The Political Manifestos: What Promise To Keep Power Accountable?
As polling day draws near, it is ironic to see the Barisan Nasional (BN) banner bear one of the more popular rally chants of Bersih, Hidup Rakyat. As much as it would be interesting to dissect the reason why BN would choose to use Hidup Rakyat as their own rallying cry for votes, it is more timely to have a closer look at the political manifestos of the political parties, although this attempt is hardly an exhaustive analysis, but hopefully, it will help some voters.
Malaysians not only have the three manifestos of Pakatan Harapan (PH; called Buku Harapan), BN (called Bersama BN, Hebatkan Negaraku) and Gagasan Sejahtera (GS; called Manifesto Malaysia Sejahtera) to review before they cast their vote, but also the “Manifesto for the 99%” that was developed by Gabungan Kiri and adopted in whole by Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM). We also cannot and should not forget, civil society’s Manifesto Wanita or “Women’s Manifesto”, which received a total of 82 endorsements. It was also endorsed by political candidates/officials, primarily from Pakatan Harapan as well as Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM; for latest list of political candidates who endorsed in their personal capacity, these can be found at www.manifestowanita.empowermalaysia.org/endorsements. Do check for your political candidate and if she/he is not listed, you may want to ask her/him why).*
A manifesto is a published verbal declaration of the intentions, motives, or views of the issuer, be it an individual, group, political party or government. A manifesto usually accepts a previously published opinion or public consensus or promotes a new idea with prescriptive notions for carrying out changes the author believes should be made.
Why the emphasis on the definition of a manifesto? Because a manifesto should not contain promises to do what a government should do anyway for its rakyat. Here are some examples in case we have forgotten what the government should do for us, the rakyat:
- To alleviate poverty suffered by various vulnerable groups, like single mothers, farmers, fishermen, people in the B40 income category, and to implement the policies, measures and programmes across ethnicity, religion and all other forms of identity markers and ensure that there are no irregularities and leakages, including exploitation by middlemen. This is the government’s role and responsibility. Also a commitment made in 2009 during the United Nations Human Rights Council’s first Universal Periodic Review for Malaysia.
- To increase the number of jobs and enhance the work skills of its rakyat to remain employable. This is the government’s role and responsibility. Also a commitment made in 2009 during the United Nations Human Rights Council’s first Universal Periodic Review for Malaysia.
- To enhance the education system and improve the condition, equipment and quality of teachers/teaching in schools. This is the government’s role and responsibility. Also a commitment made in 2009 during the United Nations Human Rights Council’s first Universal Periodic Review for Malaysia.
- To provide affordable, adequate and good quality housing. This is the government’s role and responsibility. Also a commitment made in 2009 during the United Nations Human Rights Council’s first Universal Periodic Review for Malaysia.
- To provide affordable, accessible and quality health care. This is the government’s role and responsibility. Also a commitment made in 2009 during the United Nations Human Rights Council’s first Universal Periodic Review for Malaysia.
- To provide accessible and affordable public transport. This is the government’s role and responsibility.
- To ensure the establishment of a good and responsive disaster relief and support system that prioritises the safety of the rakyat. This is the government’s role and responsibility.
- To uphold the Malaysia Agreement 1963. This, not only is the government’s role and responsibility, it is the bedrock to the formation of our beloved, Malaysia.
A political manifesto should point to the change that will be brought about in how things are being done and not just make promises at a superficial level. It should concretely address the negative outcomes of the current governing system. That means, it should point to current weaknesses in keeping power accountable and propose how the political party in question will address these weaknesses. It should articulate the systemic change and necessary reforms to be better able to ensure good governance, transparency and accountability to the rakyat. This includes protecting the position of the highest law in the land, our Federal Constitution, where all articles are equally important to uphold, hence why they are articulated in the Constitution in the first place. For example, an equal emphasis between article 3(1) and article 3(4) is crucial.
We, the rakyat, may be able to look past the use of confusing terms such as “empowering consumerism” rather than “empowering the consumer”, and the use of “sustainable management” rather than “sustainable development” for forest economies. I am sure some of you know the difference between the latter two, but for me, adding the term “sustainable” to yet another term does not make any exploitative endeavour anymore sustainable. What is quite hilarious in the BN manifesto is the deliberate mixing of “income with compensation to employees” as a kind of promise for greater equal wealth distribution, that such a combined total worth would account for 40% of the nation’s income (GDP). What this can mean is that the share of employees’ income in real terms can remain miserably at 20% and yet be represented as 40% of the GDP because of government subsidies, welfare programmes and BR1M handouts. I would not blame anyone if they mistakenly understood this as a promise of spending the rakyat’s money to keep the majority of the rakyat reliant on handouts, rather than truly empowering them economically.
