(Penang, Sunday): The Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad said yesterday that there would be no general election in the next six months in response to my prediction in January that general elections could be held as early as in six months’ time.
I first raised the possibility of general elections being held in the next six to 12 months in my speech in Penang on 16th January 1998 on the economic crisis, where I referred to Mahathir’s interview on TV3’s Malaysia Hari Ini the previous Friday (January 9, 1998).
In the interview, Mahathir expressed confidence that there would be economic recovery in six months to a year, and this theme of a six-month economic recovery was immediately taken up like a chorus by other Cabinet Ministers, with the Transport Minister and MCA President, Datuk Dr. Ling Liong Sik being the most enthusiastic or reckless by predicting an economic recovery in three months (which is now left with one month)!
I expressed my bafflement why Mahathir had suddenly come out with the talk of an economic recovery between six months to a year when the question of economic recovery was never adverted to at all by the Prime Minister in the previous six months of the economic crisis and at a time when the stockmarket and the Malaysian currency were falling through new psychological levels. On the day of his TV3 MHI interview, the KLSE Composite Index crashed through the 500-point barrier to close at 491.60 points, which nosed-dived to 477.57 points the following Monday. The Malaysian ringgit also fell to a low of 4.62 against the US dollar the same day.
This is why I had said at the Penang ceramah on January 16:
"The alacrity with which some Ministers went round the country echoing the six-month recovery message and alluding to the possibility of early general elections makes me wonder whether such an optimistic forecast is more a political statement than an economic one.
"It is all agreed that there would be an economic recovery, the speed of which would depend on whether the government is prepared to take hard decisions to ‘bite the bullet’, where the goal is to bail out the whole nation and not individual personalities or companies.
"Without a proper national economic recovery strategy involving far-reaching political, economic and financial reforms to win the confidence of the people, the economic recovery may take one, two or three years. "Until recently, everybody would have expected the next general elections, which is not due until October 2000, to be held earliest after Sukom in September and the APEC Leaders’ Summit in November this year.
"However, if there are doubts about the ability of the economy to recover in six to 12 months, coupled with the likelihood that the pain and hardships caused by the economic crisis/recovery will increase in the next one or two years, then it might be wiser to hold general elections before things get bad - making general elections before Sukom and APEC a distinct possibility…
"Be that as it may, I think what we should all be more concerned about is not the next general elections, but the deepening economic crisis, which will get worse before it can get better."
Three days later, on January 19, in a media statement, I suggested that the Prime Minister make a categorical announcement that there would be no possibility of general elections being held in the next six to twelve months to put to rest the subject of snap general elections this year.
The Prime Minister has taken two months to respond to my suggestion that he make a categorical statement to put to rest the issue of snap general elections in six to twelve months, but only partially.
In saying that there would be no general elections in the next six months, Mahathir has still kept open the possibility of general elections being called in the last quarter of this year.
Mahathir said yesterday that he is "not the type who will take a wager on this matter but if Kit Siang wants to bet 10 sen, I will put mine in". I am also not the type who goes round taking wagers, but I am prepared to reciprocate this departure from our usual conduct, and if Mahathir is prepared to bet 10 sen that there will be no general elections within this year, the wager is on.
All along, I have been consistent in my view that all national energies and resources should be focussed on economic turnaround and recovery, that the greatest challenge facing the country which should be the sole preoccupation of all Malaysians is the economic crisis and not the next general elections.
This is why although some Barisan Nasional parties in some states have started to develop general elections fever, the DAP has not activated its general elections machinery, because we want to keep the people focussed on the worst economic crisis facing the country rather than on the next general elections.
If Mahathir is prepared to accept the wager that there would be no general elections this year, it would go a long way to refocus some of the energies which some Barisan Nasional parties and leaders are already concentrating on general elections preparations to the detriment of addressing the national economic crisis.