When fantasy collides with reality

TUN Dr Mahathir Mohamad definitely has tremendous charisma, but that was not all that assured his victory. The election results indicate that there was overwhelming disaffection with Barisan Nasional.

Two reasons stand out for its collapse.

First, the previous government's policies did not have popular buy-in. The voters, by and large, did not feel that they were a part of the policies; they were not convinced that the policies were in their best interest. And this cut across various groups.

It was probably felt that the government was doing too little on housing, the cost of living, and the rising prices of food and transport.

Policies such as BR1M were realised for what they were: they were hardly an answer to the plight of the average voter.

To make matters worse, Malaysia's China agenda was viewed with suspicion.

And, needless to say, the discourse on 1MDB aggravated the other sources of irritation.

Second, Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak started out as a visionary with the release of the New Economic Model. The NEM was a candid document that had sparks of political determination. But with time, his administration got trapped in muddy waters and lost sight of the very problems that Najib promised to resolve.

Increasingly the Opposition branded him as a self-interested kleptocrat and this was reinforced by the reality of coping with difficult economic circumstances.

An important factor that led to the haze surrounding Najib was the fact that he was probably surrounded by incompetent advisers, or an inner circle that kept telling the naked emperor that he was magnificently draped, or by advisers who sought to tell what they thought he would like to hear.

The defence that was trotted out by mainstream experts on 1MDB failed to convince. To brush away the 1MDB episode as an American conspiracy or a foreign media plot did not help. It did not help to be told that there was no issue with the 1MDB saga when questions were being raised in several jurisdictions.

One feels injured and insulted when such a message comes from declared gurus in corporate law and investment banking.

Rather than strive for a clean resolution of outstanding issues the advisers resorted to denial and obfuscation.

On the economic front, rather than to combat the problem of the rising cost of living as a felt experience, the government's experts tried to disguise the issue. Instead of acknowledging the issue and detailing how it would be addressed, Najib's advisers tried to hide behind verbose and empty arguments.

Following the regular template, denial was followed by the creation of confusion – experts made fine distinctions between inflation, the consumer price index, the cost of living and the standard of living – as if that would solve what people felt.

One government economist denied the problem and claimed that since the CPI was stable in Malaysia all was well. It was also suggested that misperceptions are common among people and that they routinely misunderstand the divergence between what they feel and what is actually the case.

Again, a case of adding injury and insult to the aggrieved.

Highly qualified economists announced that Malaysia would attain developed nation status by the first quarter of 2018.

In short, Najib was cocooned in a capsule of false comfort, aided and abetted by a team of obsequious advisers.

As often happens, when reality collides with fantasy, there is a disjunction – and that is when pillars collapse.

Dr Shankaran Nambiar is a senior research fellow at the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com