Euphoria over the surprise victory of the Mahathir Mohamad -led Pakatan Harapan coalition in Malaysia ’s elections last year has been swiftly replaced by surprisingly bitter disappointment For the past two months, Team Ceritalah has been criss-crossing the country: everywhere from Kuala Kangsar to Penampang. It’s been a Herculean effort for the young team: listening to and recording stories on the ground. We tried to revisit all the people we interviewed before last year’s polls. Team Ceritalah aren’t pollsters. We weren’t trying to do a scientific survey. Rather, we sought to take a snapshot of a country coming to terms with both immense change and the more mundane challenges of making a living. Those closest to the land – oil palm and rubber smallholders as well as rice farmers – have been the most frustrated. Their opinion matters because agriculture still provides employment for some 6 per cent of working Malaysians. One year into ‘new Malaysia’, but the same old Mahathir? In Sekinchan – Selangor’s rice-bowl – “Abang” Zaki has had to deal with an inexplicable disease that has threatened his rice crop. Meanwhile, for Ah Seng, a 50-something rubber tapper outside the royal town of Kuala Kangsar, low commodity prices have made his work almost futile. Understandably, all five of his adult children work in Singapore . Perakian oil palm smallholder, “Abang” Man is struggling with higher costs for fertiliser and pesticide. The slim possibility of an El Niño-type drought that would squeeze supply later this year might help push up prices, but generally the mood is despondent. The former Barisan Nasional government tried to address these challenges through its popular BR1M (1Malaysia People’s Aid) direct cash transfer scheme, under which 7 million Malaysians received up to 1,200 ringgit per year. Pakatan Harapan has wisely retained it, renaming it the “Bantuan Sara Hidup” (Cost of Living Aid), under which some 5 billion ringgit is to be dispersed to 4.1 million households. However, Team Ceritalah discovered that bureaucratic snafus have meant that many potential recipients on the ground were unsure of their eligibility. Similarly, in Selayang, to the north of the capital, local stallholders such as Lakshmi complained about the continuing presence of illegal foreign traders outside the market. Many licensed vendors have seen their incomes plummet drastically. So as Malaysians have adjusted to an administration full of untested leaders (23 of the current 28 full ministers had never held federal office previously), many have questioned the effectiveness of the new team. Certainly, their ability to connect with ordinary Malaysians seems to have evaporated. This failure is extraordinary given the cohesiveness and dynamism they displayed in the run-up to last year’s polls. Instead of constructing a solid narrative around their very real achievements – the rebuilding of core institutions and the revamp of government processes – they have allowed these to be overshadowed by their own poorly executed policy initiatives and infighting. The bungled ratification of both the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Statute of Rome have fuelled ugly, nativist sentiments. Indeed, the timidity of the Malay ministers has been a major let-down. Mahathir’s ministers must stop talking behind each others’ backs, says top adviser Moreover, for much of the majority Malay-Muslim population, the defeat of the once all-powerful ruling party Umno has been a rude awakening. Fears of being sidelined by the wealthier and better-educated Chinese-Malaysians have been aggressively promoted, just as the former prime minister, Najib Razak, has to sought to revive his reputation through the “ malu apa bossku? ” (what’s there to be ashamed about, boss?”) social media campaign, drawing in elements of urban, motorbike-riding, working-class youth culture. But the Malaysians we spoke to were also willing to give Pakatan Harapan a chance. And despite the challenges ahead, Malaysia could arguably be poised for a massive turnaround. China, once a long-time favourite for overseas manufacturing, has become increasingly unattractive to investors. Take your pick: trade war-inspired US tariffs, Beijing’s prickly attitude towards foreign business, rising input costs and the lack of progress in enforcing supply chain security such as intellectual property theft and quality control. Multinational companies are trying to reduce their risk profile and hunting for countries to invest in. Malaysia should be leveraging this. The country has superb logistics, for which it can thank the previous Barisian Nasional government, and an unbeatable strategic location. It is part of global supply chains, trade and tourism routes, and also ranks 51st on the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index 2019, falling behind only Singapore in Asean. As Hasnul Nadzrin Shah, director of government and regulatory affairs at IBM, said: “Malaysians, when exposed to a more expansive world view, flourish because of their multicultural background.” And as Team Ceritalah’s journeys show: ordinary Malaysians have a strong work ethic and thirst to improve themselves. What is needed is for human capital to be developed correctly. Malaysian workers should not be treated like economic inputs. The country’s people are its greatest – and in the long-run – only asset. A year after election, will racial politics tear Malaysian government apart? They certainly deserve a living wage – but their productivity and the value they add must likewise increase. Many fret about the country’s education system. While curriculums certainly must be looked at, the education ministry also needs to ensure that the country’s youth (who represent nearly half of eligible voters) have a mindset that can adapt to global trends – including cooperation and group work – two skills essential in today’s labour marketplace. The government also must continue working on reducing red tape, whether it is for local small and medium-sized enterprises or foreign multinational corporations. The tourism, plantations and international trade and industry ministries must all up their game, too. Working with the civil service is important, but they also have to know that the people (who the members of parliament and ministers represent) are the ultimate “boss”. Given the dramatic changes up ahead, it’s critical for the ministry of economic affairs to lay out a clear framework – establishing a grand, overarching narrative – that will determine the economic direction of the country for the next decade, steering the various ministries and agencies towards that goal. Mahathir recently made “shared prosperity” the latest mantra of his administration. This is apt: all Malaysians deserve a share in the country’s wealth. It is possible to help people in need, but also to be wise with the country’s finances and efficient in its administration. Again: it is all about communicating. Like it or not, progressive Malay politicians of all hues – Anwar Ibrahim, Khairy Jamaluddin, Nurul Izzah, Shahril Hamdan and Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad – have to be brought to centre stage. Fight club: Najib’s Umno recruits ‘bruisers’ in battle to regain control Needless to say, Umno’s current lurch to the right is a massive boost for the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). This will endanger the nation’s moderate mission – because as we learned from meeting Ibu Yeni, a diehard member from Banting, the party will survive the removal of its senior leaders and any alliance with PAS will only strengthen the conservative elements inimicable to development. One year on from 2018’s elections, the focus needs to be broader than Pakatan Harapan’s survival. The really important challenge is Malaysia’s progressive future. If Pakatan Harapan continue with their squabbling and incompetence, the Malaysia we know and love will be swept away.