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SMH: Malaysia's dream fades
By Mark Baker

20/3/2001 11:51 am Tue

[Nyawa Mahathir turut bergantung kepada beberapa perkara dan prestasi ekonomi adalah salah satu darinya. Begitu juga prestasi projek-projek yang menjadi ilhamnya agar dia dikenang semua sebagai amat berjasa.

Banyak negara boleh maju tanpa membina sesuatu yang raksaksa dan memecahkan rekod dunia. Tetapi Mahathir tidak memandang itu semua. Dia mahu kita bermegah dengan pelbagai mercu tanda walaupun ia bakal mencekik kita dan semua generasi yang bakal tiba. Berbelanja mega bukan penentu kejayaan di hari muka. Sebaliknya ia hanya akan mempercepatkan kita mudah terlingkup serta-merta.

Kecairan dana amat penting untuk menghadapi arus ekonomi dunia jika tidak kita terpaksa berhutang yang pasti akan banyak berbunga sehingga mungkin tergadai kekayaan negara jika sukar membayarnya.

Mahathir sekarang sedang tenat dan kini dalam proses untuk menonjolkan dirinya jika tidak dia akan terbuang selama-lamanya. Tetapi terlalu banyak masalah sudah mula mencekiknya sedangkan usianya sudah semakin tiada. Dia mungkin didatangi keranda di saat dia tidak bersedia kerana terlalu degil menuduh orang walaupun di bulan puasa, di hari raya atau pada hari ulangtahun merdeka. - Editor]

The Sydney Morning Herald

27th February 2001

Ill wind blows through IT super corridor as Malaysia's dream fades

In the first Asian economic crisis, Malaysia introduced nationalistic and protectionist policies. Now, as Asia slides again, Malaysia's economy is in deep trouble, and so is Dr Mahathir.

The ruling party has lost its way and economic prospects look grim, Mark Baker, Herald correspondent in Kuala Lumpur, reports.

Across the gentle hills and wide valleys that stretch to the south-east of Kuala Lumpur, the dream dies hard. In the place where a people were preparing to proclaim their arrival in the company of developed nations, the clamour of construction is falling silent, grand edifices lie unfinished or abandoned and the winds of change carry the chill whisper of recession.

Here is the Multimedia Super Corridor, the bold vision of Dr Mahathir Mohamad to transform Malaysia into the high-tech envy of Asia; a hot-wired, cyber-savvy showcase of innovation, research and manufacturing excellence, where the biggest players in the new economy would come with their money and expertise to help fast-track the modernisation of Malaysia.

For almost a decade, the $20 billion project rapidly gathered shape along a 60-kilometre by 15-kilometre swathe of old plantations and virgin jungle: vast new housing and industrial estates, shopping malls and theme parks, and a labyrinth of super highways and express rail networks to connect the new administrative capital, Putrajaya, and its tech twin city, Cyberjaya, to downtown Kuala Lumpur.

The vision is on hold, blurred by the economic crisis that swept through South-East Asia in late 1997 and now facing an even graver threat from the signs of an economic downturn in the United States that is likely not only to dry up new investment in technology industries but also to wreak havoc on the electronics manufacturing sector that is the backbone of Malaysia's recent expansion.

Today the two most glittering jewels in Dr Mahathir's grand design stand not in affirmation of his ambition but in mocking contradiction.

In the heart of central Kuala Lumpur the soaring twin towers of the Petronas building, Malaysia's claim to the world's tallest structure, are largely empty; it is believed barely half the vast office space has been let, amid a city-wide glut in commercial property. Nearby, the concrete shells of more abandoned hotel and office towers decay while construction of a skytrain network remains suspended.

At the opposite end of the super corridor the new $5 billion Kuala Lumpur International Airport - built an absurd 70 kilometres from the city centre - is in financial trouble and operating well below capacity as a succession of international carriers take a one-way ticket out. Qantas and Lufthansa left last year; British Airways and All Nippon Airways depart next month.

A decade ago Malaysia was recording heroic rates of growth but, like the rest of the region, was hit hard by the crash of late 1997. After rallying in 1999 on the back of a surge in exports, the economy is again in sharp decline. Most security houses reckon the country will be lucky to achieve 4 per cent growth this year, yet the Government refuses to downgrade its forecast of 7 per cent.

In addition, foreign investment has fallen sharply. From a high of $A8.5 billion in the early 1990s, new investment shrank to just $A4.5 billion in 1999, and analysts believe the downward trend is accelerating. The medium-term outlook is even bleaker, with a spreading global slump in electronics and depressed markets for rubber and palm oil, Malaysia's com- modity staples. A recession in the US could be devastating for a country that draws 35 per cent of its GDP from trade with that country.

But the grim economic outlook is only part of a deeper malaise that is now gnawing at Malaysian society, and which many Malaysians - including prominent members of the Government - believe spells the beginning of the end of Dr Mahathir's 20-year reign as Prime Minister. And it is not just the redoubtable Dr Mahathir who is being seen as vulnerable. For the first time there are indications that his United Malays National Organisation, which has held unbroken power since Malaysia won its independence from Britain in 1957, is heading for defeat.

