(Petaling Jaya, Tuesday): The present 30-day voters' registration exercise of the Election Commission from yesterday till 10th March is probably the last one before the next general elections.
This means that Malaysians above 21 who have not registered as voters should ensure that they register themselves so that they have the right to exercise their constitutional right to vote in the next general elections to help decide the country's future.
It is regrettable that the Election Commission has only sought the help of the ruling parties to help in the voters' registration exercise but not the opposition parties, when the primary concern of the Election Commission should be to secure the assistance of all political parties and even NGOs to ensure that every eligible voter is on the electoral roll so that no citizen loses the constitutional right to vote in general elections because of weaknesses or imperfections of the electoral registration system.
More and more Malaysians now believe that general elections could be held this year, in contrast to the conventional view a few months ago that general elections could only be held next year after the SUKOM 1998 and the APEC Leaders' Summit in November 1998.
The critical factor determining the date for the next general elections would be the economic crisis, whether there would be economic recovery in the next six to twelve months, or whether the economic recovery would take two or three years, with the next 12 months being the most difficult period for Malaysians when the real bite of the economic hardships would be felt by the people.
Two days ago, the president of the Japan Chamber Trade Industry, Malaysia (JACTIM), Tan Sri Kazuma Suzuki, said that Malaysia would be the first country to recover from the current economic problem in this region because of its political stability and strong and sound fundamentals.
If Suzuki is right that Malaysia would be the "first country in the region to recover from the current problems", implying of course that such a recovery would be in six to 12 months' time, then general elections would not be held this year.
However, if a panel of distinguished economists interviewed in the latest edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review (February 12, 1998), on the economic future of the region, and in particular "When will the Good Times Roll Again?" are right, then the outlook is not all that optimistic and would point to a general elections this year.
One question which the FEER asked the five economists was:
Review: Looking ahead, which country in your opinion is likely to do the best in the coming years? Which will come out fastest, which will languish, and why?
Condon: I would suggest South Korea, where policy implementation appears to be the strongest and most concerted. It is the most highly geared of all. The debt problem there is the worst, but the policy response is the best. Malaysia is going to be the worst because it appears to be trying to continue the credit boom by expanding the central bank's balance sheet. This is going to forestall the problem but make it worse in the end.
Review: So you expect Malaysia to go to the IMF at some point this year?
Condon: I think there will be a problem with financial institutions in Malaysia this year and it will approach the IMF for assistance in stabilizing its economy and strengthening the financial sector.
Mushkat: At the bottom, I would put Indonesia, which is engaged in an act of self-destruction. To me it looks considerably worse than Malaysia. Malaysia is behind in terms of recognizing the problems but I think the problems are perhaps more manageable.
Kim: Korea is in a better position because the over-capacity happens to be in the tradable sector, as opposed to nontradable sectors--like property in Thailand. Clearly, with an exchange-rate depreciation of the sort we have seen, if the corporate sector survives, Korean manufacturing will certainly be put on a relatively favourable footing. I would agree with Tim that we have yet to see the worst with the Malaysian situation. A lot of the excesses in the financial sector still haven't abated to a significant extent.
Kapur: I agree on Korea appearing to come out well, but the worst I have to say will be Indonesia. There are too many lenders and too many borrowers. Even the central bank at one point was not aware of the actual indebtedness of most of the corporate sector there. Malaysia has an internal debt problem and internal financial excesses, which will explode, but it doesn't really have an external problem, or huge accumulated foreign liabilities in the financial sector. While I see a huge domestic financial problem there, I think that is going to be mitigated somewhat by reasonably large trade surpluses going forward.
Condon: In Korea, the policy response is very pro-active. The current-account surplus in Korea is going to come up quite quick actually. With the collapse of domestic demand, import growth could contract by 15%-20% very easily. Even if you have a very reasonable 5%-10% export expansion in U.S. dollars this year, the current account will come out very big, easily over $10 billion.
Whatever the public statements made by the government leaders about the period for economic recovery, whether Parliament is dissolved this year or next year will depend on whether the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad believes in optimists like Suzuki or pessimists like the economists interviewed in the latest issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review.
Gerakan President and Primary Industries Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Lim Keng Yaik had reiterated that the country and people should not allow the question of the next general elections to distract them from the paramount challenge of overcoming the economic crisis.
I fully agree and the best way to make whole issue of a possible general elections this year completely academic is for the Prime Minister to publicly declare that there would definitely be no dissolution of Parliament and the State Assembly in the next 12 months, so that all energies and resources could be focussed on economic recovery and turnaround.
In the meantime, until such a categorical announcement is made by the Prime Minister that there would be no general elections in the next 12 months, the fact remains that the current voters' registration exercise is likely to be the last one for Malaysians above 21 who have not registered as voters to ensure that they could vote in the next general elections.
DAP has appointed the National Organising Secretary and MP for Cheras, Tan Kok Wai, as National Chairman of the 1998 National Voters' Registration Committee to be responsible for a national campaign to ensure as many eligible voters as possible could be registered as voters by March 10.
The DAP will also set up State Voters' Registration Committees and as a first step, the DAP National Voters Registration Committee will seek a meeting with Election Commission officials to see how the current voters registration campaign could be carried out in a fair, effective and efficient manner.