The UMNO furore over The Economist feature on Malaysia  has become a proxy battle in the intense jockeying for power in post-Mahathir UMNO turning it into an   issue as to who is more loyal to Mahathir – but it should not be at the price of a harsher media regime

Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(Petaling Jaya,  Sunday): Acting Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is to be commended for adopting a more open and rational approach to the April 5 issue of The Economist, when he called on the London weekly to apologise to Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and the people “for insulting the Prime Minister and his leadership” but making clear that the government has no plans to take any action against the publication. 

This is in sharp contrast to the ultimatum by the Deputy Home Minister, Datuk Chor Chee Heung in the Utusan Malaysia  a day earlier threatening to ban the London weekly unless it apologizes for its special feature on Malaysia, entitled “The Changing of the Guard: A Survey of Malaysia”,  putting Malaysia instead of The Economist in the dock of national and international opinion as the transgressor of human rights of freedom of expression, opinion and a free press. 

Many Malaysians are  still baffled by the UMNO furore over the special feature by The Economist, as to why it has taken more than two weeks after its publication  for the storm to break if the contents are really so outrageous. 

In fact, the Economist must thank  the UMNO leaders for giving its  special feature the fullest national publicity, bringing it  to the attention of millions of Malaysians the London weekly had  never hoped to reach, and saving it from the fate of going  down in recent history as one of the least-noticed foreign journalistic coverage of Malaysia since the tumultuous reformasi days some five years ago – reflecting a very changed political clime in the country. 

Former New Straits Times editor-in-chief and now New Sunday Times columnist for  The Big Picture, Munir Majid confessed that he had missed the April 5 “Survey of Malaysia” of The Economist until he was “alerted to the attack” on Thursday, while I myself had not given much notice to it earlier. 

If the objective is to draw the maximum publicity  and attention of Malaysians to The Economist survey, the London weekly could not have found better publicists than the UMNO leaders.  Why  are the UMNO leaders doing the London weekly such a special favour?   

The reason seems to be that The Economist  survey had  inadvertently   become a proxy battle in the intense  jockeying for power in post-Mahathir UMNO, turning it into an  issue as to who is more loyal to the  outgoing fourth Prime Minister of Malaysia, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad  

Although couched as an attack  on The Economist, it appears to be directed at Abdullah as the Prime Minister-in-waiting and Home Minister for not being “loyal”, perceptive  or tough enough to ban  The Economist or at least to hold  up its release for the newsstands for a few weeks or months as was the regular practice when the Home Ministry was previously under the day-to-day charge of the former Deputy Home Minister, Tan Sri Megat Junid Megat Ayob. 

It may be no  coincidence that the first salvo of protest against The Economist was fired by the Defence Minister and UMNO Vice President, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who is not only chafing from Abdullah’s reluctance to name him as the confirmed No. 2 in the impending transfer of  power in October when Mahathir steps down as Prime Minister, but feels the need to consolidate his power base in UMNO in the face of any eventuality. 

It should  also be no coincidence that the other major proponent against The Economist is the Mahathir diehard, Megat Junid, now the UMNO Information Chief hand-picked by Mahathir, and not the Information Minister, Tan Sri Khalil Yaa’kob. 

Megat announced in Kangar yesterday that UMNO will mount a campaign to explain the struggle,  sacrifices and contributions of Mahathir to refute the articles in The Economist by Christopher Lockwood –  sounding more like reminding the UMNO ground of the struggle, sacrifices and contributions of the Mahahtir diehards – which will have the effect of hardening the jockeying for power in post-Mahahtir UMNO along the lines of who is more loyal to Mahathir. 

It would be most unfortunate and even a tragedy for Malaysia if the UMNO power struggle for the post-Mahathir era should be at the price of more trampling on the fundamental liberties and human rights in the country, such as freedom of speech, expression, opinion and a free press, especially when the 2003 World Press Freedom Day is only a week away. 

Abdullah, as the Prime Minister-designate, should always provide national leadership by never losing sight of the “big picture”  for the country.  He can defend what he regards as the greatness of Mahathir in more than 22 years in the highest office of the land, but it must never be at the price of a harsher media regime.  In fact, Abdullah should be reminded that the time has come for him to honour the promise he gave four years ago to give a positive response to the memorandum by a thousand Malaysian journalists during the 1999 World Press Freedom Day to liberalise press censorship and control laws and regulations..


* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman