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Race, religion and a “rough” time – Malaysia’s domestic woes

Updated On: Feb 02, 2007

Race has always been a sensitive issue in Malaysia, ready to erupt whenever a sore point is triggered.

Now, the situation seems to be a little more precarious according to Transparency International Malaysia president, Ramon Navaratnam. He said that “racial polarisation coupled with weak institutions, rising corruption and poor governance were deterring investors and weakening competitiveness” as there are increasing “indications of a failing state”.

At a conference for Malaysia in 2007, the Star reported the “influential former senior treasury official” as saying the country was going through a rough time “with deteriorating race relations between its majority ethnic Malays and minority Chinese and Indians” and this would in the worst case scenario “affect confidence, this will affect investment and affect growth and then, worse still, affect our ability to distribute (wealth)”. Therefore, Navaratnam added “it was critical for the government to review its economic policies, especially those which favour the Muslim Malays, who lag economically behind the Chinese”. Moreover, with poverty and income inequality rising, economic instability could arise.

He warned that if the officials and others continued to brush aside the signs of racial division, Malaysians could “believe our own propaganda” and ignore future dangers. Navaratnam also implied that that continued non-action against this negative trend would be akin to the government “putting their heads in sand like ostriches” (paraphrased).

This may explain why foreign investors are deterred from Malaysia. However, Malaysia PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s does not agree. In a separate interview with the Financial Times (FT), PM Badawi “felt that the decline in investments had more to do with the rise of China and India, which were sucking in much of the available money”. According to the Today, “The bumiputra policy was not even a factor.”

On a separate note, the recent flooding in Malaysia has ratcheted up a bill of RM1.5b. Malaysia DPM Datuk Seri Najib Razak said at a meeting of the special Cabinet Committee on Crisis and Natural Disasters Management that “losses to the government include rehabilitation work, damage and other forms of assistance extended to flood victims. These are losses to the government’s accounts, not individuals or private companies.” The New Straits Times reported him as saying “that Bank Negara and the ministry of international trade and industry would assist small businesses, small and medium-sized entrepreneurs and companies affected by the floods”. These proposals will be announced by the government soon. Next week, flood victims who are eligible for compensation will start receiving the money once the list is finalised.

In the recent saga over the “two Malaysian bloggers (Ahirudin Attan and Jeff Ooi) being sued by the New Straits Times Press (NSTP)”, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir (daughter of former PM Mahathir Mohamed) “has agreed to become a trustee of a fund to help them”, the New Straits Times reported. A long-time supporter of women’s rights, Datin Paduka Marina has now taken up the cause of freedom of opinion. She told the New Straits Times, “The new administration claims to be more open, but it does not meet people's expectations…  The space for people to express themselves is small.”

Many are following this closely as “the first legal action against comments published online… it is perceived by some as an indirect move by the Abdullah administration to curb attacks on the government carried out over the Internet”. This is especially so since the NSTP is seen as pro-Badawi.

Tired by the barrage of criticism, most vitriolic of all coming from his predecessor, Mahathir, PM Badawi has retaliated, calling them liars out to “discredit his government”. In an interview with the New Sunday Times, PM Badawi said, “I know there are people who are trying their best to ridicule me. They make a mountain out of a molehill. They just want to rubbish me.” He added, “If I allow myself to be distracted by all this, I will not be able to do any work. That is what they want, that I not focus on my work.”

However, he is not likely to get his wish granted as another recent event, his lease of a new luxury plane for the use of senior government leaders and dignitaries have raised eyebrows and set tongues wagging.  PM Badawi tried to justify the lease by explaining that “state-owned holding company Penerbangan Malaysia Bhd. used its own money to buy the Airbus A319, which would be leased to the government for VIP travel, the national news agency…The jet is for the use of the government, not the prime minister [only]”, the IHT noted. For the record, the IHT has also observed that the present administration’s spending has been much more conservative than that of the Mahathir administration with its mega-projects.

Meanwhile, PM Badawi has made little of Barisan Nasional’s landslide victory in the Batu Talam by-election, saying it was not time yet for early elections.  (01/2/07)

Sources:

Floods round-up: Victims to get compensation by next week (New Straits Times, 1 February 2007)

PM: Win in Batu Talam no reason to call for election (The Star, 1 February 2007)

Malaysia's race divide threatens economy, society: watchdog (Channel News Asia, 1 February 2007)

Marina Mahathir takes up bloggers' cause (New Straits Times, 31 January 2007)

Malaysian leader rebuffs criticism of extravagance over VIP government plane (IHT/AP, 30 January 2007)

Floods round-up: Government staring at RM1.5 billion bill (New Straits Times, 30 Jan 2007)

A BN victory, no matter how easy, is just as sweet (The Star, 30 January 2007)

Abdullah hits back at bloggers, websites out to 'rubbish' him (New Straits Times, 29 January 2007)

As investors stay away, Malaysian policy comes under spotlight (Today, 29 January 2007)







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