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MGG: The Ten Sen That Shook The Government
By M.G.G. Pillai
9/11/2001 4:35 pm Fri
Malaysia's budget, which the Prime Minister, as finance minister,
presented a fortnight ago, promised, as usual, what he and his
Treasury mandarins could think of to boost the economy. It
presumed that Malaysia is flush with cash, the economy doing
frightfully well but now in some difficulty after the terrorist
attack on the United States on Sept 11. The government is upset
that money available to prime pump the economy is not
distributed, with civil servants taken to task for not doing so.
But there is no money. That talk is not matched with words.
Projects announced to show that all is well is matched by
projects stalled because there is no money to pay the
contractors. If the economy is booming, as the government
insists, the first sign of that is the construction industry.
And one industry that is stalled is that.
The market yawned as usual when the government comes up with
yet another proposal to jump start the economy. Share prices
drifted as usual. To the government's chagrin, the budget was
was seen for what it is: to bribe civil servants back into the
fold. It did not have much for the others, and all saw the
ten-sen increase in petrol prices as a dark sign of rising
prices. The transport minister, Dato' Seri Ling Liong Sik, had
no doubt that this would not lead to a round-robin rise in the
cost of living. How could it, he asked in the irrelevant
arguments he spouts to defend the indefensible. The domestic
trade and consumer affairs minister, Tan Sri Muhiyuddin Yassin,
warned those who made it an excuse to raise prices. The prime
minister thought this fear was unwarranted. But the fear would
not go away and strays into politics.
The Malaysian government believes its pronouncements
have the force of law, even if that be against the law of nature.
When the government gave an annual bonus for civil servants,
business men went into full gear to provide a panopoly of goods
and services to extract that out of them. A general round of
prices followed. When petrol taxes or prices or both were raised
in the past, prices automatically rose. Why should it be
different this time? The reliance on government figures to show
how well the economy does is neither here nor there. There is
more than a dollop of suspicion about the accuracy of the figures
quoted. Especially at a time when civil servants are not
enamoured of the Prime Minister as they once were. The man
himself has complained about it.
Now he is caught in a nutcracker of which one pince is the
Malay community which gives him the legitmacy in power and the
the other the civil servant, invariably Malay, which nurtures his
reputation as leader of the Malays. Both now look askance at
him. When one is in office for two decades, as Datuk Seri
Mahathir Mohamed, the enthusiasm and promise one came to office
with, dissipates, especially if the legitimacy to that office is
challenged. In Dr Mahathir's case, it is. After how he defied
Malay decorum and convention to destroy his deputy prime minister,
Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim. It was his fatal flaw, as the past
three years has shown. He remains in office by wielding the big
stick. His blunderbuss use of fear and terror against the
opposition keeps the country superficially stable, but he does
not know of the residual anger at his governance amongst the
ordinary Malay in the street. This is not to say that they would
rise in revolt. They would not. Not as long as there is no
credible leader to organise them.
There is no one in Malaysia at the momey who could provide
that role. Dato' Seri Anwar could have, but he is in jail; and
his party in tatters. The opposition to him is ill- and
dis-organised, not focussed. He acts to keep it that way. The
opposition chases red herrings, whether it be the amendemnts to
the elections laws or PAS's idea of an Islamic state or whatever,
to enable Dr Mahathir and the National Front to steal a march
over them each time. But to ensure this confusion in the
opposition ranks, he must wean the citizen that he is the best
bet. He has made himself so. But the man-in-the-street is not
enamoured of what is to come, even wondering if UMNO should
continue to lead the Malays as it wants to.
So, Dr Mahathir and the National Front, especially UMNO,
needs to win the hearts and minds. With Singapore sending back
Malaysians working there as the recession begins to bite in the
republic, and the electronics industry retrenching, doubly so
after September 11 and the fear of a US recession, tens of
thousands have lost their jobs in Penang this year. The economy
is in the doldrum, and retrenchments are now the norm in most
industries. Because the government insists otherwise, it angers
those who are. The ten sen rise in petrol prices therefore adds
to Dr Mahathir's political problems. The people are braced for a
fresh rise in prices. It is not yet as blatant because the
government makes these noises of what would happen if they did.
But that would pass soon. And when prices do rise, the
government is now worried, as it should, that this would cause
further disaffection not just amongst the Malays, but the other
races as well. Which is why this ten sen rise causes so much
heartache in the government.