Back in 1999, Tian Chua was one of the leaders of the Reformasi movement in Malaysia who was arrested and beaten up after mass protests against then National Front government of Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
But today he is vice-president of the Peoples Justice Party (PKR), the largest party in the new Alliance of Hope (Pakatan Harapan) government whose PM is the same Mahathir.
During a recent speaking tour of Australia, which coincided with Malaysian Independence Day celebrations, Tian Chua spoke about his new relationship with his former jailer.
He told his audiences he had developed a respect for Mahathir, despite ongoing political differences. He credits Mahathir with playing a “critical” role in the Pakatan Harapan election victory against the corrupt Najib Razak regime on May 9.
He said a New Malaysia (“Malaysia Baru”) was born on that date.
The Pakatan Harapan government is still enjoying a political honeymoon, but already there are signs of tensions within the governing coalition. It is also facing criticisms from sections of its popular support base that mobilised in a sustained campaign of pro-democracy mass protests between 2007 and 2016.
Green Left Weekly's Peter Boyle spoke to Tian Chua following his Australian speaking tour.
How confident are you that the Pakatan Harapan government will be able to deliver on its full reform agenda?
The challenges for the new government after 61 years of authoritarian rule are enormous.
We have to undertake huge reforms to restructure the old repressive state apparatus. We also have to rebuild the economy. We have to generate growth, but most important is to equalise resources and reconstruct a more equitable but high income society.
All these are not easy tasks for the new government. However, I am confident that Pakatan Harapan will deliver a substantial majority of its pledges.
Which are the most difficult part to deliver?
In the beginning, even just to provide a stable leadership.
One of our promises was to eliminate corruption. This is a great challenge and requires a long-time commitment.
How important was Mahathir to the Pakatan Harapan victory, and is there a possibility that he may delay or block some elements of this agenda?
I believe Mahathir was quite critical to our victory. He was the key to shift support of conservative segments of the society away from the Najib regime.
I don’t think Mahathir would go against our reform agenda. But Mahathir is not the sole factor to implement our reforms. This implementation depends on the collective action of all partners in the Pakatan Harapan.
There is quite a wide range of political perspectives within Pakatan Harapan on economic policy, race, religion, etc. Could this be an impediment to delivery of your reform agenda?
Diversity and pluralism are the trademark of PKR. We have participation from various ethnic and religious minorities. With such a membership base, our political structure will always be very inclusive, but we also believe it is important to respect ideological differences. We will also be alert to the needs of various communities in the society.
One example of the problems of the different political and ideological positions within PKR (and even more so within Pakatan Harapan) has been highlighted by different responses to the recent public caning in the state of Trengganu of two women convicted under Syariah law of having a lesbian relationship. Many civil society leaders have called on Pakatan Harapan federal government to take a stand in support of human rights and several people from the LGBTI community have questioned if there is a place for them in “Malaysia Baru”. What is your comment about this?
Pakatan Harapan disapproves of this punitive action against LGBT community, although different parties and individuals in the Pakatan have different views on this issue.
The federal government has no power to intervene on state affairs when come to the execution of Syariah laws. Under federal legislation the religious laws are purview of the state government [the state of Trengganu has an Islamic Party (PAS) state government].
What are your views on the electoral reforms needed in Malaysia and when can we expect local government elections — suspended since 1965 — to be restored?
Electoral reform is another mammoth task. We have to re-evaluate the existing unfair electoral boundaries. We also need to introduce new and progressive policies into the election system.
One of the reforms might be to the methods of voting. For instance, we will explore new systems such as preferential or proportional election.
The minister for housing and local government intends to restore local government elections in three years time. However, federal territories minister suggested a less ambitious timeline of five years. So we are hopeful that local elections could be restored within three-to-five years.
What is your view on taxation reforms, minimum wage and welfare?
Our main mandate is the uplifting of the economy for ordinary people. Social welfare will be a government priority. We have also reiterated our commitment to affirmative action based on needs, not on race.
There are a series of social security programs on the agenda: free health care, pension for homemakers/housewives, retrenchment support. Nonetheless, many of these will only be implemented when the financial standing of the new government has improved.
The new government will gradually increase minimum wage from RM900 (A$300) a month to RM1500 ($500) over the next five years. Meanwhile we will also promote strong tripartite relations.
But PM Mahathir has just announced a much smaller minimum wage rise to RM1050 when trade unions were asking for RM1800?
Business enterprises cannot absorb immediate wage hike especially we are still in recession from previous regime.
One of the main issues in the general election was the tax burden caused by Goods and Services Tax (GST). We have cut more than half of the tax burden, abolished the GST and introduced a new Sales and Service Tax (SST) that targets luxurious goods as well medium and bigger enterprises.
We also have to restructure company taxes, but that will be later. We are also contemplating introducing taxes on property and speculative investments.