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MGG: Is there a Sabah issue?
By M.G.G. Pillai

8/8/2001 7:44 pm Wed

[Banyak isu dan dasar penting yang melibatkan nasib dan masadepan rakyat negara ini tidak dibincangkan pun di parlimen. Ia kerap tersembur secara tidak rasmi dimajlis khenduri-kendara dan sidang akhbar pula. Itupun tidak terperinci sehingga kakitangan kerajaan terbabit terpaksa meneka-neka pendirian terkini kerajaan sampai bercelaru semua. Itulah yang berlaku dalam isu hak milik negeri Sabah dan isu-isu lain.

Mahathir kerap membelakangkan golongan cerdik pandai di negara ini. Dia memilih cerdikpandai luar seperti Salomon Barney dan Penasihat dunia MSC yang kebanyakkannya mempunyai kepentingan diri atau syarikat sendiri. Bayangkan berapa ramai penasihat MSC itu memang seorang yang betul-betul bebas dan tidak mempunyai produk untuk dipasarkan nanti?

Ramai orang tidak tahu pejabat kerajaan yang berpindah ke Putrajaya terpaksa membayar sewa lagi! Malah kosnya lebih tinggi dari menyewa satu menara di ibu kota dulunya. Siapakah yang untung dengan penghijrahan ini jika tidak sang kroni. Malangnya rakyat Malaysia tertipu lagi.... - Editor]


Chiaroscuro 7th August 2001.

Is there a Sabah issue?

MGG Pillai

When Malaysian leaders insist they should discuss national and international affairs as an aside after they open fast food restaurants, something must give. They speak off the cuff, often without thought, as one would at a "warong kopi".

This is how the Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamed, and his cabinet, the mentris besar, senior civil servants inform Malaysians of important government policies. They believe they are more important than their office, and say what they want with no concern for propriety.

Permeating this is an arrogance from long irrelevant years in office. And a loose tongue. A sycophantic press primes it along. So, official policy or thinking is guessed at from these irrelevant asides.

The foreign ministry often is clueless and rush to smoothen ruffled diplomatic feathers when the foreign minister commits it to a course it had not ever considered. It was shocked to learn, after a cabinet meeting, Malaysia had recognised Afghanistan and after it had counselled patience: a cabinet minister -- the self-same Anwar Ibrahim who later became deputy prime minister and fell from grace to be ensconced in Sungei Buloh jail -- forced it.

Whims and fancies

The Treasury has no policy until the finance minister talks to reporters at a "kenduri". This is so with every ministry. If the minister in question is not within the view of the press, he must shout louder, often wrongly, to attract the attention. It is, in any case, important to him that he be remembered, to fish for votes when UMNO meetings come around, than for his often stupid remarks.

There is, in other words, no official policy but one made on the run. Often the basis for it is the whims and fancies of one man.

However desirable the Multimedia Super Corridor is, it was set up because Dr Mahathir espoused it. The civil servants got on board, usually reluctantly, and we pay the price for it. The only justification is that it made some people, usually cronies, very rich indeed. Its success is measured, officially, by how fast property prices have risen.

It continues to be justified by its berriboned advisers, all leading lights in IT, not for what it professes to do. Huge and expensive projects akin to creating cities in wasteland are stalled. And so it is with every policy espoused.

With no serious thinking, and Parliament largely ignored, the political overview is restricted to the Prime Minister's coterie. Thinking and discussion, in other words, is discouraged.

To confuse, not explain

So, is the militant Malaysian Mujahidin out to overthrow the government by force? Do not telephone the police or get an MP to ask it Parliament. Wait for the prime minister after a formal charity dinner, the Inspector-General of Police after he opens a creche for his staff, the deputy prime minister at a sports meet, the industry and international trade minister at the opening of a jewellery shop. To prove whatever said is important, other ministers take up the refrain, to confuse not explain.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo arrives here for a three-day official visit today (07 August 01). She is here more to initial the pact between her government and the Moslem fundamentalists in Mindanao. Bilateral ties improve, but the Sabah claim is alive in the Philippines as it is not here. It should be left as it is.

