KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – Just over a year ago, the Pakatan Harapan coalition swept into power and dethroned Barisan Nasional, which had been the ruling party for over six decades.
The nation was in a state of euphoria as Malaysians welcomed a new era, with promises of fresh approaches to governance and ideals under a New Malaysia.
The victors guaranteed everything under the sun because they never imagined they would be in government, and that has been the open admission of Pakatan leaders.
The exuberance that once greeted Pakatan politicians at every mammoth ceramah during the General Election has unceremoniously faded. Their cause hasn’t been helped by some ministers fumbling and struggling after a year in office.
In some situations, these ministers have been simply incompetent. Had they been in the private sector, they would have got the boot after the probation period.
The Prime Minister’s attempt to revamp the Cabinet has failed to take off, forcing him to live with the hastily cobbled together line-up.
However, if his officials have been honest with him, the murmurings of discontent must surely have reached his ears.
Yes, positive achievements have been recorded in the past year-plus – integrity and public accountability in our institutions have been restored, and once-untouchable corrupt figures have been apprehended by the long arm of the law and hauled to court.
But Malaysians are also tired of ministers blaming the past government for the country’s shortcomings. Sure, the claims are probably true, but they should just zip it and fix the holes. That’s why they were elected in the first place.
In fact, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s popularity has taken a beating, and one only needs to look at the comments on social media to gauge the disenchantment on the ground. A formal and more structured survey will likely reveal the same assessment, too.
While racial and religious sentiments have been employed to beguile the crucial and decisive Muslim-Malay electorate, there is also an equal amount of unhappiness among the non-Malays.
Democratic Action Party (DAP) leaders are used to being treated with near-idolatry status by Chinese voters, but of late, some party bigwigs have been heckled and booed at gatherings.
From being champions of the Chinese community, they have now found themselves branded apologists of Dr Mahathir. It’s as if the DAP and Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) have traded places, as the latter was severely criticised in the past while under the Barisan government.
While the recovery of the nation’s money from the 1MDB looters has given Pakatan brownie points, it’s obviously not enough to sustain the desired level of support.
Any political science student will know that in any uprising and toppling of a strong government, there is always a level of growing expectations. And often, the sentiments are even unrealistic, but that’s the price populist politicians must pay when elected.
Unfulfilled expectations have caused the Pakatan government to lose its ratings with the electorate. In the digital age, where politicians’ promises are recorded in the public domain, Pakatan leaders have now found themselves unable to meet these expectations. Even if the reason is real, such as empty coffers, it’s difficult to explain to the electorate.
We can’t say we are short of money and yet spend anything from RM800mil (S$262 million) to RM1.67bil to provide meals to all primary school children, especially when it should be channelled to only needy students, particularly those from rural areas.
And why are we planning to build an airport in Kulim costing RM1.6bil when the Penang International Airport is just 26km away?
The failure to get recognition for the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) – the school leaving certificate of the Malaysian Independent Chinese secondary schools – as stated in Pakatan’s GE14 Manifesto remains a sore point among Chinese voters who view education and economy as two primary concerns.
It was also a bitter pill to swallow when Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng, for two Budgets in a row (2019 and 2020), denied Tunku Abdul Rahman University College (TAR UC) its annual matching grants of RM30mil, totalling RM60mil.
The decision has drawn continued flak from the Chinese community, simply because the grants are meant to keep the tuition fees affordable for low and middle-income groups.
In a video that has gone viral, Lim is depicted declaring to the audience at a ceramah during the GE, that each of TAR UC’s 28,000 students would get RM1,000 if Pakatan formed the government.
The promise wasn’t fulfilled, and rubbing salt into the wound, there’s now no matching grant either.
The justification given was that the government would direct the funds to the private higher education institution if the MCA was willing to relinquish its ownership of it.
Lim said this was in line with the government’s stand that public funds shouldn’t be channelled to politically-owned organisations.
But the explanation hasn’t convinced most Chinese because TAR UC has never been an MCA-indoctrinated institution, and any TAR UC graduate can attest to that.
MCA has had to finance these institutions with the support of the Barisan government, tycoons and ordinary people.
While the DAP and MCA are enemies, the general feeling is that when it comes to matters of education which benefit the Chinese, its community is left disappointed because the students and families have become victims of a political rivalry at a time when Malay unity is being openly promoted.
It’s a known fact that several DAP leaders are alumni of TAR UC, and all its campuses are in constituencies which have come under the control of Pakatan since the last General Election.
In Kampar, Perak, where Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) is located, the constituency is now under the DAP despite the large number of student and lecturer voters.
The Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) is perhaps a much more complicated matter. While the Chinese community wants instant recognition, the examination has unfortunately turned into a highly racialised and politicised issue, and its subtext now is about the fear of losing Malay support.
UEC task force chairman Eddin Khoo said the final report on the recognition of the examination certificate is currently undergoing an internal discussion.
But the UEC issue has been dragging on for decades and wasn’t recognised even during Dr Mahathir’s first tenure as PM.
Obviously, Pakatan won most of the Chinese votes during GE14 mainly because, among other promises, its manifesto and leaders pledged to recognise the UEC.
So we have an odd situation where the UEC is recognised by the top universities in the world including the California Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Oxford University, University of Cambridge, University of Toronto, University of Tokyo, National University of Singapore, University of Hong Kong, University of Melbourne, Peking University and Kyoto University, but not here.
Based on The Times Higher Education World University Rankings Top 200 of 2014, more than 70 of these world-class universities have accepted the enrolment of UEC graduates to pursue tertiary education.
And yet, we see these mulling and delaying tactics being applied despite the bravado pledges of recognising the UEC.
The education débâcle apart, the continuing weak economy, the declining value of the ringgit, the increasing cost of living, the lack of economic programmes and taxation of all forms, have all become a source of discontent for the Chinese at all levels.
It’s still too early to predict the outcome of the Tanjung Piai by-election, and difficult to suss out if the huge crowd at a recent multiracial Barisan ceramah is any indication that voters want to send a strong message to the Pakatan government that they are dissatisfied.
But the grievances of daily issues, particularly the cost of putting food on the table and job opportunities, have become loud grumblings at the expense of largely positive actions by the government.
The writer is a columnist with The Star. The Star is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media entities.
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