Prime Minster Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng arrive in Parliament for the tabling of Budget 2020 on October 11, 2019. — Picture by Miera Zulyana
Prime Minster Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng arrive in Parliament for the tabling of Budget 2020 on October 11, 2019. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

COMMENTARY, Nov 20 — Yes, it is true the government needs time to fix a lot of structural issues plaguing the country, and yes, it is true that many things cannot change overnight.

But if there is one single reason why Tanjung Piai voters voted the way they did last weekend, it is probably because of the state of the economy.

Here’s the thing: many politicians and analysts will offer up a laundry list of voter grievances which contributed to Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) worst showing at the ballot box since winning power in Putrajaya and they may well be right. But ultimately, most of these complaints would not matter if the economy was not in the doldrums.

While it takes time to move away from the previous Barisan Nasional (BN) government’s style of administration that was riddled with allegations of corruption and cronyism, the ordinary Malaysian voter has obviously lost patience because there does not seem to be enough reasons to be optimistic about the future.

Hence, our WhatsApp groups are filled with complaints, allegations and mostly ridicule and jokes about the PH government and its leaders. The kind of memes which get shared used to be reserved for BN leaders and their supporters just a year ago.

So what this government must understand is this: what is ultimately important right now is to get the economic engine humming smoothly.

And that is at the heart of the grievances of the disenchanted voters — from the petrol station owner who has seen his sales fall by at least 10 per cent, to the roadside hawker who has seen his business affected by Grab food delivery, to the casual worker who has lost his job because he used to work for a crony company and now has to be a Grab driver.

So what needs to be done?

Well, for a start, abolishing tolls immediately on all the major highways would help. Sure, it is a complicated process but right now, the voter does not really care. That is the reality. This was a promise made in the PH manifesto.

Perhaps the government can issue bonds to buy up the concessions because the taxpayer is on the hook no matter what. At least if tolls are abolished many Malaysians would see their daily burdens eased immediately.

It would also buy the government much needed goodwill and time to fix other problems.

And how about fixing the country’s creaking infrastructure like roads? Just repaving the trunk roads around the country from Perlis to Johor, and from Kelantan to Sabah and Sarawak would see billions of ringgit injected into the economy through contractors and job creation.

Surely our political leaders have travelled on these roads, much of which are in a deplorable state.

Recently, the government launched a document entitled Shared Prosperity Vision. That would have been a good starting point for this government to shape the narrative as the document was predicated on creating a decent standard of living for all and to ensure a better distribution of wealth.

The Shared Prosperity Vision was a well-thought out and written document, but besides the efforts of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, very few Cabinet ministers or PH party leaders have campaigned for or tried to sell the ideas to voters.

Instead, what the public has been treated to in recent times has been a continuation of political posturing and internal rifts within the ruling parties of the PH coalition.

The collective leadership of the government has failed to make the case to the public for what the future holds for Malaysia.

Can you blame the public for becoming cynical?

Let’s face it. Neither the MCA or Umno can offer much of an alternative to the public right now, especially with many of the latter’s top leaders facing criminal trials and yet the people of Tanjung Piai chose to give the BN candidate the vote.

It’s not that issues like race relations, education and other complaints are not important. But if the economy is not growing and if wealth is not distributed equally the government can never hope to solve those problems.

Voters are far more open to the concept of patience and are even a forgiving lot when their pockets are relatively full and when they have decent jobs. It is not a far-fetched prediction to say that if the US economy is doing very well next year, Donald Trump will be re-elected as president, no matter what kind of a buffoon you may think he is.

The role of government in bad times is arguably to offer up a fiscal policy of spending, to open the taps if you like, and to ensure the economic engine roars into life.

Right now, it is sputtering.

And when the economy sputters, the public will blame the ruling government for everything and anything that is wrong.

Reacting to those criticisms in a defensive manner will not solve anything. But getting the economy moving can.