She is not about to raise the Sabah claim with Dr Mahathir: official visits follow strict protocol, and what would be discussed settled in advance. The Philippines Constitution has Sabah as one of its territories. It has intervened in the World Court dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia over Sipadan and Litigan.

When President Fidel Ramos came on an official visit in 1993, it was decided to set aside Sabh to re-foster the good ties the two countries had.

Why should Dr Mahathir insist that when they meet, the Sabah claim would not be raised? But in raising it, he throws the Sabah issue yet again on to the public domain. Sabah is a live issue in the Philippines. Her father, President Diasdado Macapagal, laid formal claim to Sabah in 1963, when it joined Malaysia.

Backburner doubts

Sabah is in the backburner of Philippines politics. The Philippines, like Malaysia, points to external issues to strengthen public opinion at home. Sabah is as important to Phillippine public opinion as Western culture and perfidy is to Malaysia. But not when Manila wants to settle the Mindanao problem as efficaciously as possible.

So what Dr Mahathir has done in his offhand remarks about the visit is raise doubts about our commitment to Sabah. There is, in our official view, no Sabah claim. Sabah is part and parcel of Malaysia. That is it. He should not discuss it with any Philippines official.

When he then says he would not discuss it he devalues Malaysia's commitment to keeping Sabah within its borders. It raises both hope and despair, in both, and unsettles Sabah. That surely is not what he wants. But what he would get.

Because Malaysian government leaders would not discuss their briefs seriously, in formal press conferences or in formal settings, the Malaysian press have grown lazy and waylay cabinet ministes and others after functions to ask their irrelevant, often ill-thought out questions and get answers in that vein.

And havoc in the chancelleries of the world.

An informal pecking order is in place. Who says it first decides how important it is. Whatever the Prime Minister says is policy, the drumbeaters who follow will vary and confuse it, driving diplomats and others who look for clues about the government's behaviour up the wall. If he is indisposed, the deputy prime minister can step in, but not too often. So, when Dr Mahathir talks of Sabah, Wisma Putra shivers.

Unfortunately, this is not about to change. Too much has gone wrong in how this country is run for it to be resolved. With or without Dr Mahathir at the head.

Every institution of government -- parliament, the executive, the judiciary -- is kidnapped for political ransom. We pay the price for that. The arrogance is insufferable, and redounds on national respect.

To a trickle

Foreign investment is reduced to a trickle not for what we have but for how arrogant our civil servants have become. The bureaucracy is stiffening. The corruption has blown out of control.

The government sidesteps a question in Parliament, at its current session, on why Lever Brothers moved, lock stock and barrel, after a century in this country, to Thailand, where it has a new skycraper outside Bangkok as its regional headquarters.

But local investment is also affected. One sees a larger political hand in all this now. It has to get out of the embarassment of a group of companies linked to UMNO fall by the wayside with loans exceeding RM30 billion but mismanaged.

Two more await in the wings. It raises uncomfortable politician questions, like what happens to the UMNO-owned Putra World Trade Centre buildings? Can UMNO, in the present circumstances, meet its debts?

Malaysia is no more an important sponge to soak up foreign investment. The Thais give ten-year work permits for as many senior foreign business men a company wants to relocate; in Malaysia, they would have to spend endless hours at immigration officers, and fly out often, before a token temporary extension of stay is granted, while officials take their interminable time to decide if the work permit of a key official must be renewed. Besides, China now soaks up foreign investment that would, in the past, come to Southeast Asia.

But Malaysia does not change. It would not when it believes that it has advantages none in the region has. That was true once. Not any more. When it should have moved with the current, it believed it could, like King Canute, control the waves. And pays the price.

Could Malaysia be now what it was in the past? It could, but we look for quick fixes when bitter medicine must be taken. But quick fixes are not what would take us out of our current morass.

M.G.G. Pillai