Friday 02 Jun 2023
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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on March 13, 2023 - March 19, 2023

“All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days … nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.” — John F Kennedy (1917–1963), 35th US president

Has it been three months already since that fateful day the unity government was formed to lead a less-than-optimistic Malaysia out of the doldrums? My, how time has flown!

The first 100 days of his rule has always put a new leader under a microscope. His first 100 days in charge is a time to show the nation who he is and what he is capable of. The people he is about to lead are waiting, full of expectation and apprehension. How will he change their lives? Will they have better lives to go back to? Everything hangs on what the leader does. At least, that is what the media has psyched the public to expect.

Really? Is 100 days enough for a leader, any leader, to show his mettle, burnish his reputation? David Alexrod, US president Barack Obama’s chief strategist, once called it a “Hallmark Holiday” — a lot of attention but no significance.

The idea that the first 100 days of a leader’s rule are crucial dates back to Franklin D Roosevelt’s initial term as the 32nd US president in March 1933. The US was then in the grip of the Great Depression and things were bad, really bad.

“Almost every bank was closed, one in every four people was unemployed and the very survival of democratic capitalism was in doubt,” wrote Thomas Neff and James Citrin in their 2005 tome, You’re in Charge — Now What?

But in his first 100 days, Roosevelt managed to bring relief to American businesses, farms and the unemployed, and created the Tennessee Valley Authority to control floods and produce electricity along the Tennessee River.

His achievements in a mere 100 days set an example for many national leaders who felt that they, too, had to use those first three months to take decisive action, to show they mean business, that they can act decisively before people settle back into their comfortable ways.

As we look at the assessments of our own leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in his first 100 days, there will be, no doubt, some things that will turn out to not matter and some that may predict what will matter.

Malaysia’s 10th prime minister took office with promises to revive the economy, mend political rifts and fight graft. He began his efforts by forming a first-of-its-kind unity government, combining his Pakatan Harapan coalition with former rival Umno and other parties, and they currently enjoy a two-thirds majority in parliament.

Anwar has juggled quite well between the need to restore some sense of political stability in his administration and implementing new policies to help the nation’s economic recovery, especially among Malaysia’s vulnerable groups who have yet to recover from the economic slowdown of the Covid/MCO (Movement Control Order) years of 2020 to 2022.

While some decisions he has taken have taken the shine off the new administration, including the controversial and generally disappointing appointment of Datuk Seri Zahid Hamidi — who faces graft charges — as deputy prime minister, Anwar’s efforts have been broadly welcomed by the public, securing a 68% approval rating in a survey published in February by opinion pollster Merdeka Center.

Has the prime minister really done well in his first 100 days? The jury is still out, but both the bouquets and brickbats continue.

After last year’s general election gave Malaysia its first-ever hung parliament, the setting up of a functional coalition, combining a motley crew of fiercely opposed parties such as Umno and East Malaysian parties that previously swore they would not work with his Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, can be considered a big success.

Members of the unity government have since silenced their criticism of one another and have begun to work as a team to steer the nation onwards — a good development, methinks. It means that his government, through its two-thirds majority in parliament, can power through with progressive reforms to public policy and institutions, including constitutional amendments, without needing any opposition votes in parliament.

In his maiden budget of his administration tabled in parliament in February, Anwar announced a slew of measures aimed at helping ease the financial strain on Malaysia’s low- and middle-income households. One, the populist Menu Rahmah initiative, an innovative low-hanging, price-busting fruit, has gained a lot of goodwill for his government. A balanced meal under RM5 is a godsend for our economically challenged communities. More importantly, it telegraphs to all and sundry that governments do not need high-profile think tanks and endless yakety-yaks to deliver simple solutions to our citizens.

Anwar’s promise to pump out billions of ringgit in targeted cash handouts and to upskill and build capacity among our poor communities has also gained public support and approval. To fund these measures, Anwar’s 2023 budget has expanded the government’s tax base among high-income earners with levies on luxury goods and on revenue earned by corporations through disposal of shares, among other measures.

In summary, Anwar’s efforts to quickly transform Malaysia’s local economy, generate employment opportunities and address mounting costs of living have gained widespread support among the public. His international trips to burnish Malaysia’s standing in the eyes of the world have also added feathers in his government’s hat. Enough for the first 100 days, you say?

No, say his detractors. Ever the eloquent politician, Anwar has been accused of populist acts and statements bereft of crucial oomph. Worse, he is now facing criticism for decisions that have gone against principles that he and his PH coalition had long stood for, as their political ideals clash with realpolitik.

Anwar found himself on the defensive after his daughter revealed that she had been officially made a senior adviser on economics and finance to the prime minister. Although the appointment was a non-starter, that decision drew criticism, not only from the opposition but also his support base, as it reeked of nepotism, a mainstay of his attack on the government of the day as the opposition leader then.

The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission’s ongoing investigations into the opposition Bersatu party has also found Anwar’s administration on the back foot. His government is accused of going on a witch hunt and attempting to demoralise and incapacitate the party as they prepare for six crucial state elections expected to take place in the second half of the year.

Any major loss of seats or votes in these upcoming state elections will be seen as a referendum of the prime minister’s efforts to boost investor confidence and strengthen cooperation among his political allies.

It has been a busy first three months for Anwar, as he hit the ground running to meet the demands of a nation wracked by political upheaval and international sociopolitical events. Reforming the government will take time, but is an action-filled first 100 days simply political rhetoric?

Maybe the oft-quoted maxim “Know thyself” should be any new leader’s starting point. Recognising the limits of our own wisdom and understanding — knowing what we do genuinely know and knowing what we have yet to learn — should allow for a better assessment of our first 100 days, and the promises of days to come.

Zakie Shariff is executive chairman of Kiarafics Sdn Bhd, a strategy consulting group. He is also adjunct professor at the Faculty of Industrial Management, Universiti Malaysia Pahang.

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