If a political party or coalition of political parties are promising us, the rakyat, what a good government should be doing anyway as part of its role and responsibilities, rather than state what exactly is the problem, what exactly are their shortfalls, and how they are going to address the problems/shortfalls, then, what does it say about that political party/coalition? For example, why does not BN promise a Freedom of Information Act at the federal level instead of a B40 information window? Should we not try to move towards a more open, transparent and accountable society? Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, even the promise of a living wage rather than a minimum wage was too hard for BN, PH and GS to make. Only the “Women’s Manifesto” and the “Manifesto for the 99%” demanded these promises. Only the “Women’s Manifesto” and the “Manifesto for the 99%” spoke explicitly to the promotion and protection of human rights including the right to information, participatory democracy and a more just wealth distribution in favour of labour and women workers. Only the “Women’s Manifesto” and the “Manifesto for the 99%” asked that political candidates and those who hold political positions to declare their assets. Only PSM political candidates upheld that promise. Has your political candidate done the same?
Yet, all is possibly not lost if we closely examine these manifestos through a “power analysis lens”. However, this analysis comes with a caveat. As voters, we still need to look at our political candidates and review their track record. Considering that there are quite a few newcomers, I suggest examine what they have said in public, what issues do they champion above others and why, and how corrupt, racist, sexist and misogynist they are.
Enabling gender equality: This has become an increasingly thorny issue in Malaysia, because of a strong inclination towards patriarchal values that are embedded in our culture and both religious and non-religious institutions. However, PH’s manifesto, like the “Women’s Manifesto” has attempted to take the bull by its horns, by promising, among others, the establishment of a Leadership and Political institution to prepare more women to join politics, and in doing so, concretely contribute towards the possibility of achieving 30% women’s representation in politics, if not more. In addition to promising to adopt a gender responsive budgeting system for the national budget, gender studies are expected to be streamlined at all levels of the education system, and will work towards a legal framework that supports women’s demand for “equal pay for equal work”. PH appears committed on bringing about cultural change by making it compulsory for employers to conduct trainings against sexual harassment, I just hope that they are qualified trainers and drawn from women’s rights groups who have long worked in addressing this issue, like All Women’s Action Society (AWAM). The stated commitments that would help bring about cultural change amidst the rise in sexism and misogyny towards women, are commendable. Nothing in the BN manifesto speaks to bringing about this much needed cultural change, but instead, has Najib Razak still keen on holding at least one position that should be helmed by women, which is the chairperson position of the Women’s Economic Council. The quick slap-on of the promise of enacting an Anti-Sexual Harassment Act after enacting the Anti-Fake News Act is questionable, especially when the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act was first mooted by women’s rights groups to the BN government as early as 2002. The “Manifesto for the 99%” is worth our attention as well, as it demands commitment to long-term and sustainable changes within a legal framework, and like the “Women’s Manifesto” and Buku Harapan, recognises the need to increase women’s representation and participation in decision-making and in public life, among others. In fact, the “Manifesto for the 99%” had mainstreamed demands that would uphold gender equality through other sections of the manifesto, like the section on “Real Democracy”. The “Women’s Manifesto”, though, remains the most comprehensive in detailing the changes needed that speak to both gender equality and women’s empowerment issues as well as in creating a more enabling environment for gender equality to thrive. We hope that those elected into power, will still refer to the “Women’s Manifesto” in order to be political leaders who are truly committed in eradicating gender inequality and sexual and gender-based discrimination and violence in this country.
Keeping structural powers and the Executive accountable: PH’s Buku Harapan, GS’s manifesto and the “Manifesto for the 99%” as well as the “Women’s Manifesto” speak to the needed changes. Quite commendable are the promises in the GS’s and PH’s manifestos, and we may then start to pay attention to the timing of how these manifestos were developed and launched, with the “Manifesto for the 99%” being launched first, then the “Women’s Manifesto” at the same time as the PH’s manifesto and then the remaining two. As such, a lot of the similarities may be because they were already stated in the “Manifesto for the 99%” and the “Women’s Manifesto”, but to be sure, we can only measure intention by actual actions and follow through. For example, GS’s manifesto is silent on how exactly it will ensure true balance of power and accountability among the three branches of power of government —the Executive, the Legislative and the Judiciary. So look at these promises carefully, because on the surface, they look really good. Do see if these promises clearly state the “how” in fulfilling these promises. Because you can still have an elected leader who addresses corruption but is sexist, misogynist and oppresses women by undermining their freedoms and bodily autonomy in every way. Look closely too at which issues your political candidates have been vocal about. If they are newcomers, look at the political party—has it really fought for these issues/concerns?. If your political candidates (Parliament and ADUN) have risked their personal safety (and that of their family) to demand that power is held accountable, your final conclusion and decision about their integrity cannot be that far wrong. Look too at the overall governance of the individual States and that of Federal, and judge for yourselves.
