Webinar on “Whither Institutional Reform in Malaysia?”

In this webinar, Dr Meredith Weiss shared her views on the state of institutional reform in Malaysia under the Pakatan Harapan-led Unity Government.


Monday, 29 April 2024 – After more than a year in power since forming the Malaysian government in November 2022, Anwar Ibrahim’s cobbled-together ‘Unity’ government has yet to articulate a comprehensive, agreed-upon platform or clear priorities, let alone achieve substantial reforms. ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s Malaysia Studies Programme invited guest speaker Dr Meredith Weiss to review reforms Anwar’s government has achieved thus far, what seems likely yet to materialise, and what accounts for how little has been, or seems likely to be, achieved. Dr Weiss is Professor of Political Science in the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is also a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at ISEAS in 2024.

Speaker Dr Meredith Weiss with moderator Dr Lee Hwok Aun. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The first part of Dr Weiss’ presentation took stock of what has been on Pakatan Harapan’s agenda since GE13 in 2013. In 2013, Pakatan’s People’s Manifesto centred on four pillars: fraternity, economy, wellbeing, and government. The document prioritised ethnic inclusivity, elevating women and targeted groups, and support for East Malaysia developmentalist measures and greater autonomy. Nationally, Pakatan promised a million new jobs, a minimum wage, breaking up monopolies and targeted measures for groups like veterans and taxi drivers. Pakatan also pledged improvements in education, environmental measures and transport. Basic health care would be the people’s right. On the institutional front, they also put forth reforms like clean and fair elections, anti-corruption, the judiciary, the Attorney General chambers, the police, as well as media freedom, academic freedom, abolishing all anti-people laws, and reforming Islamic and religious institutions.

In 2018, noteworthy changes include pledging to restore the dignity of the Malays and Malay institutions, to uphold the monarchy and Malay language and to champion the fate of the Bumiputera and all Malaysian citizens. Pakatan offered 10 promises for its first 100 days, mostly surrounding economic issues—abolishing GST, subsidising petrol and a B40 health fund. Institutional reform in 2018 centred on restoring trust, credibility and checks and balances. PM and chief ministers would be limited to two terms each, the Malaysian anti-corruption commission (MACC) would gain autonomy and resources, and both MACC and the election commission would report to parliament rather than the PM. The Attorney General and public prosecutor would be separated with an MP to serve as Attorney General; parliament would be strengthened by restoring the Parliamentary Services Act of 1963.

Dr Weiss then examined reforms proposed in 2022, where the pandemic left its mark. Priorities thus addressed disaster management, education, contract health workers and health care spending. The cost of living was priority, followed by combating corruption and strengthening democracy, opportunities for youth and women. Pakatan also promised Sabah and Sarawak a deputy Prime Minister post and an increase in their share of parliamentary seats from one quarter to 35%. They also suggested a range of poverty reduction measures including microcredit loans to Social Security in Malaysia for the 6 million gig economy workers. Other issues outlined in the manifesto include to “free the country from shackles of corruption”. Another important issue now on Pakistan’s agenda is for local elections to avoid manipulation by those who are irresponsible to siphon resources from the public coffers. The manifesto calls for consistent open participation, open government and transparency and ensuring Malaysians can elect representation.

At the end of this part of the presentation, moderator Dr Lee Hwok Aun asked Dr Weiss what kind of framework she uses to determine which reforms might be more important. Dr Weiss said that the main rubrics she uses to assess what Pakatan promises are the tone, more specifically, the language of rights. This framing steps up from 2013, to 2018, to 2022, which suggests an entitlement to things Pakatan promises: if you have a right to healthcare, for instance, that obligates the government to provide that. It also suggests a frame that should then prioritise and really foreground human rights broadly and its platforms. Noting that reforms tend to be enacted via constitutional amendment or legislative enactment that require a supermajority, Dr Weiss said that the main dividing line is not so much the mechanism by which reforms might be pursued but rather the mix of economic issues and institutional reforms, which tend to be conflated. For example, Dr Weiss opined that BN’s prioritisation of upgrading museums and opening new museums to talk about Malay civilisation is not really an institutional reform; it is not on par with structural changes like strength and democratic functioning. Finally, points that stand out most to Dr Weiss are those that recur in manifesto after manifesto over time and over party or coalition, because these points should be low hanging fruit and/ or promises not yet kept, which could in turn be a sign of deeper institutional malaise. Examples include separating the Attorney General and public prosecutor and the issue of the children of Malaysian women born overseas.

