SHAH ALAM (Jan 16): Barisan Nasional (BN) desperately wants to win Selangor back from Pakatan Rakyat in the next general election, but even former menteri besar Datuk Seri Dr Mohd Khir Toyo admits that it may be easier said than done.
In an exclusive interview with fz.com, Mohd Khir spoke frankly on the pressing need for BN to get its act together and counter what he called Pakatan's half-truths head on.
Apart from the electioneering, he says, this means having a "strong manifesto" addressing the specific needs of the voters in the country's industrial nerve centre.
"The issue (for BN) in Selangor now is the lack of a manifesto…which an important thing in Malaysian politics. It is considered a promise that needs to be fulfilled by the government," says Mohd Khir, who helmed the state from August 2000 to March 2008.
"For Selangor we must have our own manifesto to answer Pakatan's failed promises," he says, already in campaign mode. "We cannot depend solely on the federal manifesto." Mohd Khir is confident that a strong manifesto for the state would ratchet up BN's campaign to regain the voters' trust.
In the 2008 general election, the political tsunami that swept the country gave the federal opposition control of five states, including Selangor, which the Pakatan swept by taking 36 out of 56 seats. PKR held the lion's share, with 15 seats, followed by the DAP and PAS taking 13 and eight respectively.
It was undoubtedly a severe mauling for the BN. Umno, the lead party in the coalition, only won 18 out of 35 constituencies it contested, and of them, it took 11 with a majority of 5% or less, while MCA clinched two out of 14 and MIC, which was nominated in three seats, was completely wiped out.
Much of the voters' disgruntlement was attributed at that time to unhappiness over a glaring disparity in wealth, closely followed by a host of governance issues such as transparency and accountability, questionable electoral practices and aggrievement over socio-cultural rights, especially in states like Penang and Selangor.
The BN government underwent a convulsive change of leadership, with Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi stepping down as prime minister, making way for Datuk Seri Najib Razak to spearhead an ambitious reform programme. However, resistance from right wing leaders forced Najib to soft peddle on many of his key initiatives. In the meantime, the Pakatan governments in Selangor, Perak and Penang, in particular, rolled out a number of changes that enhanced their popularity.
In Selangor, among the direct consumer benefits was the free water supply for the first 20 cubic metres, aimed at helping low income and small households. Over a million consumers have been enjoying this since July 2008, just four months after Pakatan came into power. Hence, topping the list of promises that the BN needs to weigh is whether the coalition intends to continue the free water programme if it wins the state back in the next general election.
A manifesto, Mohd Khir explains, is also crucial for presenting a common platform for the coalition partners to stand on when addressing issues that the voters feel strongly about. This unity of purpose is vital in order to ensure the BN's longevity, he said.
"You see, we don't really sit together to discuss the issue (before going on the offensive)," Mohd Khir states. "We depend on the leaders to just proceed. We can sustain our support base only when we sit together to address the issue. But, for now, we depend on individual leaders to express a common viewpoint, and then we don't really support each other in playing up an issue.
I have given my opinion that we should have road shows, but I don't know why they are not proceeding." "We need to have sustainable issues to play up for three months without a stop. Sometimes the issues are hot and then it quiets down immediately… just stops, and then we have come out with a new one.
"As far as I know, Selangor is an uphill battle," Mohd Khir admits.
'High cost of living'
Mohd Khir acknowledges that although the free water scheme is populist, it has been effective in secured the Pakatan state leadership a loyal following in both the rural and urban areas. However, despite such welfare measures, he opines that many are weighed down by the high cost of living in the Klang Valley. Mohd Khir puts the blame on this situation down to the cost cutting measures adopted by the current state government.
"They tried to stop whatever initiatives were started by the previous government and they don't have any alternative programmes in their place," says Mohd Khir. In his view, this has put a damper on Selangor's economy and investors are shying away. In fact, for the first two years of Pakatan's rule, he says, the government had failed to generate much employment opportunities. However, Mohd Khir's views are at odds with official statistics.
Reports quoting the Malaysian Industrial Development Authority place Selangor at the top of the league in terms of attracting capital investments. For the first seven months of last year, Selangor attracted RM6.08 billion in investments in the manufacturing sector, with Sabah taking second spot with RM4.83 billion. His comments may be relevant in the context of businesses linked to the previous state government.
