Mahathir should focus on discipline and unity rather than on loyalty to be the basis to galvanise the Malaysian people to act as one unit to tide through the economic crisis and effect an economic recovery and turnaround in the shortest possible time

- Forum on "Economic Crisis & Recovery"
by Lim Kit Siang

(Penang, Saturday): This morning, the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, said that the economic crisis faced by the country could be overcome only through a higher degree of discipline and loyalty, and not through foreign assistance.

Attending a loyalty pledge by some 700 officers and staff of the Information Ministry at Angkasapuri in Kuala Lumpur, Mahathir said rash actions would not help the country to overcome the economic problems caused by the depreciation of the ringgit and the stock market crash.

He said that such actions driven by frustrations would only lead to rifts and divisions and would destroy the spirit of unity much needed during the hard times the country was facing.

He said: "But if we were caught up by our frustrations over the situation and put the blame on the government for instance or if we were to start accusing others, then we will have disagreements and this will indirectly make us weak."

Let me state that the DAP had always advocated that at a time of national economic crisis, all Malaysians, regardless of political affiliation or differences, must come together to unite and mobilise the people to work together to make a success of the national economic recovery programme to ensure that the economic revival and turnaround could come about in the shortest possible time.

I said in Parliament on Tuesday that if the DAP was only interested in playing politics, we would stand by the sidelines and just point an accusing finger at the Barisan Nasional government for its various mistakes whether in policies or practices which have brought about the economic crisis.

However, the DAP is not interested in blaming the government for the national economic crisis as our primary concern is how Malaysians could tide through the national economic crisis in as short a time as possible and with minimum pain, hardships and suffering.

The five-month long national economic crisis, however, has shown that the government does not know what is best for the people, and it must be more humble, democratic, accountable and transparent, taking the people fully into its confidence by involving the talents and energies of the Malaysian people in every stage of the national endeavour for an economic recovery and turnaround.

The first step the government must take must be to purge the government and country of the prevalent and widespread Ďdenial syndromeí that the economic and financial crisis would not be very serious on everyday life on the ground as the countryís fundamentals are strong, national savings rate is high, exports are rising and the current accounts deficits are coming down or that the national economic crisis was solely or primarily the cause of evil foreigners like George Soros.

Dewan Rakyat has just ended its 42-day budget meeting and I had remarked last week that Parliament remains the headquarters of the "denial syndrome" in the country, and it should be no surprise that it had adjourned without being able to come to grips with the worsening economic and financial crisis.

Last Saturday, for the first time in the five-month long economic crisis, there seems to be a breakthrough in Mahathirís "denial syndrome" when he told a pre-ASEAN Summit Business Conference that Asian governments and businesses were partly to blame for the regionís financial crisis and that ruthless surgery was needed.

However, I am concerned that the "denial syndrome" in blaming the national economic crisis on evil foreigners is now being changed into one blaming the local businessmen for causing the crisis, as happened in the past few days.

The Government must own up to its own mistakes, whether of policy or practices, which have contributed to and aggravated the five-month-long crisis - so that the government can be transformed from being part of the problem to become part of the solution in the national economic crisis, which is a prerequisite to the restoration of confidence in the governmentís credibility and capability to guide the country through the economic crisis.

I agree with Mahathir that this period of national economic crisis call for a higher degree of discipline and unity among Malaysians to tide through these troubled times, but I think it is a mistake and a distraction to talk about loyalty and patriotism.

Mahathir should focus on discipline and unity rather than on loyalty to be the basis to galvanise the Malaysian people to act as one unit to tide through the economic crisis and effect an economic recovery and turnaround in the shortest possible time - unless the greatest of care is taken to ensure that we are talking about loyalty to the nation and not loyalty to the government, the ruling party or individual leader.

In his speech this morning, Mahathir cited the sacrifices made by the womenfolk in South Korea by donating one ton of their gold accessories to help revive small and medium businesses in their country - but it should be noted that this great act of sacrifice did not prevent the South Koreans from rejecting the presidential candidate of the government party in the South Korean presidential elections on Thursday.

I am rather wary whenever there is a resort to calls for loyalty and patriotism in our plural society, not only because it is not lack of loyalty or patriotism which had brought about the national economic crisis, but also because such calls could so easily degenerate into a new form of "witch-hunt" and "persecution" as happened ten years ago in the mass arrests of Operation Lalang.

