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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.

M.G.G. Pillai