At general elections a little over a year ago UMNO retained power with an almost two-thirds majority of national seats, but its vote dropped sharply. The big winner was the Opposition alliance, particularly the Islamic party, PAS, which wrested control of a second State government by a handsome margin and consolidated its position across the country.

Several by-elections over the past year have confirmed a further erosion in support for UMNO, culminating in a humiliating defeat in November in Dr Mahathir's home State of Kedah, where the party had never before been seriously challenged. It is estimated that support for UMNO has dwindled to 40-45 per cent, an extraordinary reversal of fortunes for a party that has been the standard-bearer of Malay nationalism from colonial times.

While UMNO is not about to lose office - the next general election is not due for almost four years - the writing is on the wall. "I think the party has lost it," says a prominent Malaysian businessman and senior UMNO member. "My prediction is a Barisan Alternatif [opposition alliance] victory in 2004. The party has alienated its constituency and it seems incapable of fixing the problem."

Steven Gan, editor-in chief of the rapidly growing Web newspaper Malaysiakini, says: "I think we are looking at the end of the Mahathir era. He is weakened, and for the first time he is feeling vulnerable. People are fed up with money politics, and UMNO is becoming increasingly factionalised. A lot of people now think the Opposition can win the next election."

The decline in Mahathir's fortunes can be traced directly to the sacking three years ago of his deputy and anointed successor, Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar. He is now serving a 15-year jail sentence for corruption and s###my, charges the US and other Western governments denounced as politically engineered. Anwar's real crime was to challenge Mahathir's autocratic style and the spreading corruption in UMNO.

"What happened to Anwar shocked a lot of people," says Dr Hatta Ramli, political secretary to the PAS president, Fadzil Mohamad Noor.

"The rot in UMNO was exposed, and people have become very disenchanted with the extent of corruption and cronyism in the Government. A lot of people are leaving the party, and we're now getting 45,000 new members a month, many of them from UMNO."

A popular backlash against how prominent political figures and their cronies have enriched themselves on the back of the country's rapid growth has gained momentum despite the blue-sky boosterism still propagated by the Government-run media. In the most recent scandal it was revealed that the Government had bought back a 30 per cent private stake in Malaysian Airlines from its chairman, the tycoon Tajudin Ramli, for almost $A1 billion in cash, more than double the market price of shares in the debt-ridden national carrier.

"The party organisation has been corrupted by its success," one vocal internal critic says. "The period up to 1997 was such a time of wealth, prosperity and great exuberance ... such confidence in the ability of Malaysia to come out in the new world. We were global; we were being wooed by the world; we were a model country. That's when UMNO leaders found politics paid, and UMNO fell into the new environment of money, power and position."

Dr Mahathir, 75, and the last man standing in a generation of Asian autocrats, shows little outward sign of the crisis unfolding around his leadership. He continues to talk up his nation and its prospects, to deny the economic alarm bells and to flag big-ticket ticket projects. The latest is a 6,300-room hotel in the highlands north of Kuala Lumpur, another is the revival of the environmentally disastrous Bakun Dam in the forests of Sarawak. But the talk has an increasingly hollow ring.

While Dr Mahathir still maintains a prodigious workload and appears in good health despite his age, those who deal regularly with him see a new sourness and irritability creeping into his demeanour. In an interview with Asiaweek magazine in January he came across as tired and despairing of the mounting criticism of him from within and without UMNO ranks. "Maybe I regret going into politics; I should have stayed a doctor. When I was practising I was very popular; people loved me.''

When asked what he thought he would be remembered for, his reply was curt: "I don't care."

His response to the rising tide of unflattering international and domestic scrutiny has been to retaliate against the media.

At the same time he has been mounting an increasingly desperate effort to win back the hearts and votes of Malays.

He has proposed "Malay unity" talks with PAS in an obvious strategy to try to blunt the party's growing popularity among both young urban professionals and rural communities, and in an attempt to be seen as restoring concern for traditional values.

But the strategy carries real dangers in the long-fragile environment of relations between Malays, who form two thirds of Malaysia's 22 million population, and the smaller Chinese and Indian communities. UMNO, in trying to reinforce its Malay credentials, also risks further alienating the Chinese and Indians whose support has been vital in sustaining Dr Mahathir's coalition government over the past two decades.

He is now seen by many as at once a core symptom of UMNO's problems, the one person capable of solving them and yet the person least able to reinvent himself politically to save the day. It is a paradox that could leave the party locked on a course to eventual defeat, especially if the economy hits heavy weather over the next couple of years.

A political analyst says: "The fundamental problem is that Mahathir refuses to accept the fact that the party has lost its way and is losing the respect and support of the people.

"He has always been a fighter; his instincts will not be to resign and, ultimately, he'd probably prefer to go down with the ship than admit that he might be wrong."