NEAC should encourage a freer flow of information and greater press freedom to restore confidence and credibility of government

Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(Petaling Jaya, Saturday): In the latest issue of Far Eastern Economic Review (February 19, 1998) which front-covered Tun Daim Zainuddin, the executive director of the National Economic Action Council (NEAC), Daim freely admitted that the country was facing the "worst crisis Ösince the Second World War" and that "the primary task of the NEAC is to restore confidence".

However, the two words "economic crisis" have become the new "sensitive" terminology which are not permitted to be used in the local mass media, whether printed or electronic, and only the anodyne term "economic problems" are allowed.

This the best and most recent proof that Malaysia has not been able to completely shake out of the "denial syndrome" which had blanketted the government during the economic crisis last year, and which is one basic reason why the country has not yet got the upper hand in the battle to restore confidence although we are in the eighth month of the economic crisis.

Why should government leaders talk about "economic crisis" in the foreign mass media which are immediately minimised as "economic problems" in the local mass media?

What type of a press freedom does Malaysia have when there is no press freedom to use the term "economic crisis" to describe the present economic situation?

The first task of the NEAC in trying to restore confidence is to encourage a freer flow of information and greater press freedom to restore confidence and credibility of the government, by sending out the clear message that it is not a crime of sedition or an offence under the Printing Presses and Publications Act for the local newspapers, radio and television stations to use the words "economic crisis".

The information policy of the government in the past eight monthsí of the economic crisis seems to based on the premise that Malaysians are very diffident and unsure people who can only handle good news but cannot be trusted with bad news about the economic crisis.

This is why in the past few days, the local press were full of "positive" reports by government leaders, like that of the MCA President and Transport Minister, Datuk Dr. Ling Liong Sik, talking about the "strong rebound of the stock market and the state of the currency now", but who fell silent when the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange benchmark Composite Index fell to 685.50 at closing yesterday and when the ringgit weakened, trading between 3.72 to 4.00 against the US dollar yesterday.

Another article in the latest issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review quoted the head of Asian currency trading at a Singapore bank as saying that "Barring civil war in Indonesia or a yuan devaluation", the Malaysian ringgit has stabilised and he is looking at 3.50 to 3.90 for the rest of the year.

There are other more pessimistic forecasts. Morgan Stanley, on its Global Economic Forum website two days ago, focussed on Malaysia under the heading "Malaysia: Monetary Easing vs. Bank Restructuring".

Timothy Condon, its senior economist covering the ASEAN economies and who have spent twelve years with the World Bank, made three key points:

The important point I want to make is not whether Timothy Condon is right or wrong, but that there should be no censorship or self-censorship in the Malaysian mass media about economic news concerning Malaysia, fearing that Malaysians cannot handle bad news and should be fed with only good news.

There should be a liberalisation of the Malaysian mass media to end the serious problem of Information Deficit and a healthy and vigorous debate as to the policies and measures the country should take to get out of the worst economic crisis in the nationís history in the shortest time possible and with the minimum of avoidable suffering and hardships to the people as well as the different economic scenarios before the nation, as for instance, whether Tim Condonís forecast of the ringgit falling to 5.50 against the US dollar has any basis.


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