(Petaling Jaya, Wednesday): Although the possibility of the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad taking over the finance portfolio himself with the resignation of Tun Daim Zainuddin was on everybody’s mind, and I had myself posed such a question in my media statement of 3rd June 2001, there was still a sense of incredulity when the news broke last evening of such a decision.
I caught the television news last night on Mahathir’s announcement, and it was evident that the sense of incredulity was also the prevailing mood among the journalists, one of whom even asked whether the Prime Minister was joking, causing Mahathir to respond that this was “no joking matter”.
And to emphasise that he was really serious about the decision to appoint himself as Finance Minister, Mahathir said he had written to the secretary-general of the Ministry of Finance to inform him that he, Mahathir, was now acting as Finance Minister.
This seems to be rather abnormal and even absurd as it must be the first time in Malaysian history where the Prime Minister has to write to a civil servant to inform him that he is now acting as the Minister in his Ministry, raising many pertinent questions about the proper line of responsibility and communications in the bureaucracy and even civil service loyalty!
Be that as it may, Mahathir’s decision is most disappointing, for instead of a breath of fresh air with a bold and imaginative appointment, his taking over the Finance Ministry is a waft of stale air signifying that there is not going to be any new approach in economic policy but more of the same policy of crony bailouts and buyouts but with different beneficiaries. What is worse, although the appointment of a Finance Minister is no joking matter, the latest development leaves Malaysians and the world with the feeling that Mahathir is not being very serious about the economic future of the nation.
It would be Malaysia’s tragedy if the government misses a critical opportunity at the present moment to adopt a new approach on economic policy to enable the country to weather the global economic slowdown that is undermining exports, which are the country's main growth engine.
Mahathir’s excuse that he has a long list of possible candidates for the post of Finance Minister is no justification for his failure to appoint a suitable person to head the Finance Ministry as he had some two months to prepare for a replacement for Daim.
In 40 days, Mahathir will be completing his 20th year as the fourth Prime Minister of Malaysia - a post he assumed on 16th July 1981.
It is a sad commentary on the poverty of political leadership in government two decades after his premiership that he had to end up taking over the Finance portfolio. His taking over the portfolio of Minister for Special Functions is the most ridiculous of all - for it becomes utterly redundant when the Prime Minister himself also becomes the Minister for Special Functions, giving himself special assignments!
Is Mahathir waiting for the UMNO General Assembly later this month before handing over the Finance Ministry to the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi so that he could personally take back the Home Ministry to spearhead what he said in Parliament in April as the “break with international norms” on human rights and democracy?