In any event, are we prepared to brand all acts of corruption, criminal breach of trust and waste of public funds as disloyal and unpatriotic acts when the country is in the midst of a national economic crisis - whether it be spending RM5 million for the renovation of the Selangor Mentri Besarís residence, the building of a new posh residence of the Deputy Mentri Besar for Pahang or the appointment of five new assistant Ministers by the Sarawak Chief Minister at a time when the sole concern of every government should be to cut costs - even if it means reducing the number of Cabinet Ministers and Assistant Ministers.

I do not know what could be done about the RM5 million renovation of the Selangor Mentri Besarís residence, which had been completed, but categorical and unmistakable messages must be sent to the Pahang Mentri Besar to cancel the building of a new residence for the Pahang Deputy Mentri Besar and to the Sarawak Chief Minister to freeze the appointment of five new Assistant Ministers which is to take effect from January 1, if they are not to be seen as lacking in loyalty or at least, lacking in discipline, during the national economic crisis.

If Government leaders, whether at the national or state level, are allowed to go on a binge with public funds, while the people are asked to tighten their belts, the government would have no credibility in its call for a national austerity campaign.

I support Mahathir in not wanting to follow the example of Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea and seek International Monetary Fund bail-out, but the government should be aware that more and more Malaysians would be favourably inclined towards considering the IMF option if the economic crisis worsens and the government fails to show the political will to carry out much-needed political, economic and financial reforms to effect an economic recovery and turnaround.

This would be unfortunate, especially at a time when the IMF strategy to bail out troubled economies is coming under increasing criticism, whether in terms of surrender of national economic sovereignty, harsh and bitter IMF medicine regardless of social hardships, transparency of IMF and appropriateness of its solution for the Asian economic crisis and its role as the chief debt collector for international banks and Western governments.

If Malaysia is to avoid the IMF option, the question is whether the government is capable of rising up to the challenge to self-prescribe and take some of the bitter IMF medicine necessary for restoration of economic health without bringing in the IMF.

Can Malaysia show the world a new solution for troubled economies - the ability to self-prescribe bitter IMF-like medicine without having to run to IMF and surrender national economic sovereignty?

This is the favourite time of the year for crystal-gazing and all sorts of forecasts. Last December, for instance, financial analysts predict the KLSE Composite Index to be in the range of 1,400 points, and even the KLSE executive chairman, Datuk Nik Mohamed Din Nik Yusoff partook in the general euphoria in predicting that the KLSE market capitalisation would catapult from RM800 billion to RM1.25 trillion by the year 2,000. Nobody, of course, expected the Malaysian ringgit to move, except infinitesimally, from the US$1-RM2.50 level.

Since then, the KLSE capitalisation has depreciated by RM432 billion or over 54 per cent from RM807 billion to RM375 billion as on December 15, while the ringgit had depreciated by 56% falling all the way to the unthinkable US$1=RM3.92.

Although Anwar Ibrahim in his second 1998 Budget, i.e. the emergency financial package which he announced on December 5, had revised downwards the economic growth rate for next year from 7 per cent in his first budget on Oct. 17 to 4-5 per cent, economists are cutting it down to 2-3 per cent.

The Government must take effective measures to bring about a national economic recovery and turnaround when such measures would have the maximum impact and effect, and not when a runaway deterioration of the economy rendered them less effective and meaningful.

I had proposed on October 30 that Anwar Ibrahim should present a second 1998 Budget in Parliament on November 5 during his winding-up of the budget debate, as the 1998 Budget presented by Anwar on Oct. 17 had failed to address the fundamental issue of restoring confidence in the Malaysian economy or to check twin currency and stock market crisis, as both the Malaysian stock market and the ringgit had embarked on a sharp decline ever since the budget presentation.

It was only five weeks later, on December 5, that Anwar heeded the DAP advice and presented an emergency financial package, which was akin to a second 1998 Budget.

Although Anwar's emergency financial package or second 1998 Budget was better received than his 1998 Budget on Oct. 17, as Anwar's emergency financial package at 4 p.m. on Friday, 5th December, checked the unprecedented decline of the ringgit to 3.8650 against the US dollar and strengthened it to 3.6950 an hour later as well as causing a rally of the KLSE, it could only be sustained on the following Monday as by Tuesday, 9th December, the KLSE plunged by 47.32 points.

Anwar should convene an emergency meeting of Parliament early next month to present a third 1998 Budget to fully and firmly restore investor confidence through a new package of political, economic and financial reforms which will give no doubt to the nation and the world that the government and people have completely purged the "denial syndrome" which had hampered the countryís ability to galvanise the whole country in a united response to effect an economic recovery and turnaround in the shortest time possible.


*Lim Kit Siang - Malaysian Parliamentary Opposition Leader, Democratic Action Party Secretary-General & Member of Parliament for Tanjong