Mahathir claimed that there were rumours of his death, which is news not only to me but I believe to everyone. Did he start this purported rumour?
Be that as it may, the failure of the government to scotch the rumour of Mahathirís fall from a horse underlines the need for a sensitive and smart government information policy in keeping with information technology (IT) and the burial of the very rickety information strategy presently being employed.
It is no use Mahathir or the Barisan Nasional leaders choosing the easy way out by picking on the opposition and the stockmarket as scapegoats for the rumours and the collapse of the UMNO-linked counters on Wednesday which dragged the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange Composite Index (KLCI) down 11.11 points, or 1.2 per cent, from its high of over 960 points in the morning to 940.95 points at the dayís close.
This should in fact serve as an object lesson to overhaul the governmentís pre-IT information policy and strategy by pinpointing the reasons for the governmentís widening credibility gap.
The first time the governmentís denial that Mahathir had fallen off a horse in Argentina came out in the printed media on Monday, with the New Straits Times quoting an unnamed Prime Ministerís Department official as saying that it was someone in the Prime Minister's group who fell off the horse but it was definitely not the Prime Minister.
On Wednesday, the Star carried a commentary by its senior news editor Wong Chun Wai entitled "Of distorted facts and fancies", refuting the rumour and seeking to put the record straight.
"But if you believe the rumours, Dr Mahathir is in an Argentine
hospital nursing injuries from a nasty fall while horse-riding.
"The source of that rumour is a recent news item posted on Laman Reformasi, a website set up by an opposition party.
"But what has actually happened, according to the Prime Minister's Office, is that a security officer from the elite Unit Tindakan Khas accompanying Dr Mahathir fell from his horse.
"The mishap took place on a ranch on the outskirts of Buenos Aires recently while Dr Mahathir was on vacation there.
"A simple jab was given to the victim on the spot but the vicious talk that followed was that Dr Mahathir was injured and that he had to cut short his holiday."
I visited the Laman Reformasi website but I cannot find any "news item" purportedly stating that "Dr Mahathir is in an Argentine hospital nursing injuries from a nasty fall while horse-riding". There was an anti-Mahathir piece based on the rumour which no discerning visitor could mistake it as a news item as it was a product of literary licence.
However, despite their clarification that the Prime Minister had not fallen from a horse, both the leading mainstream print media NST and the Star did not have the credibility or authority to prevent the rumours about Mahathirís health from battering the stock market on Wednesday, with UMNO-linked stocks coming under heavy selling pressure.
Counters in the Renong group, which has close UMNO links, underwent a roller-coaster ride in the final hour of trade. Its share price plunged 32 sen or 10.5 per cent to RM2.74 when it was earlier traded to a high of RM3.22. Similarly, Renong's other companies -- 37 per cent owned United Engineers Malaysia and 47 per cent owned Time Engineering -- suffered the same setback. UEM shed 20 sen to close at RM7.95 against its day's high of RM8.65 while Time Engineering tumbled 60 sen to RM3.08 although it had been rising sharply on expectations that creditors will endorse its debt restructuring plan.
On Wednesday night, the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi felt compelled to weigh in to declare that Mahathir was "fine" based on the maxim that "no news is good news" although Abdullah had no direct contact with the Prime Minister since he went on leave.
When this was not credible enough, the normally-reticent Daim had to tell reporters on Thursday morning that he was in touch "all the time" with Mahathir who was "fine and enjoying his holiday abroad".
The market rebounded early on Thursday but the prices later fell back with the KLCI down by 1.36 points at the end of the dayís trading.
The governmentís information handlers should know that the lack of authoritative and credible rebuttal of the rumours coupled with the last-minute cancellation of Mahathirís trip to the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland without giving any reasons, rumours would take wings.
Mahathir said in London: "It is the stock market which wants to listen to rumours, it is their loss, I did not own a single cent in shares."
I find this explanation unacceptable and irresponsible as it is public knowledge that there are individuals close to Mahathir as well as companies closely linked to UMNO who are major movers and shakers in the stock exchange. If they have privileged information, denied to the rest of the market players, about the actual situation with regard to the rumours concerning the Prime Ministerís health, they would be able to make a killing when the rumours created convulsions in the stock market.
The Prime Minister and in fact, the first Finance Minister, Tun Daim Zainuddin, should have taken all possible measures to ensure that such an invidious position should never be allowed to occur - that the public are given instant information about the state of health of the Prime Minister as this is not a private matter but a issue of great public and national importance. This is central to the issue of transparency and good governance.
When he was in the Caribbean, Mahathir met the new president of Argentina, Fernando De la Rua, as well as the prime ministers of St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Antigua and Grenada, all island states in the Caribbean.
If Mahathir could take the time to meet with at least five heads of governments during his Caribbean trip, why couldnít he spare the time in this age of instant communications to let Malaysians know that there is no basis whatsoever to rumours about his fall from a horse - that it was not him but a member of his entourage - so as to remove volatility in the stock market?