’m sure Khoo’s concern is not a misplaced one and could be easily misinterpreted in the way the report on the forum was angled and written. I also believe that he was not writing off PR as an entity incapable of governing but was instead urging the coalition to get its act together. I base this on what he said: “To me, the great tragedy of Malaysia would be if PR won and then failed as a government.”
My only quarrel with that quote is that it is too pessimistic and drastic. And it is too broad. How does one determine such failure anyway? By the same token, is the current BN government a “failed” one? If it is, would a PR government not do better? If it isn’t, would a PR government, at the very least, not do as well?
In Khoo’s reckoning, PR’s credibility is “restricted” because it has not come up with a shadow Cabinet, i.e. a line-up of people who will helm the government if PR takes Putrajaya at the next general election.
He also says, “Although (PR) have a common policy in (their) Buku Jingga … (the) inability or reluctance of PR to form a shadow Cabinet … has meant they are unable to articulate what their policy is going to be.”
I can’t agree with that. The fact that there is already a policy is a plus point; the articulation will come if and when PR takes office. I don’t think PR needs to name its ministers first in order to articulate this policy. When Najib named his Cabinet, we didn’t know what his policies would be. As time went on, he came up with 1Malaysia and the transformation programmes. Later on, he opted for populist policies aimed mainly at winning the general election. Where do policy and personnel figure in this?
Khoo’s request for a shadow Cabinet is, however, a reasonable one. As some would argue, you need to know if a company can handle the job before you’d hire it. It is also a request that would have a strong place in a true democracy. And certainly in a democracy unfettered by racial and religious prejudices.
But in a Malaysia that is rent by the politics of race and religion and goodness-knows-what-else, the risk an Opposition coalition takes in revealing its shadow Cabinet is as high as automatically losing the general election.
To all intents and purposes, PR may already have a shadow Cabinet, or at least a rough idea of one, but given the vicious tendency of BN hawks to rip apart everything that PR does, revealing the shadow Cabinet would be exposing PR to deadly attacks that could bring deadly consequences.
Once released, the line-up would be pounced upon by the BN-controlled mainstream media and pro-BN bloggers. If the shadow Cabinet were seen to be too multi-racial or if non-Malays were given significant portfolios like Finance or Trade and Industry or even Defence (simply because they merited them), it would suffer race-baiting excoriation. The hyperboles would fly.
BN would go to town reinforcing the fiction that the Malays would truly lose power if the government were run by such a Cabinet. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim would be called a traitor who sold out his race. PAS leaders would be accused of being puppets who gave in to the influence of the infidels. The DAP would be seen to be more dangerous than Dajjal, capable of mesmerising its coalition partners into surrendering power to it.
If, on the other hand, not enough non-Malays were represented, the non-Malay voters might become disenchanted and not vote for PR. They might say Anwar is someone who could not be trusted after all. Hindraf, or some reincarnation of it, might pop up and hold a massive rally outside PKR’s headquarters.
Either way, it’s a powderkeg. It’s a lose-lose situation. PR’s ratings would drop like a cylinder loaded with C4 explosives. It could result in PR losing the general election even before it’s called. And losing the war before you’ve fought it would be very poor strategy indeed.
In the first place, why take such an unnecessary risk? PR knows how to play the political game. For that reason, I’m sure it knows it cannot reveal its shadow Cabinet. Not now. Not when the general election is called. Not even on the day before voting – because goodness knows what bad press might emerge from there to undermine the coalition’s prospects.
All it takes is an honest mistake, like that on the eve of the 1990 general election when the mainstream media crucified Tengku Razaleigh for wearing a Kadazan headgear that bore on its front what looked like a cross. It cost his Parti Melayu Semangat 46 a lot of Malay votes – and, up to that point, a good chance for the Opposition to at least break BN’s two-thirds majority.
For now, we know Anwar Ibrahim will be prime minister if PR wins. And if that happens, he should only reveal his Cabinet after he’s been sworn in. Not a minute sooner.
And of course, to be perverse, perhaps we should ask whether he is ready to be prime minister since he’s had no experience being one, forgetting that Najib had none either, and neither did Tunku Abdul Rahman, Abdul Razak, Hussein Onn, Abdullah Badawi or even Mahathir Mohamad himself.
So why do we really need to know PR’s shadow Cabinet? Why do we demand so much of PR simply because it may be the new kid in government if it wins? Do we know what Najib’s Cabinet will be if BN wins? He’s likely to reshuffle it, but do we demand to know the likely line-up? I haven’t heard anyone asking. So why pick on PR?
* Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the bestselling book No More Bullshit, Please, We’re All Malaysians, available in major bookstores.