Pressure piling up on Malaysia's Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim to implement reforms speedily

Politically conscious Malaysians are increasingly showing frustration at the slow pace of promised reforms.

Malaysia's Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim
Supporters of Pakatan Harapan, led by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, are not just unhappy with the slow pace of reforms but also fear that the country is regressing further in some areas. (Photo: Getty Images)

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is under tremendous pressure to speed up promised reforms, with a protest planned for 27 February.

Supporters of Pakatan Harapan who voted for the coalition are not just unhappy with the slow pace of reforms but also fear that the country is regressing further in some areas.

On 24 February, election watchdog the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, better known by its Malay language moniker of Bersih 2.0 announced that it would organise a protest near Parliament on 27 February.

“Join our first act to demand 100 per cent reforms at Plaza Tugu Negara on Tuesday, 8am. Wear black or yellow. See you there!” Bersih said in a post on X.

Bersih had earlier this month warned that it would not hesitate to organise street protests again if institutional reforms were not forthcoming.

Bersih lists 12 promised reforms

In fact, on 23 November last year, a year after the unity government took office, Bersih lamented the slow pace of reforms and noted that the parties in the governing coalition had made many election promises, including some major ones which overlapped.

It said: “Two major reform promises have been broken by the unity government: equitable constituency development fund irrespective of the Members of Parliament being pro-government or opposition; and repeal of draconian laws such as the Sedition Act and SOSMA.”

It underlined 12 major pledges that had yet to be fulfilled, including the enactment of a political financing Act, limiting the tenure of the prime minister to two terms, separating the powers of the public prosecutor and the attorney general, ensuring transparency and parliamentary oversight in the appointment of key public officers, and the enactment of a parliamentary Act to provide for equitable constituency development funds for all parliamentarians.

Anwar and his PH must take this threat seriously, as rallies organised by Bersih played a crucial role in toppling the gargantuan Barisan Nasional government which had been in power, first as the Alliance and later as BN, since independence from Britain in 1957.

Anwar should not dismiss unhappiness

They should remember that in July 2019, a study of the most influential civil society organisations pushing for government reforms found Bersih right at the top. The study was done by independent outfit IMAN Research, in collaboration with the US Department of International Development and US-based international development company DAI.

Berish had been holding rallies since November 2007 to create awareness of the electoral system, the need for Malaysians to participate in voting, and electoral malpractices.

The coalition of various organisations claimed the electoral system had been manipulated – through gerrymandering and other means – to ensure the BN would always win.

Bersih’s previous rallies drew tens of thousands

It’s 2011 rally saw about 50,000 people taking to the streets.

When the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal broke, it also held protests in 2015 and 2016 to seek the removal of then prime minister Najib Razak.

The momentum of dissatisfaction with Najib’s government and the 1MDB scandal resulted in PH handing BN a historic defeat in the 9 May 2018 general election.

Subsequently, under the PH government led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Najib was charged with corruption.

He was sentenced to 12 years in jail and fined RM210 million by the High Court on 28 July, 2020 after it found him guilty on all seven charges of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering in relation to RM42 million of SRC International funds.

However, just as his term as Yang di-Pertuan Agong (King) was about to end, Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah, after chairing the Pardons Board, reduced Najib’s sentence by half and the fine to RM50 million.

This did not go down well with many people. However, on 2 February, Anwar described the decision to half Najib’s sentence as “fair”.

Public disappointed with Najib, Zahid cases

On 9 February, Bersih chairman Faisal Abdul Aziz said public and civil society organisations were disappointed and angry with the handling of recent corruption cases involving political elites, including former prime minister Najib Razak and deputy prime minister Amhad Zahid Hamidi.

The attorney-general decided to file for a discharge not amounting to acquittal for all of Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi's 47 charges of corruption, despite the prosecution having proved a prima facie case against him.

Faisal said the government’s failure to be transparent in considering recommendations submitted to the Pardons Board indicated a lack of respect for the people’s right to know the truth.

“This seemingly suggests that promises and commitments to reforms, including combating corruption and holding perpetrators accountable, are merely empty rhetoric,” he added.

Faisal said: “Bersih will not hesitate to mobilise the people back to the streets, a ‘language’ comprehensible to those in power who have been dismissing the people’s aspirations with excuses against supporting reforms.

“We urge the government to implement the reform agenda without compromise.”

Just as he was having the press conference, a group of policemen gathered outside the electoral reform group’s headquarters, giving rise to allegations that the police were trying to intimidate Bersih.

The police denied it but the public was left wondering what two police trucks and motorcycles were doing outside the Bersih office, with many netizens criticising the police.

Govt says will consider all views

Asked about Bersih’s warning, government spokesman Fahmi Fadzil had then said Putrajaya would consider all views raised by the public and non-governmental organisations.

He said the government had formed a special committee headed by Economy Minister Rafizi Ramli to study reforms that could be implemented based on the various government parties’ manifestos.

The Anwar administration has been in power for more than a year and although some reforms have come through – such as the anti-hopping law - or are being worked on, most have not.

On 7 February, a former vice-president of Anwar’s PKR party, N. Surendran, submitted his resignation from the party for failing to carry out promised reforms and because PH remained silent over a sedition probe against former Damansara MP Tony Pua for remarks about the commutation of Najib’s sentence.

In a post on X, Surendran, a former Padang Serai MP, said: “I asked about the reforms PKR once promised. No decent answer to that. There is no point in being a member of a party that no longer represents change and reform. Take this as my resignation.”

Some are concerned that Najib may also be given a discharge not amounting to acquittal for other corruption cases that he faces.

Groups say stop delaying reforms

For instance, on 8 February, Projek SAMA, a group comprising academics advocating for institutional reform, urged Attorney-General Ahmad Teriruddin Mohd Salleh to publicly guarantee that his chambers would not ask for a discharge not amounting to acquittal for Najib's pending cases.

On 20 February, a coalition of NGOs called Seed Community for a Professional Parliament called on the government to present a clear roadmap and timetable for parliamentary reforms.

It also told Pakatan Harapan to stop saying the delay in implementing parliamentary reforms was because it was leading a coalition with varying and sometimes opposing interests.

But it is not just people in PKR, and its partner in the PH coalition, the DAP, and NGOs that are frustrated with the slow progress on implementing reforms. Ordinary Malaysians in urban areas are too.

People I spoke to said they were losing patience at the slow progress, with one even saying that the nation was regressing in some areas.

They said they would join the Bersih rally on Tuesday.

If Anwar does not act fast on reforms, his coalition will be in trouble in the next general election. With PAS and Bersatu waiting for him to fail or for the people’s trust to erode further, Anwar cannot afford to wait too long.

A.Kathirasen is a veteran Malaysian journalist/editor who has been writing columns, with breaks, in newspapers and online since 1981. All views expressed are the writer's own.

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