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ATimes: Battleweary Mahathir readies for another round
By Anil Netto

1/4/2001 6:48 am Sun

[Banyak perkara yang tidak menggembirakan Mahathir berlaku sejak akhir-akhir ini. Ekonomi merudum sehingga perlu dirangsang, MSC tidak berkesan walaupun berbilion sudah dilaburkan dan kini DUN Beserah sedang bergoyang. Itu belum dikira lagi imej kerajaan yang tercemar kerana menafikan rawatan terbaik buat Anwar yang kesakitan sejak November lagi. Padahal Anwar sekadar menurut nasihat doktor yang terkemuka - bukannya doktor satu lagi yang sudah tidak mampu berkerja.

Lawatan TG Nik Aziz ke Bkt Pelanduk pun hendak dikritik juga sedangkan beliau sekadar menerima jemputan dengan penduduk tempatan. Sebaliknya mahathir berlebih-lebih pula memukul gong (3 kali) di Kg Sg Mulia Gombak sedangkan rakyat sedang kesakitan di Kg Medan. Yang lucunya ada penonton diberikan upah RM10 dan baju-T bergambar Mahathir kerana datang menonton.

Umumnya negara kini sedang ditimpa penyakit akibat perbuatan 'pihak tertentu sebenar' yang masih berdegil untuk berundur. Sebaliknya ia terus berkempen menyerang orang asing dan 'pihak tertentu yang bukan tentu' pula. Tetapi jika penyakit itu meragut nyawa identiti 'pihak tertentu' pasti akan terdedah jua.

Memang anih - Anwar sakit, negara pun sakit juga - termasuk seorang doktor tua dari Kerala juga.
- Editor

Asia Times
31st March 2001


Battleweary Mahathir readies for another round

By Anil Netto

On Wednesday, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was invited to strike a large gong three times to mark the launch of a "meet-the-people" session. On his first strike, he sent the gong and its stand reeling backwards on the stage as an amused crowd of thousands looked on.

Perhaps it shouldn't have come as a surprise. Mahathir has always been known to operate with a forceful hand, stamping as he has his domineering personality on Malaysian politics for the past 20 years.

However, in his zest to fix the economy, the premier risks swinging a little too wildly off center with his measures to boost consumer spending and liberalize regulations on equity, property and asset investment by foreigners.

Stung by heavy criticism over alleged bailouts of cronies and complaints that pension funds were being used to prop up ailing firms, Mahathir has struck back in typical style - by launching a national-level meet-the-people program and announcing a raft of measures to soften the impact of the United States economic slowdown.

Another issue that won't go away is that of ailing former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, who has been refused permission to undergo minimally invasive spinal surgery in Germany. Although the government insists the surgery be carried out in Kuala Lumpur, it risks scathing condemnation if Anwar's condition worsens.

To add to the pressure, Mahathir now faces the prospect of another by-election in central Pahang state after a state-assembly member from his United Malays National Organization announced his decision to quit his seat. Fauzi Abdul Rahman dropped the bombshell after lodging a police report against former Pahang chief minister Khalil Yaakob over certain allegations that were not mentioned in the press.

A by-election is the last thing the premier needs after the ruling coalition lost a safe seat it had held since independence in a by-election last November.

But of more immediate concern is the impact of the slowdown in the US economy. Mahathir has announced a 3 billion ringgit (US$790 million) package to stimulate the economy.

To spur consumption, the government has sliced the mandatory monthly salary deductions that private sector employees have to pay to the state-run pension fund from 11 percent to 9 percent of wages.

Civil servants will now be eligible for car loans every five years instead of the present seven years in a bid to increase car sales.

A leading unionist has already expressed concern about the move to encourage spending. "The strategy may be good for business and add to their profit, but it will affect the standard of living of the workers when they retire," pointed out G Rajasekaran, secretary-general of the Malaysian Trades Union Congress. Internet news portal Malaysiakini ran a commentary by a well-known columnist mockingly titled "An American recession, so let's spend".

The pro-establishment daily Star newspaper, meanwhile, carried a poll on its website asking its readers how they would react to the measures to encourage consumption. Out of 2,205 votes cast as of Friday afternoon, only 16 percent said they would spend more, while 53 percent said they would want to save more, with the rest opting to retain the status quo.

Mahathir insists that without these pre-emptive measures, Malaysia's economic growth this year may dip to 4 to 5 percent for this year.

"This is not too bad an achievement, but we are used to high growth and we would like to maintain that,'' he said. With the new measures planned now, Mahathir said the growth rate might reach 6 percent - still below the earlier projection of 7 percent. "Things are quite weak at the moment. The fall in Dow Jones is much more than expected, he said. "This is bound to affect us."

It is a telling admission from the premier that things are not looking rosy. Malaysia's economy is heavily dependent on electronics exports and more critical analysts say that even 6 percent growth for this year is way too optimistic.

The US and Japan are Malaysia's main markets, accounting for nearly 50 percent of total exports and fears are growing that demand for manufactured exports such as computer chips, memory boards and data storage products will slump.

In another blow, Mahathir this week conceded that his pet Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) project has not contributed as much as expected to the country's economic growth, even though it was already ahead in programs to draw interest from investors.

With opposition Islamic party PAS all but rebuffing an invitation by the majority United Malay National Organization (Umno) to hold Malay unity talks, the premier is fast running out of options to shore up waning support for his ruling coalition. What chaffed Umno leaders was the news that PAS' spiritual leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat had agreed to hold talks with Chinese pig breeders hit by an epidemic two years ago.

But the premier's survival instincts operate best when his back is against the wall. At the meet-the-people session on Wednesday, he was accompanied by a large crowd and led by musicians of different ethnic groups. He signed several posters of himself for children as he stood on stage while a choir performed. He then toured an exhibition area as Air Force parachutists entertained the 10,000-strong crowd.

After the premier had shared refreshments with village folk, a lion dance troupe led Asia's longest-serving elected leader to his car, with the crowd lining up to shake his hand.

Website Malaysiakini later dampened the mood somewhat when it claimed that a dozen buses had ferried some 500 students from a private college in Kuala Lumpur to the session with the premier. The Malaysiakini report quoted an unnamed student as saying that they were each given 10 ringgit and a T-shirt with Mahathir's picture on it during the journey.

Following the launch of the national-level program, 14 other similar leaders-meet-people rallies will be held in the states starting next month, followed by district-level gatherings nation-wide. A local daily said the program was designed "to heighten awareness on the importance of preserving unity and nurturing tolerance and the spirit of mutual help among multi-racial Malaysians".

The crucial question is whether the premier has the capacity to reinvent himself to live up to the expectations of the Malay masses, many of whom remain upset over the treatment meted out to Anwar. Already there is a sense that it is too late. The disquiet has been aggravated by the widening gap between the rich and the poor in Malaysia as seen in the squalid conditions in squatter settlements on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, the scene of violent clashes earlier this month.

Mahathir may well discover that his latest measures are like wild swings at a gong that do not address the core problems plaguing Malaysian society: ebbing confidence among Malaysians and foreign investors alike due to a lack of meaningful political and economic reforms. That is compounded by what many see as the eroding credibility of the various institutions of government in curbing abuse of power. Many Malaysians are only hoping that the economy will not keel over.