(Gopeng, Sunday): The speech by the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad to ASEAN business leaders in Kuala Lumpur yesterday on the eve of the three-day ASEAN 30th Anniversary Commemorative Summit is most welcome as it is a concrete sign that Mahathir can be flexible enough to set an example to get the government to end its "denial syndrome" and face up squarely to the economic crisis which will get worse before it could get better.
He said that Asian governments and businesses were party to blame for the regionís financial crisis and that ruthless surgery was needed.
Both in Parliament and outside, DAP had been urging the government to end the "denial syndrome" and to stop pinning all the blame for the five-month-old economic and financial crisis on external forces and factors, refusing to admit to the policy mistakes and weaknesses which had contributed to the crisis as well as the many self-inflicted wounds which have aggravated the crisis.
In his speech yesterday, Mahathir said it would be wrong to say that ASEAN governments and people, in particular their businessmen, were completely blameless for the economic problems.
He said: "There had been many abuses and malpractices, including of course large foreign borrowings and deficits in the balance of payment. These abuses on their own would have resulted in slowing down growth or even reversing it."
However, he said, the devaluation of currencies had precipitated matters, magnified the scale of their economic reversals and caused financial problems.
Mahathirís speech yesterday would have been his best-received one in the five-month economic crisis, for it reflected his ability and willingness to set the example to emerge from the "denial syndrome" which had clouded the governmentís judgment and credibility in handling the economic and financial crisis.
However, the prevalence and gravity of the "denial syndrome" could not be undone by one speech by Mahathir, as can be seen by the different way the local and foreign mass media handled the speech.
The CNN, based on Reuters report, carried the Mahathirís speech under the headline "Malaysia PM urges ruthless economic surgery", carried the following item:
KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 13 (Reuters) - Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said on Saturday that Asian governments and businesses were partly to blame for the region's financial crisis and ruthless surgery was needed.
Mahathir withheld his trademark attacks on foreign speculators in a speech to business leaders on the eve of a three-day summit of the nine-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Instead, the Malaysian leader said Asian nations will have to allow unviable businesses to die, and companies will have to retire unnecessary workers as a surgeon would amputate an infected limb.
"What is not viable must be killed outright so the survivors can be free to consolidate their positions," the Malaysian leader said.
"As a doctor who once practiced surgery, I appreciate the need to amputate gangrenous legs to save the rest of the body," he said.
"What we have to do is surgical. And we will do it. We must reassure the world that we will carry out what we have undertaken to do, at whatever cost. We hope that in the end we will restore confidence and the wealth will flow back."
Mahathir's remarks contrasted with his repeated attacks since July against foreign speculators, whom he has blamed for triggering the regional financial crisis that has undercut currencies and stock markets.
"It would be wrong to say that their (ASEAN) governments and their people, in particular their businessmen, are completely blameless," Mahathir said.
"There had been may abuses and malpractices, including of course large foreign borrowings and deficits in the balance of payments."
Pressed afterwards during a question and answer session to pinpoint the cause of the crisis, Mahathir said he would not pin all the blame on speculators. "I will not say speculators."
He said he did not want to rule out the possibility that Malaysia might have to follow Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea and turn to the International Monetary Fund for emergency aid because if he did, his remarks could spark a crisis of confidence and force down the value of the ringgit.
"I'm scared of saying anything that might result in our currency going down," he said.
Last week Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim unveiled an austerity package that squeezed credit to property firms, deferred costly infrastructure projects and slashed the economic growth forecast.
"We in Southeast Asia should accept that we are poor now and the road to recovery is going to be long and hazardous," Mahathir said.
"The journey back will not take months as our admiring detractors smilingly assure us. It is going to take years and years of hard work and new cunning."
Mahathir prescribed new medicine for the region's strugging economies, urging ASEAN member state to buy goods from each other, not more costly foreign products, to help lift themselves out of the crisis.
"We should buy ASEAN," he said.
It is not possible however to read such a report in the local press, as if the foreign and local press are reporting two completely different speeches and functions.
It is clear that the government must not only stop its "denial syndrome", the Malaysian mass media should also stop reporting only "good" news while suppressing "bad" news.
Malaysians hope that Mahathirís new readiness to end the "denial syndrome" as reported by the foreign press would now become a new government policy so that the country and people can more realistically deal with the painful remedies and measures which have to be adopted to face up to the worsening economic crisis.
As part of this policy of greater realism to face up to the economic crisis, I would urge Mahathir to seriously consider my proposal that he reconsider the whole concept of NEAC as not to undermine the principles of Cabinet responsibility and parliamentary democracy.
Instead of proceeding with the formation of a hybrid body like the National Economic Action Council, the Prime Minister should carry out a major cabinet reshuffle to remove the deadwoods in the Cabinet, and to form National Economic Crisis Cabinet with technocrats and experts as members of the Cabinet with the expertise and knowledge to deal with the national economic crisis, and most important of all, who can command public confidence about their integrity, competence and dedication.
To form such a National Economic Crisis Cabinet, the Prime Minister must be prepared to tap experts in the private sector who are not MPs, by appointing them as Senators. This will also raise the standards of the Senate, which at present is nothing more than a refuge for political has-beens and political rejects who could not get elected into Parliament through the front door.
Furthermore, the government should form a National Economic Crisis Consultative Council (NECCC) comprising representatives from all political parties, both government and opposition, industry, commerce, trade unions, professional bodies, NGOs, so that it could be a nationally unifying force to unite and mobilise all Malaysians behind a national economic recovery programme to tide the country through the economic crisis in the shortest time possible.
The NECCC should formulate a national economic recovery programme within a fortnight of its formation, and meet weekly to monitor progress of the programme, with powers to make recommendations to the Cabinet, such as whether the Prime Minister or Cabinet Ministers should make certain speeches or pronouncements if they are not conducive to the restoration of confidence or the success of the national economic recovery programme.
I would formally table the proposal of a National Economic Crisis Cabinet and a National Economic Crisis Consultative Council (NECCC) as two major instruments to face the economic crisis in Parliament next week in the form of an urgent motion of definite public importance.
I hope that my proposal would get the support of all MPs, regardless of whether from government or opposition as this is a matter which should be regarded as a national issue transcending political party differences and I hope there would be a full debate on this motion in Parliament.
Although the DAP is an opposition party, we have always been a responsible party which had never opposed for the sake of opposition, but had always placed national interest above all other considerations.
For this reason, the DAP is prepared to give full support to any national economic recovery programme which could tide the country and people through the national economic crisis in the shortest time possible and we are prepared to make our full contribution to the nation in the drafting and implementation of such a national economic recovery programme.
The DAP would be convening an emergency meeting of national and state leaders in Petaling Jaya on Tuesday night to specifically discuss the national economic crisis, where DAP Central Executive Council members and state leaders would consider what further contribution the DAP could make at this period of national economic crisis.