Bipartisanship negotiation on managing Covid-19 and economic recovery to continue
By Dr Rais Hussin and Jamari Mohtar
Despite the disappointment of the opposition on the line-up of the Cabinet announced by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakop on August 28, the earlier highly expected political ceasefire arising from the bipartisan cooperation that has been agreed upon between the government and the opposition will continue.
It all began with the King’s decree to all politicians to cool the political temperature by putting the priority on the rakyat amid the pandemic and economic woes, which then led to the invitation by the prime minister to opposition leaders of Pakatan Harapan (PH) for an unprecedented meeting to thrash out the major issues dividing them.
Fortunately, the issues did not involve the Cabinet line-up, as the opposition obviously recognises the fact that it is the prerogative of the prime minister to name his Cabinet.
The issues they deliberated revolved around the best mutual agreement on finding common grounds on managing the pandemic, saving lives and liberate the people from the economic woes following the loss of employment and income.
This led to a ground-breaking two-point agreement between the two sides in an unprecedented joint statement signed by the prime minister and the three leaders of PH – Anwar Ibrahim, Mohamad Sabu and Lim Guan Eng – on Aug 25, on the following:
• Empowering Parliament as a responsible, constructive and check-and-balance institution on the transparent governance of the executive which is in line with the wishes of the rakyat; and
• Importance of having an independent judiciary, institutional reforms and good governance of the government to ensure a more conducive environment for the rakyat and the nation in the context of the Malaysian Family.
In making the plea to the opposition in his maiden speech on Aug 22, Ismail Sabri said: “We must embrace the spirit of togetherness. I would like to offer the opportunity to the leadership of the opposition to be part of the National Recovery Council (NRC) and the Special Committee on Covid-19.
“I understand that the political turmoil has besieged the country and distressed the public. Therefore, political stability must be swiftly achieved through togetherness, and this includes cross-party cooperation.”
Many analysts continue to see this bipartisan agreement as a good sign of better things are ahead for Malaysia in its fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and the recovery of the economy.
For a very long time, the prejudice against the opposition, especially during the long reign of Barisan Nasional, and a negative perception of the government were deeply ingrained in the psyche of the politicians.
This led to confrontational politics, especially in Parliament, where both the notions there was nothing good at whatever the government had done, and the opposition aimed at nothing but power grab with its destructive criticisms were prevalent.
Hopefully, with the bipartisan agreement, a new beginning where both the government and the opposition begin to regard each other as partners in nation building especially in managing any crisis, will replace the old mindset above.
The move towards this new beginning should begin with the government’s announcement of co-opting opposition members to be part of the NRC and the Special Committee on Covid-19 in the days ahead to chart out a recovery plan based on data and science, and the needs of the Malaysian Family.
Later, when Parliament meets next month, among the first order of business that it should focus on are to elect a Deputy Speaker from among the opposition followed by a vote of confidence for the government which, to the credit of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who has given the assurance that the opposition “will not make it difficult”.
Henceforth, we should see quality parliamentary debates that are measured and constructive, free from the rowdy shouting matches and the talking up or down stance of the parliamentarians, depending on which side of the aisle they come from – all in the interests of attaining a prosperous and cohesive Malaysian Family that is united in combating the pandemic and making significant progress in the recovery of the economy.
With these preliminaries being taken care of, the stage will then be set for a confidence and supply agreement between the government and the opposition that will ensure the smooth passage of Budget 2022 and the request for the statutory debt limit to be raised to 65% from the current 60% of GDP.
The raising of the debt ceiling and the passage of Budget 2022 are a must so that funds are available for the financial lifeline of the Malaysian Family including small and medium sized enterprises to survive the pandemic and continue to stay afloat and healthy post pandemic.
It is indeed heartening to see DAP’s secretary general, Lim Guan Eng, giving a quick positive response on the same day the olive branch was extended by expressing his party’s willingness to consider joining the country’s administration in the fight against Covid-19.
“To save lives and livelihoods, DAP is willing to consider the offer for the leadership of the opposition to be part of the NRC and the Special Committee on Covid-19 provided that it is not a token representation and a mere rubber-stamp for the government’s views. The winner cannot take all and the loser should not lose all,’’ he added.
In what can be seen as a very positive development, DAP’s Tony Pua, speaking at an online forum yesterday (August 27) organised by the Oxford and Cambridge Society Malaysia, which was streamed live on YouTube, revealed that negotiations are ongoing between the opposition bloc and Ismail Sabri.
“In regard to support or abstention, we want whatever Muhyiddin has offered to Malaysians in his very famous speech back then… We want it also offered to us and Malaysians today.
“If he (Ismail Sabri) can do that, and this is being negotiated now, if he can offer whatever that Muhyiddin has offered, (the promise to legislate) anti-hopping law, limiting the term of prime ministership, and parliamentary reforms, then we are prepared to now offer a ceasefire in order to provide certain stability for the government.
“(The ceasefire is for the government) to carry out these reforms prior to the next general election. That’s something we are working on and we are quite optimistic at arriving at positive outcomes from these discussions,” said Pua.
If each party to the negotiation holds the right card and has the interest of the rakyat and the nation uppermost in its minds, this development could be a prelude to a changing political landscape in which the politics of confrontation will be replaced with the politics of consultation.
The key is to move slow and steady by going for frequent small-step reforms rather than going for the jugular with crocodile-bite changes, as the politics of confrontation is so deeply etched in the psyche of the Malaysian politicians.
(Dr Rais Hussin and Jamari Mohtar are part of the research team of EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.)