The second part of the presentation then focused on how Pakatan is faring and why. Dr Weiss pointed out that Pakatan sees not being toppled as an end in itself, which is a major constraint for the government; as a result, few steps have been taken. Even procedural shifts like enforcing declaration of assets or giving opposition MPs equal constituency development funds have not happened. Despite grand plans after GE14 for instance, reforms proved slow in coming due to personal ambitions, factional rivalries, and hesitancy to give the opposition more of an advantage. Drawing from NGO reports, Dr Weiss highlighted gains in areas of electoral reform and engagement with civil society, but minimal headway in areas such as marginalised groups and reforming anti-democratic laws, while other areas saw deterioration, such as political finance legislation which was interrupted by the PH government’s collapse. Other challenges remain, such as ministerial turf wars, overlapping or unclear jurisdiction and responsibility, and uneven commitment toward human rights reforms. The broader political context might work against greater clarity and tensions within and between component parties at the government remain concerning, as seen from Zahid’s DNAA and Najib’s reduced sentence— Zahid remains vastly unpopular even with within UMNO and while anti-corruption has been a long-championed cause, at least among Pakatan parties, it has waned as a clear cross-partisan common denominator.

Even so, Dr Weiss noted, institutional reforms under the prior Pakatan administration may increase the scope for change at least of process, if less yet of outcomes. The new bipartisan parliamentary special select committees in principle provide avenues for both opposition voice and public participation but their ability to shape policy remains unclear and offer limited scope for opposition voices to carry weight. Thus far, no bills have started from a select committee. The All-Party Parliamentary Group Malaysia (APPGM) occupies a similarly ambiguous stature. Though not all its projects have succeeded, their work and their budgets continued even through flip flopping, post-2020. Dr Weiss said that two individuals have been active in pushing for reform—UMNO’s Azalina Othman Said and PKR’s William Leong. Separately, they have maintained steady advocacy of reforms, yet their roles also raise a larger issue—the extent to which individuals rather than parties keep the quest for reform alive.

Finally, Dr Weiss concluded by explaining why more has not yet been done. Firstly, a key hurdle relates to the structural nature of reforms. The focus tends to be on constitutional amendments which are challenging to pass, even if it is not the only path forward, an alternative pathway being the judiciary, which can strike down a law as outmoded or inappropriate. A second challenge pertains to changing mindsets, especially of those who have not accepted reform policies. After the experience of the past five years, coupled with the lack of an independent majority, Pakatan is especially careful not to let its actions outpace the electorate’s buy-in. The split in the Malay vote is especially salient in this regard—voters who chose UMNO may have seen PAS not Pakatan as their most likely alternative choice. Winning Malay hearts and minds remains essential for Pakatan’s viability. Thirdly, personality plays a role. Informants have noted that Anwar’s engagement has been lukewarm and he keeps a short-term, transactional mindset of doing what it takes to stay in power rather than taking risks, while at the same time also taking on more than he can handle. That approach has sidelined competent people from his own side.

The webinar proceeded to a Q&A session. Dr Weiss fielded questions including: ­­­the top three practical institutional reforms for the PH administration to address, moves towards local government elections, the role of civil society in impacting institutional reform, whether the successful passage of the Public Finance and Fiscal Responsibility Act, plans for subsidy rationalisation and the rise of FDI into high-tech sector provide a case for optimism, how successful has Anwar been in translating his policies to people on the ground, and whether the reformists being a motley crew is a major problem in Malaysia. Malaysia Studies Programme Co-coordinator Dr Lee Hwok Aun moderated this webinar, which was attended by 66 participants.