"They try to create new cronies – all the companies or developers associated with BN – they tried to push them aside," he says. "Consequently, there is a slowdown in the economic activities in Selangor and housing developers are most affected. That's why the prices of houses have increased very much compared to before 2008 because the demand and supply is not stable and the consumers are facing big problems," Mohd Khir argues.
Whatever the underlying factors, disgruntlement over the escalating cost of residential properties in the Klang Valley is common, especially among young Malaysians struggling to own their first property.
According to Mohd Khir, the Selangor government is charging property developers an additional development charge of 30% to be paid to local councils after gazetting the Development Charge Rules in 2010.
"The developers then reflect this amount in the price of the houses, forcing people to pay out of their own pockets. It doesn't help that the government has not embarked on constructing more low-cost housing units as well," he says.
From one angle, these claims are partly true, as official statements reveal that only 287 low-cost units have been completed as of October last year while 826 are under construction.
But the state government's credit, 5,526 units of low-medium and medium cost housing ranging from RM100,000 to RM150,000 have been completed, out of the 23,637 planned. A fact that Mohd Khir reluctantly admits.
He points out that the former state government had maintained the prices of apartments at below RM200,000. "But you will never hear them (Pakatan) give credit to us," he complains.
Mohd Khir also notes that the Pakatan government has retained a number of policies that were introduced during his eight-year tenure as menteri besar of Selangor.
"I can safely claim I'm the first menteri besar to allocate funds for non-Muslim places of worship. We allocated about RM3 million to RM4 million a year. But then they claim that they are doing better than BN because it was never promoted previously," he states.
Another point he stresses is the abrupt cancellation of Alam Flora Sdn Bhd's solid waste management contract in March last year. That was also at the expense of the rakyat's welfare, but it was marketed as a necessary measure to terminate the company's unsatisfactory service, says Mohd Khir. Instead, it was a cost-cutting measure, he says.
Almost a year on, says Mohd Khir, the stink up that resulted from the decision is still lingering, as local councils could not effectively administer the service, which was tendered out in open bids. The contractors who were given the contracts were without the required skill and equipment, he claims.
"But these are just one of the issues we must think well about before proceeding," says Mohd Khir, who is the Sungai Panjang Umno assembly member. Besides this, he now heads the party's state-level think tank.
'Truth' about state coffers
Mohd Khir also feels that the state has received undue commendation for registering a higher surplus of RM180.5 million in 2011 as the increase in the coffers was a result of cost-cutting measures, the lack of major development projects and the failure to optimise federal allocations.
"As a government, you are responsible for managing public funds. You collect money from the public and you spend for the benefit of the public. We are not managing a corporation, that you are judged by how much money is in the treasury," says Mohd Khir, in reference to his successor Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim's corporate style of administration.
"In the state, people will judge you by the level of development and growth in Selangor; you cannot keep so much money. During my tenure, we only kept RM1 million. If we have more we would spend it on the public to ensure better living conditions," says Mohd Khir. He claims that in view of this approach, basic infrastructure is no longer a problem for most people of Selangor.
In fact, he points out, it was a rule of his administration that state departments which utilised below 95% of the allocation specified would be considered as having failed to serve the people.
In efforts to "save money", Mohd Khir says, the Pakatan-led government has not proceeded with any major development projects in Selangor. "That's why they can save money," he exclaims.
But Khir is reluctant to comment on why BN, which in 2004 controlled 54 of the 56 state assembly seats, suffered such a heavy loss in the 2008 general election, although he claimed that the BN had contributed immensely to the state.
He reiterates the common observation that the tide of the political tsunami was against the BN at the federal level and the loss of Selangor was the consequence of this sentiment. However, he also courteously confesses that misgivings over his leadership style had also contributed to the wave of popular discontent.
"There were also a lot of racial and religious sentiments at play. Also the 'Broom award' and the demolition of the Hindu temple – partly contributed to the result. I admit that," says Mohd Khir in reference to two missteps that garnered much negative publicity in the run up to the 12th general election. Khir had presented a broom to a local government official in 2007 for failing to meet a revenue collection target and had wide criticism for the culturally inappropriate gesture. Also in that year, the demolition of a Hindu temple in Shah Alam had inflamed public sentiment.
However, asked about what the BN should do differently to win back voters, Mohd Khir's only advice is: "Be with the people".