Contrary to popular belief, the Malaysian prime minister cannot push his personal agenda without the support of the rest of the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition.
This is due to the equal rights given to each member party, and PM Mahathir Mohamad instead governs by consensus with the rest of the PH leaders.
This was one of the observations shared by Marzuki Mohamad, special functions officer to the Minister of Home Affairs Malaysia, during his seminar at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute on Monday, Oct. 14.
About 100 people were in attendance, including government officials, academics, members of the public, as well as the media.
Former Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim and former Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Zainul Abidin Rasheed were also in attendance.
Difference between PH & BN
During the question-and-answer session, a member of the audience asked Marzuki about the differences in governance under the former ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) and PH.
Marzuki used to work for the BN as the special officer to the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia from 2009 to 2013, and also the political secretary to the Minister of Education from 2013 to 2015.
Marzuki replied that the main difference between BN and PH is the amount of power the elected prime minister has.
More meetings these days
He said: "We hardly had meetings for BN. We only had Cabinet meetings. The BN meeting... probably once a year... for when the elections are near."
"So concentration of power in the prime minister during the BN’s time was very strong because as the prime minister, you control the decision-making, the Cabinet."
Marzuki explained that the PH presidential council now meets on the first week of every month.
He said: "It’s very different from BN. So the prime minister cannot really push his personal agenda in PH because when it comes to the PH presidential council, leaders from each party will have a say in the council."
"So I think that’s very different. Whether it's good or bad, I don’t want to make any judgement on that. But that's how the government works now in Malaysia."
He added that all four member parties of PH -- Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), Democratic Action Party (DAP), Bersatu and AMANAH -- are considered equal.
Marzuki's revelation sheds some light on Malaysia-Singapore relations and the approach that Mahathir has taken towards Singapore.
Some Singaporeans may believe that Mahathir's more belligerent approach, such as commenting on the perceived unfairness of the 1962 Water Agreement, is down to his own personal proclivities.
But if Marzuki is right, then Mahathir's approach is ultimately endorsed by the council as a whole, even if individual members may disagree from time to time.
Or perhaps Mahathir and the rest of the council have agreed that he has a free hand in foreign affairs, while they may have more say in domestic matters.
But there's no way to tell for sure without actually being in the room when it happens.
Winning the next election
Another audience member asked Marzuki what could the PH do to "hold" their current position.
Marzuki replied that the PH had to continue to embrace "moderation".
He observed that the PH won their victory off the back of increased support from the Malay community, as well as strong support from the minority communities.
But he said that even a "2 or 3 percent" drop in Malay support, or losing support from the minorities, would threaten PH's electoral position.
It was important for the PH to display "strong leadership" and also "hold the middle ground".
Top photos via ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute's Facebook Page.
Top left image (left to right): Haji Marzuki Mohamad and wife, with Choi Shing Kwok and Norshahril Saat.