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ATimes: Mixed reaction [WTC]
By Anil Netto
17/9/2001 5:27 pm Mon
By Anil Netto
PENANG - All of a sudden, the world's tallest buildings, the Petronas
Twin Towers, punching above the Kuala Lumpur skyline, symbols of the
gung-ho Malaysia Boleh (Malaysia Can Do It) spirit, are now being
looked at in a different light.
The tragedy at the World Trade Center in New York has exposed the
vulnerability of skyscrapers to disasters, and raised questions about
the wisdom of constructing such tall buildings, especially in places
where land constraints have not yet reached critical levels.
The jitters in Kuala Lumpur were obvious. Just 12 hours after the two
commercial jets smashed into the World Trade Center, a bomb scare at
8.40am local time forced 3,000 occupants of the Twin Towers in Kuala
Lumpur to hurriedly evacuate the gleaming buildings. Four other
buildings - the American embassy, the IBM Plaza, a hotel in Kuala
Lumpur, and the Citibank office in Penang - have also received bomb
threats since the attacks.
Reverberations from the attacks in the US are still being felt in
Malaysia at various levels: personally, psychologically, economically
Ten Malaysians are still unaccounted for among 23 who worked at the
World Trade Center, said the Foreign Ministry. Immediately after the
attacks, Malaysian families with relatives in New York and Washington
tried frantically to get through to them but could not.
The fallout from the tragedy could send the Malaysian economy into a
tailspin. Analysts are expected to revise downwards their economic
forecasts as the much-anticipated recovery in the US economy is now
likely to be delayed even further.
Bank Negara had been talking about brighter fourth quarter prospects
after sluggish second quarter figures were announced. Even at that
time, its forecasts looked optimistic and it was generally felt that
Malaysia would do well to avoid a recession for 2001. The sense of
gloom now filtering through is likely to make its projections look
even more unrealistic.
The United States accounts for close to 20 percent of the Malaysia's
global trade. "At this point, American companies which export large
volumes to the US are putting on hold their inventories for export,"
said Nicholas Zefferys, the president of the American Malaysia Chamber
of Commerce and Industry. He said multinational electronics firms such
as Motorola and Intel, which make large shipments, would likely be
With the closure of airports in the US, Zefferys said that US firms in
Malaysia would temporarily divert their export routes to Mexico,
Canada and Europe. "We are talking about days, hopefully. We hope the
rippling effect will be temporarily," he said.
Already, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, noting that the local
economy was closely pegged to that of the US economy, has conceded
that Malaysia would feel the effects of any further weakening in the
US economy. He also has not ruled out yet another round of
pump-priming measures to kick-start the economy.
His remarks coincided with an announcement that the government is
taking over the debt-ridden and politically-linked construction giant,
United Engineers, in a controversial move to save the firm, which is
tied to Malaysia's largest corporate debtor, Renong Bhd.
Malaysia's stock market, which was closed on Wednesday, proved to be
the most resilient in the region, slipping only 3.8 percent. But that
was attributed to the fact that local and foreign funds were already
underweight in Malaysian equities. With a fixed peg to the dollar,
Malaysia is also considered to be a defensive bet as investors would
have less concern about currency volatility.
But other analysts say that the upside is limited and with so much
uncertainty investors are likely to dispose their holdings, sparking
further falls on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange.
Politically, the Mahathir administration stands to gain from the
renewed international drive to stamp out terrorism. In recent weeks,
he had alleged that Islamic militants were forming regional networks
in a bid to form a union of Islamic governments in the region.
In May and June, nine Malaysians were arrested after an alleged
botched bank robbery. Those arrests led to another round of arrests
under the Internal Security Act of 10 men linked to the opposition
Islamic Party, PAS. PAS had made significant inroads in the 1999
general elections at the expense of Mahathir's United Malays National
Already, mainstream media commentators and government officials,
trying to draw a parallel to the attacks in the US, are warning that
the threats posed by these groups cannot be understated.
It is important, however, to remember that those detained under the
ISA in Malaysia for alleged militant activity have not yet been
brought to court for trial, nor have they been given an opportunity to
defend themselves in open court. The failure to provide evidence that
can be tested in a court of law reduces the credibility of the
allegations hurled at them.
PAS itself was quick to unequivocally condemn the attacks in the US.
While expressing its condolences to the families of the victims, party
president Fadzil Noor also urged the US government to play a more just
role in ensuring world peace. "PAS urges all sides not to be too hasty
in accusing any group of involvement without concrete proof," he
For all Mahathir's anti-West rhetoric, his administration maintains
military ties with the United States. When the evacuation of the
Petronas Twin Towers took place, army chiefs from the US and East
Asian countries, who had been meeting to map out joint strategies,
were in the capital attending a reception hosted by the Malaysian
defense ministry. US Army chief of staff, General Eric Shinseki, cut
short his stay and flew home.
While condemning the attacks, Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar
welcomed US assurances that retaliation would not be aimed at Muslims
and reiterated condemnation of the attacks.
However, in some circles there is considerable empathy for the
Palestinians' right to a homeland and for the suffering of Iraqi
children feeling the effects of an embargo. Many Malaysians feel that
the Palestinian tragedy and the suffering in Iraq have not received
enough attention from the international community and accuse the West
of double standards.
Several prominent Malaysians have also called on the US to review its foreign policy, which has marginalized certain states and groups and led to global economic disparities, fuelling deprivation and frustration.