Keeping capital owners and corporate power accountable: The “Manifesto for the 99%” surpasses the other manifestos here because it is, at its core, a workers’ manifesto. The “Women’s Manifesto” is equally concerned about farmers, fisherfolk, food security, sustainable agriculture, and renewable energy projects that do not destroy the environment. There are of course some similar promises by PH and GS, with PH focusing more on government-linked companies (GLCs) and government-linked investment companies (GLICs) and GS’s manifesto focusing more on the wellbeing of small and medium enterprises, and Malaysians engaged in the agricultural sector. However, political parties cannot overlook the rights of workers if they are really committed to addressing this power imbalance.
Bringing about more equitable wealth distribution between Federal and individual states, including the review of the status of Sabah and Sarawak and the 1963 agreement: I am not a native of Borneo, so I will not touch on the promises made to Sabahans and Sarawakians, as these promises are best discussed by them. However, ensuring more equitable wealth distribution between Federal and individual states is quite pronounced in the manifestos of PH and GS and can clearly be an obstacle in achieving development justice at the state level. To what extent these funds have thus far been managed in a transparent and accountable manner should however equally be the key consideration here.
Environmental justice: By far, the “Manifesto for the 99%” surpasses other political manifestos in this area, and since it has been fully supported and adopted as its own manifesto by PSM, it is only fair that we consider the promises contained therein if we are concerned about the environment, and if there will be a liveable world for our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. The “Women’s Manifesto” also makes some similar demands, paying close attention to how women are affected by these issues. We definitely need more radical promises if we want a liveable world for our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
I have no doubt that some promises will appeal to some Malaysians, across the board. Especially, if they are handouts, tax exemptions, tax reductions, and subsidies, and just in case some people are confused, votes secured through threats and coercion in the name of God or upon Holy texts are forms of violence. These handouts, more than likely, do not and will not address the root causes of the concerned problems/issues faced by the rakyat. They are not… wait for it, ‘sustainable solutions’. If you are persuaded by any of the promises, think again and think yet again. How is the promise stated? Is it clear who exactly will benefit and how? What would that mean for you in real terms? For example, tax deductions for housing rental income are for capital owners. Those who own many tenanted houses will be happy. If there is a promise to reduce the cost of houses, we have to ask for which income category and are the sale of these houses limited to a certain income category? If most promises are about increasing income in one way or another other than in real and more sustainable terms, then, what exactly is such a manifesto saying? I would encourage every voter to ask questions. How do these manifestos view the rakyat’s funds that government spends? At least three manifestos—”Manifesto for the 99%”, “Women’s Manifesto” and “Buku Harapan”—sees these funds as the people’s funds (wang rakyat). So ask as many questions as possible and do not take these promises at face value, and I cannot emphasise enough, look at your candidate’s track record very closely. We can no longer rely only on this once in five years general elections to keep our elected leaders transparent and accountable. We, as peoples of Malaysia, need to be better able to boot them out before their term ends as well. Remember, at this important juncture, your ADUN and Parliamentary candidates are just that, candidates. They are appealing to you for a job that requires integrity and accountability to the peoples of Malaysia. It is in your hands to decide whether they are worthy of such a position as your elected leader or not. Do not be deterred by any form of coercion or be easily swooned over empty promises. You should demand that they are able to earn your trust and ultimately, your vote.
For EMPOWER and our work on women’s political equality, the promise of 30% women representatives but fielding only 20% as women political candidates is already a broken one. However, we are not deterred. We remain committed to our vision and mission. We are now documenting violence that takes place against women political candidates, including manipulation of facts against these women. If you are a victim, please tag EMPOWER, and we will monitor, attempt to verify and respond.
Angela M. Kuga Thas
Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (EMPOWER)
* The Women’s Manifesto is being distributed far and wide by Team EMPOWER, and with the support of Nive Yong, Chairperson of the Women’s Wing for PRM’s Selangor branch.