(Petaling Jaya, Friday): One reason for the serious problem of information deficit in Malaysia creating the grave problem of credibility and confidence crisis in the government is the increasing restriction in the Malaysian mass media against a free play of ideas and views.
Malaysians know that views critical of the establishment, regardless of how right or pertinent to solve the problems of the people and country, cannot find space in the local mass media, whether printed or electronic, causing widespread distrust about the credibility of the local press.
Just as in the economic development process, the most important thing is not know-how but know-who, in the local mass media the most important criteria for coverage is not say-what but say-who!
As a result, the Opposition, the NGOs and critical segments of the civil society are shut out from local mass media, creating a debate of the deaf in the country.
This reminds me of a very insightful remark by the Managing Director of the international Monetary Fund, Michel Camdessus during his November tour of South east Asia, where he discovered that "what is missing is not chiefly money". He observed that the something that was missing was the ability or readiness of the countries concerned to "sit down…and speak frankly" about their true macro-economic problems.
At a time when the country is trying to grapple with the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history, where restoration of confidence should be the paramount concern of all policy-makers, one would have thought that utmost priority would have been given to resolve the problem of the information deficit by restoring the credibility of the local mass media in the country.
However, the credibility problem in Malaysia is getting from bad to worse when the speech of the Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, about the economic crisis, reforms, ethics, democracy and press freedom could be blacked out by the mainstream mass media in the country and Malaysians have to read about it in the foreign press.
Today’s Hong Kong Standard under the banner heading "Anwar calls for end to region's bad habits - Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Anwar Ibrahim vows his country will make reforms" carried the following report:
KUALA LUMPUR: For too long, Malaysia's deputy prime minister says, Asian leaders suppressed democracy, played favouritism and condoned corruption.
But that was before a regional financial crisis forced them to begin considering reforms.
Today, said Anwar Ibrahim, it is ``totally absurd'' to suggest that democracy, freedom, honesty and accountability are merely ``luxuries of the West'' and incompatible with Asian values.
In a speech, Mr Anwar did not name any leaders, but two key proponents of Asia's existing system are Singapore's Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
``Yes, there are excesses. Yes, we have to learn to undertake reforms. Yes, we have to transform our societies,'' said Mr Anwar, who is expected to be Malaysia's next prime minister.
Mr Anwar, who also serves as finance minister, has long been one of Southeast Asia's most reform-minded leaders. But the speech, which he used to inaugurate a five-day seminar on ethics in leadership, was remarkable for its candour.
As always, Mr Anwar criticised some of the painful economic reforms that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is forcing on countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea, in return for its big bailout loans.
Mr Anwar also reminded the IMF that it once praised the way that East Asia's tiger economies were prospering, before their stock markets and currencies began to collapse in July.
But he also said these governments never should have allowed basic faults in their economic structures to go unchecked or to oppress their people by denying them some basic rights.
Mr Anwar travelled on Thursday to Indonesia to discuss its economic crisis with President Suharto, who has been blamed for allowing monopolies controlled by his children and friends.
``I am thrilled by the whole idea of countries of this region having to undertake effective reforms and to transform their societies,'' Mr Anwar said. ``You have to dismantle monopolies . . . of your cronies or family members . . . because they go against the grain of transparency, accountability and good governance.'' - AP
Today’s Sydney Morning Herald under the heading "Mahathir's heir apparent attacks corruption" by Herald correspondent, Craig Skehan, filed the following report:
Mr Anwar Ibrahim, the heir apparent to Malaysia's Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, sees the present financial turmoil as an opportunity for his country to transform itself into a more open democracy with greater media freedom.
In the run-up to next year's leadership election, the increasingly frank pronouncements on Malaysia's strengths and weaknesses by Mr Anwar- the Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister - including criticism of cronyism and corruption, are giving him a distinct political position in a key component of the ruling coalition, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
UMNO's choices for party president and vice-president are translated almost automatically into the posts of prime minister and deputy prime minister. Branch and divisional elections will be held soon to decide delegates to the conference.
While there has been speculation that Dr Mahathir will stand aside in favour of Mr Anwar next year and that assurances to that effect have been given in private, no timetable has been publicly set.
As part of the jockeying before the UMNO race, Mr Anwar is differentiating his political style with the combative, highly nationalistic Dr Mahathir, including calls for change and reform.
"The source of the current malaise is partly ethical," said Mr Anwar, 50, at a conference here this week on Ethics in Leadership, organised by the St James Ethics Centre of Sydney and Malaysia's Institute for Strategic and International Studies.
Economic damage had been caused by "profiteering", said Mr Anwar, who was jailed when he was a student leader.
Malaysia required accountability and transparency of decision-making, he said. Cronyism and corruption were not limited to Asia, but could not be dismissed as a fabrication by the foreign media aimed at undermining regional development.
Rapid economic expansion could not justify "oppression and denial of basic rights, democracy and freedom of the media" and it was important there be a free climate to debate issues arising from the currency crisis.
Dr Anwar said "defeatism" should not be allowed to replace the previous excessive euphoria over the so-called regional economic miracle.
"We will see a new Asia, more confident, strong economically and strong ethically and morally."
Mr Anwar's ascendancy is seen by many foreign political leaders as a generational change. In international affairs, he is regarded as less confrontational than Dr Mahathir. However, he qualified his remarks by saying he was not an advocate of "unabridged freedoms and unbridled individualism".
Malaysia's evolution had to protect cultural integrity and traditional values of responsibility to family and community, he said.
"I am essentially a village intellectual."
While it is admitted that the foreign mass media have their slants and biases, the important question is why Malaysians should read about Anwar’s speech on ethics, democracy and greater media freedom only in the foreign media or Internet, with these remarks blacked out by the mainstream local mass media?